Monday, October 19, 2020

Curse of the Unbroken Hymen


Yayati rescuing Devayani.

The myth of Dhrishadvati aka Madhavi from the Mahabharata is an unusual one. According to legend, this remarkable Princess was the daughter of Yayati who had been granted a boon which could easily be confused with a curse) according to which she would bear only sons and her virginity would be restored after every delivery. Naturally, in a world where unbroken hymens were highly prized and women were valued on the basis of their ability to breed and bring forth sons, she was a commodity whose womb was bartered away repeatedly to venerable Kings who sought to perpetuate their lineage in exchange for a hefty fee of an equine nature. It is a bizarre tale featuring a protagonist who serves one who took his devotion to his Guru to extreme levels in an effort to pay his gurudakshina, no doubt written by men twisted enough to find a way to glorify sordid deeds and pimping, somehow marrying these to their version of morality.

Madhavi Mahadevan’s, Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter, is a harrowing saga of grace about a woman who managed to be generous, kind and compassionate even while held hostage to the feckless notions of dharma adhered to by powerful men who thought nothing of inflicting pain on women in order to fuel their grandiose dreams. The author does an admirable job of handling the sensational material with sensitivity even as she infuses it with the gentle beats of a pain – wracked heart.

Drishadvati’s story was never her own and Mahadevan, ushers the reader down the winding and more obscure alleys of myth and legend to meet characters like Nahusha, an ancestor of the Pandavas who rose to unheard of heights only to fall into ignominy after lust, avarice and hubris saw him reduced to a serpent, Garuda, the enlightened mount of Vishnu who can’t help but yearn for what might have been had his mother not succumbed to jealousy, the irascible Vishwamitra who was destined to cause a cosmic ruckus when his mother appropriated something meant for his sister, the frenemies - Devayani and Sharmistha who tore each other apart before learning to prop the pieces up, devious Kacha and bellicose Sukracharya.

All these stories inform the fate of Drishadvati who was a victim of neglect and abandonment before she was to discover that there was much worse in store for her. Reduced to the unenviable status of chattel and made to bear four sons to four different fathers, she has been viewed as immaculate and virtuous, on account of her unquestioning obedience and submission to her father, the Brahmin, Galava, to whom she was handed over to pay off his debt and the other men who temporarily wielded power over her. In this narrative though, she comports herself with dignity, courage and a certain resilience that sees her strike a blow against patriarchy with minimum fanfare and maximum effect.

By choosing to walk away from all the things she has been taught to aspire towards as a woman, Drishadvati reclaims her agency. Having returned to her beloved forests, she heals and more importantly learns to forgive those who wronged her even benefitting them with supreme selflessness. Kudos to the author for re-creating a character who inspires admiration even at her most pitiable.

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

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