In this interview, the once controversial blogger speaks about her choices for the book series, her takes on the 'Mahabharata' and Sabarimala.

Girls of the Mahabharata Writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan on her new book series
Features Books Saturday, January 19, 2019 - 17:39

Blogs were then still read, Facebook posts had not completely taken away the joy of reading long and lovable personal entries on the internet. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s blog especially was read a lot, discussed, debated. Barkha Dutt had invited Meenakshi to her show and displayed parts of the blog that the young woman had then found a little awkward. The same words may not prompt even a raised brow today. It’s no more unusual, that there are women simply living their lives, making their choices, without thinking that there’s anything daring about it.

Today, Meenakshi may not write her first book You Are Here, the way she wrote it ten years ago. But what she writes today is not material that ages with time. The years that have passed between the writing of epics and the reading of them prove that. They are always going to exist, they are always going to interest, intrigue. When it came to her hands, Meenakshi didn’t want to tell or retell stories of those who had always been celebrated, sung, the ones who had films made on them and were written about. She chose the less celebrated ones, and all of them women. One by one, she’d bring each of their stories out, one book at a time. She calls the series Girls of the Mahabharata, not women. There’s more camaraderie about girls coming together. You can forget for a moment that they are from the Mahabharata, one of the greatest epics in the world, and imagine them simply as young women with many thoughts and feelings.

“Women's stories are so dismissed in literature and mythology. And as a woman, I wanted to know more about the characters just briefly mentioned, what did Kunti think about her husband clearly preferring his second wife, despite all she did for them, what did Draupadi feel when she learnt she was married to five men, despite no one mentioning this contract at her swayamvara, where her father and brothers could have fought on her behalf,” Meenakshi says in an interview as her second book in the series, The One Who Had Two Lives, hits the stands.

Not that she has chosen Kunti or Draupadi to write about. Satyavati is the first one Meenakshi writes about in her series, and the book is called The One Who Swam With The Fishes. The mother of Vyasa, who wrote the epic – the woman who got a boon from a sage to smell fragrant – the same sage who fathered Vyasa. So, it’d seem the obvious place from which to begin, for Meenakshi, the beginning of all beginnings. In chronological order, she next picks Amba – the woman who is later reborn as Shikandi, to take revenge on Bhishma, responsible for the misfortunes of her first life.

“Once I decided to write about them, I just went chronologically. I guess Ganga would have been first, but she was a goddess, not an actual human person, and I wanted to write about actual human people." That’s Meenakshi’s explanation for the order in which she is writing her series, a clear deviation from the kind of books she used to write.

But, Meenakshi says, it won’t really surprise her regular readers, the ones who have seen her jump from genre to genre. “My writing has definitely changed. Not going to say I regret any of my books, but looking back at the first two now, it’s almost as though they were written by a different person altogether, but only “almost” because there are seeds there that grew into books three and four and five and so on.”

Used to controversies, Meenakshi expected that her foray into the traditional world of epics might garner more ‘political and/ or negative reactions’. She even had an answer prepared for those who asked her ‘how dare you touch our myths’. “The Mahabharata belongs to everyone, and so you can’t claim ownership, but—knock on wood—the reactions have been great, everyone is very into the books, so I’m glad.”

She should be, these are not times when you can get away with writing stories on anything old and traditional, or on what women think and feel. She is half Malayali, she knows all about the Sabarimala controversies that her writer dad NS Madhavan has been pretty vocal about through his many tweets. 

“It's quite, quite shocking that in 2019 people (especially men) are using women's bodies against them for what must be the hundredth or thousandth time in history to stop them from doing something,” Meenakshi echoes Madhavan senior’s thoughts. “It's also disrespectful to their god, if they assume a celibate god can be tempted by any menstruating woman. If this is allowed to continue, I see a trend of men using Sabarimala as context to keep women out of things—whether it's temples or colleges.”

Not that it is going to keep her out of thinking about the ‘Meenakshibharata’. “It is not an original idea, since retellings of the myths have been happening for decades, but in my version of the Mahabharata, the women tell their stories in first person, offering insights and conversations and feelings, all the stuff missing in the main myths.”

She thinks that if a woman had written the Mahabharata, it would have been focused a lot more on the outcomes of major life decisions. “What happens once war is declared: to the country, I mean? What happens if the crown prince takes a vow of celibacy, how does that affect the kingdom...things like that. Definitely the main battle scenes would have stayed in, it’s not such a compelling story without the long war, but a woman writer’s gaze might have included more than just the main players on the battlefield.”

 

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