Authors · Books · Interviews

‘Women in the Mahabharata existed only to propel the story forward for the men’

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Growing up as a girl in the Vedic age is anything but easy—and even harder for the future Queen of Hastinapur, the kingdom of all kingdoms. She must contend with magic islands, difficult sages, calculating foster parents, sexual awakening and loneliness. Even when she is at the threshold of the capital, King Shantanu, smitten though he is with her, already has a crown prince from his marriage with a goddess.

Young Satyavati must walk on thorns to reach her destiny in a world ruled by men.
In The One Who Swam With the Fishes, one of young India’s most feisty voices, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, coaxes the lesser-known girls of the Mahabharata out of the shadows. Here she is, in conversation with HarperCollins India’s Sohini Basak:

SB: One of the first things that strikes me about The One Who Swam with the Fishes is the voice. There is such a distinct rhythm to it, one that oscillates between a child’s lilt and a confident storyteller’s awareness of speech patterns, and I admire this control you have over Satyavati. How long did it take to ‘get it right’? Or was it the other way around: did Satyavati occupy your head and you had to heed?

MRM: I’m glad you think so—it did take me some time to ‘settle’ on Satyavati. I wrote one version, more than half a book, and had to discard it because she sounded too… I want to say perky. Satyavati was never meant to be a perky person, I don’t think, so it sounded all wrong to me. I worked backwards getting her voice right, I was like, ‘Okay, so here is this young woman who lives a perfectly good life, why would she give that all up to marry a man so much older than her?’ And from this I imagined she must have been lonely, I read accounts by adopted children to try and explain her isolation, and then there was the whole girl-child angle.

The ‘original’ story doesn’t say whether her foster father was married already, or whether she had any siblings, but I assumed that the king of that fishing village, as he was, wouldn’t have the luxury to stay unmarried if he chose to. And how would his wife feel about having an orphaned baby girl dumped on her?

Then, of course, there’s her whole origin story—how she was born of an apsara-as-fish and a king, so I wanted her to sound a little like a child stating facts, somewhat unreliable, so the reader’s thinking, ‘Hmm, is this a real story? Do we really believe what’s happening here?’ Another thing I was conscious of was not making it sound very Historical Novel Trope-y. You know, when people don’t use contractions when they speak, or they’re all very formal and distant. People are people, and sure, language has changed and evolved, but in the end, they’ll speak in the manner that is most suited to them and not because they’re living thousands of years ago.

SB: Yes, Satyavati as the foster child and the young woman is most intriguing. In fact, in your introduction to this series Girls of the Mahabharata, you state: ‘I wanted to pay homage to the people they were before they were wives and mother, and to see what sort of motivations might have led each one on their paths’.

I think this is really cool – we see many remixes of our epics with alternative endings, but to tell the stories of the female characters before the larger political machinations come in play is so fresh! Especially since there are so few good books about girlhood in Indian English writing. But this is something you have written about before, so was it very different to write about girlhood from the mythological point of view?

MRM: The hard thing was getting properly into the period in which Satyavati lives. But for the most part, I thought that some concerns would be universal: who am I, where am I going, what am I doing here? Pretty heavy usually for teen girls, but Satyavati was forced to grow up so much faster than girls her age today. Other things, I attributed to her teenage mind: a crush, a way of pretending her life was different from what it actually was, or even the fact of her being incredibly nervous that things wouldn’t pan out for her the way she wanted them to.

Volga’s Liberation of Sita, the English translation of which came out last year, is one book everyone is still talking about. In an interview, Volga said one of the reasons she just had to retell the stories from the Ramayana and bring out the lesser known female characters was because: ‘Sisterhood is always discouraged, treated with suspicion. I refuse to toe this line.’

In Satyavati’s story, you explore the different kinds of relationships she has with female characters: her adoptive mother, Parashara’s wife, the girls at King Shantanu’s camp and some of these characters are your inventions, interventions into the main myth – how important is the idea of sisterhood to you when it comes to the series?

It was pretty clear to me upon many readings of the Mahabharata that the women existed only to propel the story forward for the men. Women were used as political alliances or as a way of making someone jealous or bringing forth sons, and so I thought men and women wouldn’t have been very friendly with each other—not like a relationship of equals. So I added in some women—fictional inventions, yes—but maybe they’re only fictional because no one thought they were important enough to be mentioned in the actual myth. I think women would have looked out for each other, maybe not in a ‘we are family’ kind of way, but just been more sympathetic than the men would be. In later books of the series, I’m going to go on with these relationships between women not mentioned, because no one actually exists in a bubble just to marry and have children and die and not make any friends along the way.

SB: Exactly! You’ve obviously read many versions of the Mahabharata, and books about and around the epic. Apart from these, are there any books you’d say inspired you to write the series, or kept you going?

MRM: I try not to read the same genre as I’m writing because then it just gets all muddled up in my head! I read a lot of crime fiction: Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, Sue Grafton’s alphabet murder series, things like that. Lots of memoirs, one that stands out is The Glass Castle. Reading books that are so different from what I’m working on helps me keep my thoughts straight and the voice steady, otherwise, it’s all one big blur in your head: what belongs to me? What am I taking from another writer?

SB: Is it too early to talk about the second book in the series? Can you give us a sneak peek? Who will it feature?

MRM: A little early, since I haven’t started work on it yet. But I do have some ideas—the title The One Who Had Two Lives, and the ‘girl’ it’ll feature is actually two people. Amba, one of the princesses of Kashi that Bheeshma kidnaps, and then later, how she’s reborn as a woman called Shikandi, Draupadi’s older sister. Except, her father desperately wanted a boy, so he raises Shikandi as a man, which is an identity he accepts. I think it’ll be really interesting to work with that narrative, a trans man and the expectations on him both in his previous life and the present one.

SB: That sounds super exciting! Can’t wait for the manuscript to arrive!

And finally, I don’t get to ask this question a lot, but since you mention them in your bio, I must ask you about your three cats! Tell us more about them! Do they help you out ( you know, in their own ways) when you write?

MRM: I love talking about my cats! We have three: Sir Bruntonius Rex, first of his name (Bruno), Lady Olga da Polga (Olga) and Lord Squishington the Third (Squishy). We acquired them as one does: one kitten was lonely, so we got his sister and then fostering a third, I fell madly in love with his little bitty squishy face. I do wish we had named him something more dignified though because now he’s a massive panther-like black cat, very cuddly, comes when he’s called, but still… Squishy. They are absolutely useless as writing tools, frequently knocking things off tables and lying on keyboards replying to people, and even in the time I’ve been writing out these answers I’ve had to play doorman at least three times. But once you’re done writing and are ready to get down to reading, they’re perfect: entertaining, cuddly and picturesque. You know, for the Instagram likes that every author needs.

(The One Who Swam With the Fishes is book one of the Girls of the Mahabharata series published by HarperCollins India. Available at all leading bookstores.)

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