Mothers & Others

Your son will have your glory, but will he have your name? By what name will he be called?’

The look he sent me was full of irony. ‘Would it be wrong if he was called by your name – as Kaunteya?’

How little you know of this world!’ I said, bitterly.

(source: The Kaunteyas – pg 62)

Kaunteya (singular) is a matronymic, a personal name derived from the name of the mother, grandmother or a female ancestor. It means ‘Kunti’s son’ – just as Pandava means ‘Pandu’s son’ – and is equally applicable to the four sons born of Kunti.

We know that Kunti is the birth mother of the elder three Pandavas: Yudhisthira, Bheem and Arjuna. But what these three brothers do not know is that they have another sibling by the same mother. In ancient times, a matronymic was used when referring to the son of an unwed mother (as is the case with Karna), or when the mother was a powerful figure in her own right, such as a queen. Thus, in the epic, each of the twin sons of Kunti’s co-wife, Queen Madri, is referred to as Madreya (Madreyas in plural). Likewise, the five sons of Draupadi are called Draupadeyas.

Another matronymic in the epic is Partha.Though it is used mostly for Arjun, it can apply just as well to Karna, Yudhisthira and Bheem. (In recent times, the well known Bengali author poet and playwright, Buddhadeb Bose wrote a popular play Pratham Partha, which is about Karna.) Partha means ‘Pritha’s son’, Pritha being Kunti’s birth name before she was given away in fosterage to Kuntibhoja. In those days, queens were often known by the name of the kingdom that they came from, so Pritha became Kunti.

 

Good Girls Don’t

“Girls in our family are taught to run a household, trained to be good, dutiful wives in the future but you have encouraged her to study the Shastras because she has a sharp mind – that was what you said. How does a sharp mind reveal itself but through a sharp tongue? In a woman is that a virtue or a vice?”

(source: pg 28-29, The Kaunteyas)

One of the criticisms made about modern TV soaps is about the regressive depiction of women – evil saas, submissive bahu – that reinforces gender stereotyping. However, screen actors act according to a script, the episode is watched by an unknown audience. Oral storytelling performances require performers to be more sensitive to their audiences. Coming from this milieu, the world as depicted in the Mahabharata, is also complex and nuanced, particularly in its depiction of women.

We know the Mahabharata as a tale of enmity between two branches of the same family that ends in a terrible war. Rivalry is a recurrent theme in the epic. For instance, the unspoken sibling rivalry between Dhritarashtra and Pandu mutates, in the next generation, into the deadly enmity between their children.

A subplot of the story is the intense competition between the two best archers of that time, Karna and Arjun. In the sweep of the narrative, it is sometimes overlooked that they, too, are half brothers. The fact that they, themselves, are unaware of the kinship adds piquancy and pathos to the tale. Until the eve of the war, the relationship is known only to their mother Kunti.

What compels her to maintain this secret almost right to the bitter end? Why does she choose to reveal it at a critical point in the story? What are the lifelong consequences that she suffers for keeping this secret? Finally, what role does the secret play in shaping the larger events of the Mahabharata? These are intriguing questions that lead us towards insights into the feminine world of the epic, as well as to a deeper understanding of patriarchal society. Most of all, the questions allow us to enter the mind of an important but elusive character from the epic and see its events from her perspective.

 

Family Sagas: Our Never Ending Love

“Men’s stories are the bones of a bygone age, sanctified as relics, preserved in stone. Women’s stories are written in water. Passed in silence from mother to daughter. About things perishable: flesh, blood, feelings, tears. Suffering. Endurance is a sign of womanliness. But what men overlook is that endurance is a crucible, it changes the existing state.”

(source: Prologue, The Kaunteyas)

The serial Yeh rishta kya kehlata hai just aired its 2,267th episode. Dallas and Dynasty may have inspired Indian screenwriters to script convoluted family sagas, but our own indigenous tradition for such fare is very old.

Long before the writing of the Mahabharata began, over 2000 years ago, it was already a well-known tale that had thrived for centuries. Storytellers performed it before audiences, but it was probably a talking point in every household. Why? Because it is about family. One of the methods used to keep multiple generations of listeners engaged was to constantly re-frame the narrative; every possible character, situation and plot twist was included in the mix so that eventually a famous (tag) line said: What is here may be found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.

The Mahabharata is regarded as itihasa, that some translate as ‘history’. But history, strictly speaking, has no lessons to offer; it is for the student of history to decide what s/he wants to make of it. An epic like the Mahabharata is a different matter: the concept of time that applies to history is irrelevant. Also, its sheer size and variety, offering profit and pleasure, makes it accessible to a wider range of people.

Oral storytelling is more nuanced because it is sensitive to a ‘live’ audience. The Mahabharata, originating in this tradition, carries within it multiple meanings, stories and ways of telling them. It has, and it will for generations to come, inspire us to seek or renew these meanings, stories and storytelling styles. That is the secret of its enduring appeal.