Book review

How Shakuntala was transformed from a shrinking violet to forthright woman

In this fictionalised retelling, we meet a fiery Shakuntala who is everything Kalidasa's demure heroine is not.

For those who aren’t into mythology, this literary trend that refuses to die must seem like something of a curiosity. Why is this generation of readers suddenly so hooked to tales from the past? Why is author after author churning title after title on mythical gods and heroes? What happened to those snarky voices of postmodern literature that speak the language of unvarnished truths?

Those truths are being spoken alright, but a new voice has also found place by alongside – truths garbed in myths. Myths serve a great many purposes. Among others, they make it easier for one to examine social phenomena without the weight of sociological theory. They allow us to train the lenses on our own follies through characters that are like us but not quite. The blow is softened, but the impact is hard.

The universal and the individual; god and man; good, evil and everything in between, come together in myths and that perhaps explains their appeal. So, what better way to meditate upon the world than through the safety net of a story – a story like Shakuntala’s, for instance?

Corporate professional-turned-mythologist Utkarsh Patel brings us this legend at an important time, when the feminist discourse is at its strongest. Patel’s protagonist is not the demure Shakuntala made popular by the poet Kalidasa. Kalidasa’s famous play, Abhijñānaśākuntalam (roughly translated to ‘The recognition of Shakuntala’), was derived from an episode in the Mahabharata, which lay down the lineage of the kings of Hastinapura.

Dushyanta was one such king, who had a son named Bharata. Bharata, who lent his illustrious name to this nation, Bharatavarsha, was Shakuntala and Dushyanta’s son. This is their story. While Kalidasa projected Shakuntala as a submissive little lady, swayed by a string of misfortunes, Vyasa depicted her as a strong and independent woman with a mind of her own. It is this fiery woman whom Patel resurrects for us in his debut novel, Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged.

The story is quite straight. King goes to the jungle on a hunting expedition, gets lost. Is enamoured by an enchanting woman from a hermitage, seduces her and leaves, never to return. The nubile young thing gets pregnant and gives birth to a male child. There’s a face-off between forest girl and lusty king after six years with the king’s initial rejection, and their reconciliation in the end.

In Kalidasa’s version, the king’s veritable debauchery and abandonment is masked by a curse. King Dushyant forgets all about Shakuntala and fails to recognise her because of a sage’s curse on a loved-up Shakuntala. But Vyasa doesn’t bother with such narrative tools protecting the righteousness of the Aryan male, and tells it like it is.

Patel revisits this story with a very strong feminist streak, adds some new dimensions and gives us a fresh new retelling. What’s interesting is the humanisation of divine characters like Menaka, and the introduction of a few ancillary myths to drive home the point of women’s exploitation.

Shakuntala is the daughter of Sage Vishvamitra and the apsara Menaka, but she is abandoned at birth and raised by Sage Kanva in his ashrama. The celestial nymph is ordered to return to Indralok after having successfully seduced the sage. But in this book, she is no cold-hearted being with a mission; she becomes almost human, having played the roles of a wife and mother.

Menaka drifts in and out of the plot, a mother in absentia, ever watchful of her daughter. Additional players like Anasuya and Priyamvada, who are Shakuntala’s friends, are introduced as foils to flesh out the protagonist’s character.

Two remarkable additions in the plot are the myths of Ahalya and Madhavi, through which the author poses some uncomfortable questions to the patriarchal tradition. Narada Muni, the celestial sage, plays something of a sutradhar and helps maintain the integrity of the narrative. Other devices used by the author include dreams and the story-within-a-story.

The writer’s style is easy and as long as he remains prosaic, it works. In fact, the last couple of chapters of Shakuntala’s tirade are pretty intense and thought-provoking. One must hand it to the writer for speaking in what sounds very much like a wronged and angry woman’s voice. Through Shakuntala, Patel raises many pertinent issues related to sexuality, morality and heredity.

But when he tries to be poetic, a la Kalidasa, things start getting corny. There are altogether too many references in the “saavan mein lag gayi aag” genre when the author tries to write about Shakuntala and Dushyant’s burgeoning romance. His poetic imagination seems limited to fire and flowers in the realm of the erotic. Perhaps he should stick to prose.

Another oddity is the way the chapters have been titled. Sometimes a chapter is named after a character, sometimes a place and sometimes, an event, insomuch that there are several chapters titled “Shakuntala”! Chapter numbers would have served the purpose better here. My last little grouse with the book is the fault of the editing table, really. There are a number of copy-editing errors.

However, these niggles are easily ignored because of an absorbing story that ends with an unexpected twist. One hopes that there will be more such inventive retellings by fresh new writers to give this hungry generation plenty of food for thought.

Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged Author, Utkarsh Patel, Rupa Publications.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist in the making. She tweets here.

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