The Mahabharata itself claims that nothing is in existence that is not in the epic. Indeed, so broad is its scope that even fidget spinners and lynchings can be explained by it; think of Shakuni forever fiddling with his dice, or of the young Abhimanyu being heartlessly murdered in the chakravyuha. This expansive story has room for everything. From the commonplace, like the jealousies of a lover; to the unthinkable, like the public disrobing of a queen-in-waiting in front of all her sires.

But the Mahabharata is so enduring because of its in-betweens, its greyness, its many mirrors in which we may see ourselves. Flawed and achingly human, the characters of the epic beg to be observed, opened, inspected, torn apart, and put back together in endless ways. And Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan joins the long tradition of Indian authors who do just that with her latest book, The One Who Swam With the Fishes.

Mythology is a major deviation for Reddy Madhavan, whose earlier books can be safely called “light, easy reads”. It’s commendable that she picks Vyasa’s magnum opus to draw from, given that the epic is neither light nor easy. But then she is an Indian author and this is THE Mahabharata. Sooner or later, it would seem, every Indian author turns to this epic. Reddy Madhavan too has dipped her quill in this endless river of inspiration, and she seems to be in for a long haul, considering HarperCollins has promised a series called Girls of the Mahabharata. Indeed, she admits to having a 12-strong list, featuring Gandhari, Madri, Kunti, Draupadi and Amba/Shikhandi among others.

Why the name of the series is more intriguing than the title is because one doesn’t really think of the epic’s female characters as “girls”. For most of us, Draupadi, Kunti, and Gandhari are all larger-than-life women. The author wins her first brownie points for conceiving of these powerful female leads in their much younger, more vulnerable versions. But then again, that’s her forte. Her very popular blog, The Compulsive Confessor, and all her books are about growing pains. This, then, is what she brings to the table again; only this time her protagonist is not a Layla or an Arshi of the 21st century, but a Satyavati from the mists of time.

For those who may not be acquainted with the Mahabharata, The One Who Swam With the Fishes is an allusion to the character of Satyavati. She is none other than the mother of Vyasa, the author of the epic himself. She’s something like, in slightly more contemporary terms, the Mother of Dragons. Satyavati, then, is the most logical starting point for anything related to the Mahabharata.

From the beginning

The simple trajectory of Satyavati’s story is this: cursed child of a fish-nymph is raised by the king of fishermen. She is called Matsyagandha for the fishy odour that emanates from her body, but she has beauty and youth on her side. One day, a horny old sage named Parashara demands to have intercourse with her on a boat. Wise little girl acquiesces but says, “not here, log dekh lenge, and it’ll…ahem, rock the boat”.

She agrees to do it on a misty island but ol’ man P has to give her two boons in return: that she would remain a virgin and that she would smell like a perfume factory instead of a fish market. They have intercourse and bingo, our man Vyasa is born. Of course this little tryst and her son are kept a secret by Satyavati, the, uh, speaker of truths.

The new fragrance sends another old man reeling – this time the king of Hastinapura. Maddened by the scent of youth, Shantanu seeks her hand in marriage. Not happy to just have a king for his son-in-law, Satyavati’s pa also demands that her kids be made future kings.

Shantanu is torn between his lust love for Satyavati aka Yojanagandha, and his fatherly duties towards his first born and heir apparent, prince Devavrat. Seeing his father sighing incessantly, Devavrat takes the bheeshma vow of eternal celibacy. Her path clear, Satyavati marries the king, becomes queen and her sons eventually get the throne. No matter that the sons die childless, throwing a spanner in the hereditary works, but Satyavati is not to be deterred. She summons her firstborn, Vyasa, to help with the course of things and impregnate his half brothers’ wives. The rest, as they say, is history.

"Shantanu and Satyavati" by Raja Ravi Varma
"Shantanu and Satyavati" by Raja Ravi Varma

Satyavati 2.0

The thing about Satyavati’s character is that it doesn’t get much “screen time” (patriarchy and all that). But it sure is responsible for some of the most pivotal twists in the tale. Who really is this woman, the reader is left wondering.

Reddy Madhavan makes use of this opportunity, and imagines Satyavati’s journey from the daughter of a fisherman to the queen mother of one of the greatest dynasties of Bharatavarsha. While she remains loyal to the main plot points, she takes a fair bit of liberty in her retelling. She plays around with the extant characters and even introduces some of her own. For example, there is an evil stepmother, a loving stepbrother, and even a cackling old witch!

With this new posse, the author is able to interpret this age old story in refreshing new ways. A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic in the Parashara episode is particularly charming, and will appeal to the young reader. What’s not to like about a magic island with a mind of its own, where our runaway heroine is on a journey of self-discovery? Or a moody old witch named Dwipaa, who is really the island personified? Or better still, an old man who turns young for a romp but then turns old again as he climaxes?

But it’s not all fun and games, for Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage. So when her Satyavati says, “But then, there are some men who don’t feel outrage at other men for touching, grabbing, groping, possessing a woman’s body, but turn their anger towards the woman, who they feel should have kept herself safer, stayed locked indoors like a string of precious stones,” I find myself rooting for her.

Reddy Madhavan’s protagonist learns to hold her own, and is likeable as a young girl. But by the end of the story, she, like Vyasa’s Satyavati, has learnt the art of manipulation. The reader isn’t quite sure whether to be happy about a woman’s ambition or be apologetic about her machinations. It leaves one in a frustratingly grey zone, so characteristic of the Mahabharata.

In this, Reddy Madhavan achieves what she sets out to achieve. She acquaints us with Satyavati at a personal level. Her literary style, however, is not as satisfactory. One hopes that as the series progresses, the reader will find as much joy in the words as in the stories. We are told Amba/ Shikhandi’s stories are in the wings, and that’s definitely worth the wait.

The One Who Swam With the Fishes, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, HarperCollins India