When a book has the Sri chakra on the cover, it seems fair to expect the narrative within to be richly feminine. Admittedly this diagram represents the union of masculine and feminine, but when there’s a woman with a trailing sari at the centre of the yantra and the author of the book is a woman, you expect the women in the story will be in the spotlight.
And yet, what is passive in Sauptik: Blood and Flowers is the feminine.
This second and final volume of Amruta Patil’s retelling of Mahabharata is a viscerally masculine story — it’s about men and heroes being made and unmade for their manly and unmanly acts. This is not to suggest there are no women in Sauptik. After all, what is the Mahabharat without Satyavati or Kunti or Draupadi? Patil throws a few less familiar heroines’ names in for good measure and the presence of Bhoo Devi, who manifests as a cow on the mortal plane, would probably warm the cockles of a gau rakshak’s heart. Yet all said and done, you can’t help wondering if the lavishly-produced Sauptik couldn’t be a little less about boys.
Patil began her Mahabharata with the breathtaking Adi Parva. Adi Parva was more than just a pretty book. Patil delivered an elegant blow to patriarchal traditions in Hinduism when she picked Ganga as her sutradhar instead of Vyasa, who is credited with having written the Mahabharata. Part goddess, part river and entirely irreverent, Patil’s Ganga sat on her own banks and wove the magic of a tale well told upon the crowd that gathered around her. Ganga was an intriguing choice for narrator. She was invested in the story — she is, after all, Bheeshma’s mother — and yet, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus had observed, you cannot step into the same river twice. Ganga in Adi Parva had wound her way past all the stories she was retelling. She was distant enough to provide perspective and familiar enough to offer the insight.
In Sauptik, Ganga hands the storytelling baton over to Ashwatthama, son of Drona, slayer of the Pandava’s sons and the only one in Hindu legend to be cursed into immortality. For a story that is mostly about villainy and warfare, Patil’s Ashwatthama is a masterstroke because he is a character that has been reduced to an almost inhuman state by the violence of the Kuru clan. By the time we meet the Ashwatthama in Sauptik, he’s almost a madman — a wraith with wild hair, wilder eyes and a wound upon his forehead that will not heal. Despite having begun on top of the social pile, he is now an outcast. The only ones who will listen to him are two other outcasts who work in the cremation ground. For everyone else, Ashwatthama is the object of disgust — not because of the blood on his forehead and hands, but because he looks like the poorest of the poor.
As Sauptik zigzags from well-known tales from the Mahabharata to Puranic legends, his madness becomes a device that Patil wields deftly. She uses his frailties to show some familiar characters in a new light. For instance, of Duryodhan, Patil writes, “The swaggering, leery image of Duryodhan that lingers posthumously confuses me. The Duryodhan I knew was incredibly fragile. He had a hard time staying put in his skin. The Pandavs — Bheem in particular — blistered his sanity.” It makes sense that Ashwatthama, a friend of Duryodhan and loyal to him till the end, would offer this alternative view of Mahabharat’s anti-hero.
Similarly, in the famous episode in which Drona demands Eklavya’s thumb as gurudakshina, Ashwatthama offers a justification for his father: “In what seems like impossible brutality, a knowing gardener can hack half a tree down and ensure it grows back healthier next year… I cannot justify my father’s actions. But I do know the gurukul was a private one, where students were being honed for a mission. It owed Eklavya — or for that matter, Karn — nothing.” Turn the page and one of Ashwatthama’s two listeners tells him bluntly, “Your father was an asshole.”
Critical to the understanding of Patil’s retelling of the Eklavya episode is her authorial note at the end of the book. In it, she says very clearly that brahmin for her is not a caste, but a state of learning and enlightenment. “You determine your varna,” Patil writes. “It is as easy and as excruciatingly hard as that.” It’s a naive understanding of privilege and self-determination, given how toxic the caste system is and how deeply its roots are embedded in every aspect that would enable one to determine their varna.
Concluding Drona and Eklavya’s story, Ashwatthama says, “I’m still a product of my context and time… You aren’t held hostage by old narratives. Re-story the shabby stories.”
