‘Mythological fiction’ as we know it are written about the heroes. The protagonist is usually a strong, powerful male character. Yes, leading females in these books also have their fair share of action, but it is the hero who takes the lead. In ‘The Curse of Gandhari’, author Aditi Banerjee explores the personality of Gandhari, the queen who cursed Lord Krishna.
Banerjee believes that ‘mythological fiction’ is a misnomer for the genre. “Mythology implies that which is false, a superstition rendered obsolete by time, nothing more than a stale relic of the past. But for me, at least, the Itihaasa and Purana are very much alive and real. I like ‘speculative fiction’ as a category better, which is a more accurate description,” she says adding that she started writing The Curse of Gandhari from Mahabharata and other source text and speculated what may have been between the lines or even beyond them such that it stays respectful and consistent to the source text, Mahabharata.
Banerjee says she finds Gandhari as one of the most inspirational and unforgettable characters. “Her devotion to her husband, her astonishing act of sacrifice in blindfolding herself, her strength of will and power such that she was able to curse Krishna himself — she was always one of my favourites,” she says. “I wanted to explore her personality and reimagine her life story, driven by a simple question — would it be possible for someone who did what she did, suffered as she had, to find peace at the moment of death? I also wanted to explore her relationship with Krishna, because the dynamic between them is so fascinating,” she adds.
Banerjee says writing about Devas and drawing from epic literature of our tradition is a form of meditation for her which makes her feel closer to them. “It makes them more tangible and alive, more deeply present for me. This is what we are meant to do with these stories — listen, reflect and internalize. Writing is simply my way of practicing that. It also helps me relate better to a faraway time and place by reimagining it in the syntax of a novel, to play out in slower detail that which is covered by a few terse lines by Veda Vyasa and Valmiki, to let my imagination wander over the breathtaking canvas they have bestowed us with, to linger here or there, to explore at leisure and in depth,” she says on her experience of writing The Curse of Gandhari.
With pursuing an Executive MBA at Columbia University and working as a corporate lawyer in New York, Banerjee took about a year to write her debut novel. “Given my career, I wrote mostly on the weekends, turning batches of pages in weekly to my writing coach. Were it not for the support of Indic Academy and a creative fiction workshop sponsored by Hari Kiran Vadlamani, I may never have embarked upon this path. I am deeply indebted to him and the organization,” she adds.
Banerjee says she drew her inspiration from authors like Kavita Kane, Amish Tripathi, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Ashok Banker and credits Bibek Debroy’s English translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata as her main source. In The Curse of Gandhari, debutante novelist Aditi Banerjee explores one of the lesser discussed figures of the Mahabharata — the complex, mysterious and endlessly fascinating personality of Gandhari, my favourite of the queens.
The book, published by Bloomsbury, will be released on 10th September. An excerpt of her book can be read below:
Finally, at six months, Gandhari began to show. It was a small, hard protuberance. It was barely visible, and Ayla told her worriedly how everyone was watching her figure expectantly every time she appeared before the family, before the public. There were looks of concern on the faces of Satyavati, Bhishma, Vidura, and deeper frowns on the faces of the ministers. Kutili, Dhritarashthra’s maid, stared at her belly obsessively and made whispered reports to Dhritarashthra, who shook his head sadly.
All this Ayla reported to her.
What do they expect? Can I make the baby bigger in my belly somehow? I am doing the best I can.
Yet, the anxiety got to her, too. Her dreams were haunted by babies. She knew very well that she was married into this family because of the boon that she would bear them one hundred sons. It brought a sheen of sweat to her forehead to think of what would happen, how far she would fall, if she could not deliver. She was the only hope of producing a royal heir to the throne. She could not fail. She pressed her hands into her belly, willing that foetus to life, willing it to grow strong and healthy, willing it to be a boy.
All of her prayers she poured into that belly. Into producing the perfect baby, the perfect heir, the one who would one day be king. That mass inside her, that rock-like hardness that felt like a tumour, began to grow and expand, spreading tentacles across her inner flesh, feeding on her marrow and blood. She became progressively weaker but revelled in that weakness, knowing her strength was going into her son. It became harder and harder to walk. Her belly grew so heavy in mass that she could not keep her balance when she walked.
Now it was the doctors’ turn to become worried. They had never seen a pregnancy like this. They could not detect anything about the baby, not even a heartbeat. But something was growing inside her. They worried that the baby would be stillborn. Whether she had already had a miscarriage. Whether it was a disease, not a child, that was ravaging her body from
within. They worried it was a demon who had taken root inside her, that she was being visited upon by some evil ghost.
