Author : DEvdutt Pattanaik
First Published : 2008
Publisher : Penguin Books
Pages : 360
She knew that just as man's destiny is bound to his lineage, a woman's is bound to her body.
This story takes place in the kingdom of Vallabhi, a small prosperous kingdom neighboring Hastinapura, the famous kingdom in Mahabharata. Shilavati is the queen of Vallabhi. After the death of her husband, the king, she takes the responsibility as the regent of the kingdom until her son, the heir, is ready to take the throne. Under Shilavati’s leadership, the kingdom is peaceful, harmonious and more wealthy. She is a capable ruler and she aspires to be the king of Vallabhi, to rule the kingdom completely. But she is a woman, and a woman can not be a king.
Yuvanashva is Shilavati’s son. He wants to take the throne, to get what’s rightfully his. But he can’t, not until his three wives bear him a son. He tries so hard, he prays every night, but none of his three wives show a sign of pregnancy. One day, he calls Yaja dan Upayaja, the rishis who perform Yajna for Drupada and give him Dhristadyumna and Panchali. He wants them to perform a yajna for him, so that he can also have a son. But a lot of thing goes awry. He ends up drinking a potion that should be given to one of his three wives and he gets pregnant. After he delivers his son, his maternal instinct grows. He wants his son to call him ‘mother’, he was the one who gave birth to his son no matter what. But his simple wish poses a threat for his own kingship and he ends up facing a dillemma. He has to choose between his throne and his desire of being a mother. Because a man can’t be a mother, and a mother, can’t be a king.
Do you have to take all the decision, My Lord? Can life not take decisions sometime?
I think I’ll never get tired of reading any retelling of Mahabharata. At first I thought this book would take place in Hastinapura, just like any other retelling I’ve ever read. But I was wrong. This book is very interesting because it takes the timeline of Mahabharata. Yuvanashva’s born in the same time with Panchali’s marriage with the five Pandava brother. On the time of Panchali’s disrobing incindent, Yuvanashva gets married for the first time. So even though the story is not focused on the infamous character of Mahabharata, we can still see a glimpse of them here and there.
There are two things I love from this book. The first one is the characters. Shilavati and Yuvanashva are just magnificent. Sometimes I love them, the other times I loathe them with all my heart. I feel bad for Shilavati because her gender is standing on her way and the throne even though she would make a great ruler, but I also hate her for delaying her own son’s corronation for no apparent reason. By the way, I also love Shilavati's diplomatic policies in maintaining peace with neighboring kingdoms. I admire Yuvanashva’s love and respect for his mother regardless of, but he really tries too hard to be seen as a capable king and finally ends up doing stupid and cruel things for his family and also his citizens. There’s no saint here in this book. Everyone is flawed. Everyone messes up something. Exactly the kind of character I really like in a book.
Kingship is not about winning wars. It's about maintaining order.
The second one I love is the gender and sexuality issues addressed in this book, especially regarding gender roles, who’s allowed in the public sphere, who has to stay in the private. From Shilavati and Yuvanashva’s stories I can see clearly that being a good, decent, plausible human being is enough to create a harmonious living with each other, until gender role strikes in. Shilavati can’t be a king merely because she’s a woman. Why can’t a woman rule a kingdom if she’s been proven capable? Yuvanashva can’t take care of his child because it’s a woman’s job. Why can’t men experience the joy of child caring and always have to be the bread winner? I think it’s an issue that’s still relevant to be reflected in this time, since believe it or not, gender-based discrimination is still a huge problem we all have to tackle.
The gender and sexuality issues is not only told from Shilavati and Yuvanashva’s stories, but also from other famous characters from Mahabharata : Shikhandi and his quest to be a man to please his father; Arjuna who became a woman due to Urvashi‘s curse, and also his one year disguised as Brihannala. And also the story of the yaksha who gave Shikhandi his manhood.
Men are foolish. We actually believe that because someone has a moustache, they make better kings than someone with breasts
This book will make the readers rethink the gender and sexuality issues in our society, lots of people suffer because society puts too much pressure for those who don’t comply to the so called gender roles. I personally think it doesn’t important what your gender is, or your sexual orientation or whatever, as long as you’re a decent human being. This book also gives me lots of fun because I still can see some of my favorite character in Mahabharata. I personally really really love everything about this book. I recommend it to everyone who loves Mahabharata, and alson have a keen interest in gender studies.