And that, arguably, is the campaign that Patil is on with Sauptik: to re-story the shabby stories. In some senses, she emerges triumphant. Patil spots an animosity between human civilisation and the forest, for instance, that is particularly poignant in this era that’s sweating under climate change. Nature — resilient, passive, exploited and capable of absorbing immense cruelty — loses the battles but wins the war against human ambition. The illusions of control, like the palace built for the Pandavas, cannot revive themselves as prakriti can. Again and again, the forest and its dwellers face the fire of Kuru hunger. A family of forest dwellers is sacrificed to save the Pandavas. The magnificent Khandav forest and all that lived in it are consumed in a man-made inferno so that upon that flattened landscape, the Pandavas’ Indraprastha may be built. Although Agni doesn’t make an appearance as a god, the furious hunger he symbolises flickers all along the pages of Sauptik. It is this fire in the bellies of Mahabharat’s key players that makes and unmakes the heroes in the epic.
In the imagery that Patil creates in the book lie a treasure of details that suggest little narratives of their own. There are many collages in Sauptik, and Patil repeatedly uses fashioned cutouts of petals, roots and leaves. For instance, the gopinis’ skirts are petals in the depiction of Raaslila. At the end of Kurukshetra, petals lie strewn on the battlefield in place of corpses. Recycling has rarely been so beautiful. Patil also uses a lot of details from fabric and embroidery, hinting both at the metaphor of stitching a narrative together and also saluting the spirit of human invention that takes raw material from nature to create cloth and embroidery.
However, despite how exquisitely beautiful Sauptik is visually, there is a blind spot in Patil’s labour of love. Despite naming her book after the 10th part of the Mahabharata, in which the Pandavas’ camp is destroyed by the three surviving Kaurava warriors (Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma), this horrific episode gets little space in Patil’s Sauptik. Ashwatthama killed five young men — the Pandavas’ heirs — thinking they were the Pandavas and it speaks volumes about what we expect of our warriors that even in Patil’s retelling, what haunts Ashwatthama is not the quintuple murder but the fact that he didn’t know how to command the Pashupatastra, and that the jewel that was embedded in his forehead was gouged out (this and immortality are Ashwatthama’s punishment).
More disappointing is Patil’s decision to continue the patriarchal tradition of keeping the women in Mahabharata at the fringes of the story even though they are as critically important as the men. Admittedly, there are some heroines from this epic who have been done to death — Draupadi, for example — but to leave them as a supporting cast to the male heroes makes this retelling critically incomplete. Instead of giving Hidimba, one of the forest dwellers, a little more space, Patil limits her to one line: “You big, sexy man! Be mine!” This, incidentally, is a woman who was a single mother, raised a great warrior and possibly led her people as well since she was a princess. All we get of her is that Bheem fell in love with her — because what else matters than her man-attracting abilities? In the same vein, Sati remains characterized by the fact that she was a good wife to Shiv; Urvashi’s power and wisdom isn’t explored, only the fact that she has taken men from different generations as lovers; Yamuna is only known for her devotion to Krishna. The fascinating character of Shikhandi is left by the wayside.
Even Draupadi doesn’t really get the pre-eminence you’d expect. She is first described in purely physical terms and then we’re told that she should not be considered a victim because she “took lip from no one” and was “anshavtar of not one goddess but many.” That, apparently, is reason enough to essentially remove her from the narrative. It’s true that Draupadi’s tale has been examined by many, but it is disappointing to see her returned to the pigeonhole of the older, more patriarchal narratives.
Feminine absences characterize the traditional retelling of not just the Mahabharata, but most of the Hindu legends. There are details and glinting references that suggest so much can be teased out — consider, for instance, that Lakshmi emerges from the manthan, picks Vishnu and is always shown not as a subservient wife, but as consort who is Vishnu’s equal. Adi Parva did this, both with the tales it told and its teller. In Sauptik, though, Patil fails to re-story this aspect of the myths and as a result, the power dynamics remain intact. Men occupy the centre, women remain marginalized. The privileged tell the story and the others listen. For all the beauty and wisdom in Sauptik — and there is much of both — Patil is held hostage by old narratives, and their shackles are tight.