They worried she would die.
Gandhari thought she would vomit from all the worry, all the speculation. She was careful not to vomit. She wanted to safeguard each morsel of nutrition for her babies — now she had started thinking of them in the plural. The mass in her belly had become hot and fiery, burning through the lining of her flesh like acid, sending streams of bile upwards. She was sweating all the time; even when she bathed in cold water, it was like a fever that suffused her skin, made it red and splotchy, unbearably sensitive, hot to touch. She began moaning, a low, guttural, whining moan, unbeknownst even to her, so out of sorts was she, that she did not even know she was making that noise. If she had known, she would have
Fed up with the doctors worrying and fussing over her, Gandhari finally threw them all out, disregarding Bhishma’s protest. As they filed out, one admonished her that she was at risk of delivering too early, before the baby was ready to be born, if there even was a baby. It was a female vaidya. Her voice was stern and she sounded experienced, a true expert. She warned her to stay on continued bedrest with her legs suspended above her head, to keep the baby in. She told her that was the only way. Despite herself, Gandhari believed her.
And so Gandhari shut herself into a dark chamber. Ayla tied her feet together and lifted them up on a stack of cushions so that her feet were elevated above her head. Ayla was the only servant who would remain with her. The others had become too frightened by what was growing in Gandhari’s belly and by her terrible mood. She was like a woman possessed. Her parents wrote and wished to visit her, but she refused to see them. She could not bear that after so many years they would see her like this.
Ayla was the only one who could soothe her. She lay next to her, washing her forehead with a wet scented cloth, fanning her in the unbearable heat of summer, reading her stories of her favourite kings and queens, the ones Subala used to tell her when she was a child. With Ayla, Gandhari could weep openly, gasping in pain when she felt the baby beating against the walls of her belly with hammering fists, perhaps as impatient to enter the world as she was to welcome him into it.
One day, Gandhari complained to Ayla, ‘It feels like I have one hundred babies inside of me, Ayla, all waiting to be born. That would really be a fine mess, if I am to bear all one hundred sons at once!’ Ayla clucked sympathetically.
It was Gandhari’s intent to imbue her baby with education even while he was in the womb. She wanted to recite all of the hymns to the devas that she had learned, to surround him with auspicious vibrations, to give him the company of the devas. She wanted to teach him all that Subala had taught her, reciting the names of all the eminent dynasties and lineages of the ruling families of Bharat, the history of their kingdom, the glories of their ancestors, the conquests, the piety, the might and valour of the family into which he would be born. She wanted to tell him about the values by which to live, how to care for and win the favour of the people, the duties of a king.
But in this too she was thwarted by Dhritarashthra. He would lie next to her in bed for hours, whispering bitterly into her belly, how he had been deprived of the throne by fate, how all of his hopes were vested in him, this baby boy who would finally win for him the throne he was denied, how he would do anything to make him succeed and secure his interests; he would lie, scheme, steal, kill, if he had to, to make sure his boy sat on the throne of Hastinapur.
Gandhari sometimes tried to put her hands on her belly to protect the baby from these venomous outpourings, as if she could cover the baby’s ears so he would not hear this poison. But she was so discombobulated by weakness and strain, by the pulsing mass of flesh that was eating away at her, that she lacked the strength to keep her husband away from her belly, to inoculate her baby from his spite. Every time she tried to talk, her teeth chattered uncontrollably. Her limbs shook like she was in palsy every time she tried to move.
Months and months passed. It had been a year now, over a year, and still no babies emerged from her womb. Gandhari grew weaker and weaker. She was on the verge of unconsciousness all the time but lacked the respite of sleep in this limbo state between being awake and unconscious. She was tormented by nightmares of hellish worlds full of fire and demons. In her visions, all she saw was a blazing fire spread across the entire horizon, scorching her skin as she walked through it, looking for her babies. Every time she opened her mouth to call out to them, she swallowed fire and her organs withered and died. She became a walking skeleton. But still she went after her babies. They began to cry out to her, like hatchlings. She heard their cries, faint through the din of the roaring fire, that howled as it ate more and more of the world, consuming and charring everything in sight. She never saw them, only heard their cries, crawling and groping through this world of fire. She lived more in this nightmarish world in those last several months of her pregnancy than in the world of her stuffy, dank chamber.
It was as if she had been left to die.