Dasgupta’s, Mandodari, fourth of the Pancha kanyas in her highly acclaimed Sati
series attempts to rescue from obscurity, one of the most fascinating
characters in the Ramayana who has traditionally been eclipsed, by her infamous
husband, the mighty Ravana. Born to Maya, the architect of the Asuras and Hema,
a celebrated apsara, Mandodari went on to become, the Queen of Lanka and the
mother of the invincible Indrajith. Not much space is allotted to this
enigmatic character in Valmiki’s Ramayana or the umpteen versions that followed
and Dasgupta does a tremendous job of making up for this oversight. In her deft
hands, Mandodari reemerges as a force to be reckoned with, blessed with
extraordinary powers of her own and a fierce will, committed to bringing to
life her husband’s impossible but unimaginably daring vision.
with insight and imagination, Mandodari’s tale is captivating. Forced into a
union with the magnetic, masterful, and magnificent Asura King, though all it
would have taken is persuasion, Mandodari is not without agency. For Ravana
knows that his dreams would remain just that without her creative powers,
architectural genius, and inspired innovations to see them take shape as the impeccably
sculpted and Golden Lanka. Theirs is a caring relationship but also a fraught
one, which is gradually pulled apart by conflicting ideologies, which come to a
head, when Ravana makes the ill – fated decision to kidnap the wife of another
man, who just happens to be an avatara of Vishnu, born for the express purpose
of slaying a Rakshasa King with colossal ambitions and the reckless skills and
preternatural talent to realise them.
Not one to
pamper the male ego and enable rapacious conduct, Mandodari is a clarion voice who
doesn’t hesitate to call out her husband when he breaches the code of Dharma.
She speaks up for the rights of women in general and Sita as well, becoming an
unlikely ally for the beleaguered Princess. It is thanks to her efforts,
veering between the compassionate and conniving that the worst excesses of her
husband are undone, ultimately preserving his legacy as a fatally flawed but
innately admirable soul.
treatment of Surpanakha is far from sympathetic though. This much – maligned
and often misunderstood character is further villainized as a spoilt, savage
creature with an outsize appetite for lust and deceit without a single
redeeming trait. Though the Princess of Lanka was treated abominably and
horribly mutilated by the Princes of Ayodhya, when she frankly declared her
desire for Rama, Surpanakha is subjected to a bit of victim – shaming here.
This is a pity, and it feels unfair to cast poor Surpanakha as the evil
antagonist to Mandodari.
notwithstanding there is much to recommend Mandodari with its lyrical prose and
philosophical moorings that conjures up visions of a mesmerizing world where so
much is made possible by a lone woman’s resilience and unswerving commitment to
do the right thing not just in the interests of her loved ones but the greater
This book review was originally carried in TNIE Magazine