US based author Aditi Bannerjee says her maiden book – The Curse of Gandhari – is in a new genre which can be called speculative fiction, where she weaves her story around a character from India’s epic Mahabharata. She is one of a recent crop of Indian women writers who are interpreting Indian texts with fresh imagination while taking care to keep the original intact.
The Mahabharata uses a familiar human habit in its narration of transferring blame. Either through self-reproach or by blaming another.
It ends with Gandhari, the mother of Kauravas, holding Krishna responsible for the war. In anger and grief, Gandhari turns to Krishna and says (Chaturvedi Badrinath- The Mahabharata an Inquiry into the Human Condition):
You could have prevented all this from happening, but you didn’t. You let the destruction of this family take place.
If I have earned any merit in living the way I have, then with the force of that merit I curse you.
In the thirthy-sixth year from now, your sons and your relatives and your advisers will likewise die fighting each other.
You will drift in the deep woods, unseen, unknown, alone, helpless. And you will die a mean death.
As the women of the Bharata clan are weeping now, the women of your family will likewise weep over their dead.
Krishna does the unexpected. Instead of commiserating with a grieving mother, he blames her back. He accuses her of “transferring to him the accountability that properly belonged to her for not restraining her ‘wicked-hearted, vain and jealous, cruel and arrogant, disobedient and disregarding, contemptuous son Duryodhana. How can you blame me for what you should blame yourself for? You are wholly accountable for the destruction of the Kuru clan’ (Badrinath)
Aspects of accountability, reproach, human will, Dharma and even karma are all tossed back and forth. A corporate lawyer pursuing her Executive MBA in Columbia University, Aditi Banerjee couldn’t have picked a more complex figure for her first book – The Curse of Gandhari. In the midst of her busy life, she is learning Sanskrit and has as her source Bibek Debroy’s English translation of the unabridged Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. She took one year to write the book, which is engaging and brisk in its narration. Uncomfortable with classifications into ‘mythological fiction’ or ‘fantasy’, she calls her book a ‘speculative fiction’ defined by her as – “ Taking something that is true, the Itihaasa, and using one’s imagination and creative liberties to ‘speculate’ about the characters and stories between and beyond the lines of the original.”
Banerjee says the book is for “lovers of the Mahabharata who would like to see an alternative perspective of a lesser known character. For people who would be drawn to Gandhari’s story as a strong, intelligent woman who was torn between Dharma and family loyalty, who had incredible willpower and strength but struggled to rise above her own circumstances, who won the respect of the rishis and devas yet could not move past her own bitterness and regret.”
In this interview she explains her interpretation of the complexity of Gandhari:
Is there more than one meaning to the title The Curse of Gandhari?
I suppose it is a little bit of play on words. The two things Gandhari is most famous for are her blindfold and the curse she pronounces on Krishna at the end of the war. Both are actions she chooses on her own and are evidence of a strong, powerful, wilful princess and queen. In both acts, there is an element of pathos and poignancy – a woman in a way resisting her fate with the means available to her. Rather than meekly accept her marriage to a blind prince, she immediately blindfolds herself in an act of devotion or spite or some mix of both. Rather than submit to her family’s defeat in the war, she rails against Krishna and curses him, a curse he accepts with a smile. On the one hand, the curse is her act of agency in defiance of her fate. On the other, she appears to be accursed, perhaps self-accursed, in finding herself again and again on the losing side of life. So, ‘curse’ is meant to refer to both sides of her personality – astonishing acts of willpower and also the recurring sense of victimhood she falls prey to again and again.
In the blame-game, do you think Gandhari was a negligent mother, because of whose act of being blindfolded voluntarily, she could not keep an eye on the misdeeds of her children, literally as well as figuratively?
I have heard that characterization as well. Certainly she is not the extraordinary mother that Kunti proves to be for the Pandavas, including the two sons of Madri she adopts as her own, setting aside Kunti’s treatment of Karna. However, I do not think the Mahabharata lends itself to black-and-white judgements of its characters. Imagine what it must have been like for Gandhari to have one hundred sons (and one daughter). While it is a traditional blessing to pronounce on all wives and mothers, how difficult it must have been to rein in such strong personalities as the Kaurava boys. And what kind of influence could she wield when faced with Dhritarashthra’s own ambitions for the throne, his refusal to accept the wise counsel of Vidura, and then the wiles of her own brother Shakuni. The deck was stacked against her, even if she had not been blindfolded. It is easy to say that in blindfolding herself, Gandhari rendered herself less useful and therefore a weaker mother and queen. There is some truth to that. But the Mahabharata itself does not take such a pejorative view of her blindfold. It is because of this act of devotion, her piety, that she accumulates enough tapobala to protect her son from death, through the power of her gaze, to curse Krishna, to blacken Yudhishthira’s toenails with her mere glance. Gandhari and her blindfold resist easy characterization, so I do not think of her as either a bad mother or a good mother – she is just an extraordinarily complicated figure and one who I think we can admire and respect even as we acknowledge her potential flaws.
