I am often asked why I chose to write about lesser-known women in mythology. Simply because they have an untold, unfinished tale to tell: What is the story of Satyavati (in my latest The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty)? Or Urmila (Sita’s Sister)? Or Surpanakha (Lanka’s Princess)? Or Menaka (Menaka’s Choice)?
No less complex
These women, however minor and minimal their presence might be in the larger narrative, are, like their lead counterparts, women of conviction – tough and spirited, who never give up in the face of their given situations. In their definitive ways, they serve their purpose through elucidation and evidence of thought, pathos and ethos to propel the plot forward. Is not Satyavati as complex as Draupadi? Or Urmila as strong as Sita?
Discounted they often are, and always ignored. Yet without them, the story would not flow. They are the occasional triggers: without Menaka, the story of Vishwamitra, Shakuntala, Dushyant and later King Bharat and the Kurus would not have unfolded. Satyavati is the person who first sows and ploughs the seeds of discontent in the family, which tragically escalates into a bloody war decades later. She gives us our first glimpse of the jealousy and power games that will follow.
Be it Urmila or Menaka or Surpanakha or Satyavati, they all add dimension to the leads. Urmila is a foil to Sita as is Surpanakha. What is Bhishma without Satyavati? She is the one who transforms him from Devavrat to Bhishma.
As in real life, the people populating the narrative also surround the main character and reveal a lot about the protagonist’s personality. In the Mahabharata, everything goes well till the entry of Satyavati. It is she who provides the drama in the narrative. The hero of the first part of the epic, Devavrat/Bhishma, is essentially revealed through Satyavati’s character. She is the cause for his being Bhishma.
From minor to major
I try to make it work the other way round. By making the minor character my protagonist, I flesh them out essentially through the lead characters. Urmila is Sita’s sister, Janaka’s daughter and Lakhsman’s wife. Satyavati is Matsyagandha, Daseyi and Kali as the fisherman’s daughter, and she is Satyavati as Shantanu’s queen and Bhishma’s stepmother. But she is also the unwed mother of Vyas and the queen mother to her two sons and the heirs of Hastinapur, and, finally, the great-grandmother of the Pandavas and Kauravas.
Menaka is what she is essentially because of Indra, Vishwamitra and Shakuntala. Surpanakha is Ravan’s sister, Sita’s contrast, the sexual transgressor/victim of Ram and Lakshman, and, eventually the nemesis of Lanka.
Often, these overlooked characters act symbolically and help advance the story that way. A great example is Surpanakha. She is not just the antagonist of the second half of the epic, but without her, the war between Ravan and Ram would not have occurred. Menaka is the temptress, the symbol of feminine beauty and sexual power – she is almost a miasma: she comes and goes fleetingly but she leaves her indelible mark behind.
Without Satyavati, Bhishma would not have taken his terrible oath of celibacy or relinquished his throne to irrevocably change the course of not just his own life but also that of Hastinapur and the royal Kurus as well. In a quick plot movement, she rises from fisherwoman to queen. From an innocuous young woman, she becomes the shrewd wife and ambitious mother, coming from nowhere and yet creating her own destiny and a royal dynasty with her bloodline.
Setting the leitmotif
What is the true meaning of such unobserved, unseen women whom we often know of but hardly acknowledge? They remain largely overshadowed for a reason: they are not the protagonist. But when they are made the heroines, the spotlight immediately falls on them. They get to speak their thoughts aloud, and they can ask questions to which they want their answers. They no longer remain a mere mention in the stories, they become a voice and a vote, having the power to change events and settings. Who knows what happened in the palace when Rama, Sita and Lakshman left for their exile? It is Urmila who tells that story in Sita’s Sister, while living her own private exile.
Minor characters always make the mood of the plot, adding the emotions and twists necessary for a narrative, sometimes appearing passionate, partisan, questioning, or even negative – with just the right dose of factuality that can be later employed and expanded as the story advances. Even as a small character, who lasts through a major part in the epic, Satyavati lends a certain mood and manner to the narrative: that of ambition and power, contempt and canniness, which become the leitmotif in the latter half.
It is Surpanakha who adds the darkness to Sita’s virtuousness. It is Menaka who seduces Vishwamitra, juxtaposing his strength with his weakness, his lofty ambition with his carnal desires. It is Satyavati who brings out the flaws in the otherwise righteous Bhishma.
Such overshadowed women in our mythology are often one half of the major players. What is Vishwamitra without a Menaka? As a pale silhouette to the lead – as Urmila is to Sita or Satyavati to Bhishma – they invariably complete the circle, joining the two hemispheres and completing not just the story but the lead itself. Ravan cannot be fathomed without a Surpanakha – he fought the war for her. Yet had Ram and Lakshman not met Surpankha, they would not have confronted Ravan either.
Through both the epics, it is these lesser known women who have a story of their own to tell. While bringing out a certain intensity to the story, they add conflict and closure. Uruvi – a fictitious character – is more than just being Karna’s wife: she is his conscience and his critic, she is more of a sutradhar recounting Karna’s story in Karna’s Wife. Satyavati’s account is parallel to Bhishma’s, the two of them conjoining to mark the rise and fall of the Kuru family as well as that of Hastinapur.
Ironically, these minor characters have a long lasting influence. They are brought forth to alter the feelings and focus of the lead characters: Menaka destroys Vishwamitra, yet she is the reason for his fall and his rise back to glory and path of enlightenment. Like Draupadi in the Mahabharata, Surpanakha, although an antagonist , is also responsible for the war which ensues on the sandy shores of Lanka. Satyavati’s arrival on the scene marks the dramatic play of politics and intrigue that is the hallmark of the Mahabharata.
Any discussion of the importance of these women to the respective epics initiates a debate about women in mythology, and how each inhabits the story in their distinctive way, imprinting their relatively minor presence and yet resonating in the narrative to follow. They may be minor in terms of “footage”, but they have a major role to play.