What do we know about the women in the Mahabharata? Author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan decided to explore this with her series.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s new book, Girls of Mahabharatha: The One Who Had Two Lives, focuses on the lesser known women characters of the epic. In the second book of the series The Girls of Mahabharata, Meenakshi shares why she decided to write it. “Apart from a few, very few women in the epics whom everyone knows, everyone else is ignored.
I think the myths as we know them today were handed down by men — which is why there’s so much focus on fighting, and weaponry and much less detail about relationships! No, but jokes aside, women seemed to have no role beyond getting married and having babies, except, of course, for the few we remember more clearly: Draupadi, Kunti and Sita, who had adventures beyond just being wives and mothers, and even then their adventures were tied to those roles. Obviously, things have changed — they must change, otherwise society will come to a standstill. So, we figure out how women were wound up in these roles.
Take Satyavati, for instance, the subject of my first book in the series, The One Who Swam with the Fishes. She is the matriarch of the Kuru clan, the reason they are all alive, but after her grandsons are born, all mentions of her vanish. Amba, the subject of The One Who Had Two Lives, is important because of her vow to defeat Bhishma, but once we get to her second life, as Shikhandi, there’s barely one or two lines on him. I started to wonder what it would be like to witness those events from a first-hand perspective, but also as someone who was largely sidelined.”
How relevant is the story of Amba, and her parallel Shikhandi? “Shikhandi was one of the first trans men to be recorded in an epic, if not the first, which is extremely relevant today. I also like that his family treated him as a man, even though he was born biologically female. There seemed to be no doubt on anyone’s mind that he would grow up to become the person he had been prophesied to be. I think we could learn quite a bit about tolerance from the Mahabharata. They were strict about caste, which was terrible, but open about sex, which was good,” says the author.
During her speech at the book release in Kochi, she said the book is all about her emotions. “Think of me like an architect, I have the basic construct of a house. It has a foundation, four walls and a ceiling, and I have to fill in the rest. I put in two characters of my own with parallels to Amba and Shikhandi’s story; I waded through clinical depression and absent parents; I added histories where before there were none, because Amba wasn’t really a main character, she’s just one of the many stories that happen. So, in a way, this Amba and Shikhandi belong more to me than they do to anyone else.”
Meenakshi, daughter of NS Madhavan, hopes to eventually do retellings from the point of view of all the women of Mahabharata. “But for now, I’m taking a little break and trying something entirely new: crime fiction! I’m writing a murder mystery set in Delhi.”