Do you find any parallels in contemporary life with Gandhari?
I actually think a lot of women today could relate with Gandhari. What to do when you find yourself in unfortunate circumstances? Do you martyr yourself, resist in some passive-aggressive way, or take responsibility for yourself and the situation? Gandhari was a woman of extraordinary strength and intelligence. I truly believe she could have been the best of queens had she fully engaged in her dharma as a queen of Hastinapur. But something held her back. And I think as women we often hold ourselves back instead of completely leaning in. I also think women can relate to Gandhari’s quandary of herself being a noble character but surrounded by men, her husband and sons, with wicked intentions. How can one be a devoted, loyal wife and mother but still stand up for Dharma in such a situation? There are no easy answers from Gandhari’s life but I think her struggle is one that we can relate to even today.
Which aspects of Gandhari’s life did you feel connected with most?
I liked that she was not a conventional heroine. She was not meek or submissive, although she was pious and devout. As a child, I thought her act of blindfolding herself was terribly romantic and noble. As I grew up, I saw it through a more jaundiced eye, wondering if it was instead an act of spite or perhaps self-martyrdom that took her away from her own dharma and potential. In writing this book, I thought I would find an answer. But I realized that reducing Gandhari to a judgement of whether she should or should not have blindfolded herself does not do justice to the depth and nuance of her character. So, there is this ambiguity about her which draws me to her, because we tend to expect our females to be villains or heroines and it is refreshing to have someone who does not neatly fit either category. I think of her as a noble, strong woman of incredible potential who was not able to live up to that full potential in her lifetime.
Kunti is as much responsible for neglecting Karna as Gandhari is for the misdeeds of her sons. Do you find any similarity between the two?
I think there are such interesting parallels and contrasts between them. Kunti is criticized for abandoning her son; Gandhari is criticized for not letting go of her son. Both have to deal with the tragedy of their choices. A large part of the book is devoted to the relationship and dynamic between Kunti and Gandhari and their roles as mothers, wives and queens.
Where have you allowed yourself to take artistic liberty with the epic?
I tried to not contradict anywhere the text of the Mahabharata but did speculate large parts of her story beyond the confines of the epic. For example, her girlhood days in Gandhara, and most especially, the last days of her life in the forest, waiting to die. Her relationship with Satyavati and Kunti, her brother and Bhishma, her thoughts about her husband and Pandu, all of this has been influenced by my imagination. What I tried to do was be true to the ethos of Gandhari’s character and life as depicted in the Mahabharata and simply expand upon those qualities and themes in the creative liberties that I took. I was always careful to preserve her fundamental persona as a woman of incredible strength, power, piety and devotion.
Can Gandhari appeal to modern gender sensibilities? How do you navigate explain that in your novel?
Yes. I think it is hard for one to fathom the depth of her piety and devotion. It is said that from the moment she blindfolded herself, she never thought of another man but her husband. The very act of giving up one’s eyesight for a stranger, for a husband who was perhaps unwanted, is astonishing. I think such an act of sacrifice may not neatly fit today’s gender sensibilities and a modern reader may take a more cynical view of it. However, I think it is possible to both see Gandhari as being a reluctant wife, one who had misgivings about her husband and sons, yet also as an utterly loyal, devout woman, mother and wife. It is possible to encompass that traditional sensibility with the scepticism of the modernist, and that is what I have tried to do in this novel.
Your Gandhari seems a far more superior character to Dhridhrashtra? Is that something you have done consciously?
Perhaps. I think it would be much less interesting if Gandhari had a high opinion of Dhritarashthra. The essential conflict for Gandhari, I think, is that as a truly noble woman herself, she can see the weaknesses of her husband and son but also feels loyalty towards them. She wants to be on the side of Dharma but also does not want to abandon them. That is the conflict she cannot resolve.