Sunday, August 06, 2023

Book Review: Mandodari


Koral 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.

Narrated 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.

Dasgupta’s 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.

This complaint 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 good.

This book review was originally carried in TNIE Magazine

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