Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Price: 299 INR
“God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there’s no turning back.”
~ Gloria Steinem
It seems to be the era of mythology in Indian writing circuit. We have many retellings of classic tales juxtaposed against adaptations suited to modern times. Utkarsh Patel, with ‘Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged‘, brings us yet another retelling but suited to the current mood and climate. His rendition of Shakuntala delves into questions of gender, sexism, patriarchy and feminism. It is an effective theme which is dealt with ease and directedness.
Shakuntala is the daughter of Vishwamitra and apsara Menaka. She is adopted by Sage Kanva who looks after her in his ashram and raises her as his own. Shakuntala is strong and fiery. Kanva ensures that she is well-versed with a variety of subjects. King Dushyant of Hastinapur comes across Shakuntala while hunting in the jungles near the ashram. They both develop a growing attraction for each other and decide to marry immediately.
Post the marriage and first night, it is decided that Dushyant will head first to the kingdom and will come back for Shakuntala after he has explained the scenario to the court. But alas, Dushyant doesn’t return for 6 years. In that time, Shakuntala gives birth to a son, who was promised the throne of Hastinapur by Dushyant. What path will Shakuntala take to reclaim her rightful position as the queen?
While Utkarsh keeps the basic premise the same, he recites the entire tale through a feminist lens. Unlike Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, who is a demure and naive young lady, Utkarsh’s Shakuntala is fiery, bold and assertive. In this way, various acts within the ashram are questioned by Shakuntala – be it women’s marriages to old sages, women having very little or no say in choosing their prospective husbands etc. He also brings up other relevant tales to discuss issues, such as the cursing of Ahalya. In this way, he tackles many issues that women face in the patriarchal society. The astounding part is that many of these issues and questions are valid even today!
He has developed the characters well and provided a long enough back story for each one. There are no unnecessary and extra characters. There are beautiful images conjured using various elements of nature, especially the trees and animals. The book is easy to read.
On the downside, the arguments presented in the book are very basic. But these may be a plus side as it encourages a discussion on the same. The language comes across as being a bit too colloquial. A little tweaking of the vocabulary would have made it a bit more engaging. Similarly, there are various editing and formatting mistakes that stick out like sore thumbs. I wish they had been taken care of.
Overall, this is an earnest attempt to reintroduce a woman’s perspective into the otherwise male-dominated epics of India. A good read for anyone who is looking to explore the space of mythology and Indian reality as it exists today.
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