Thursday, January 6, 2022

Rukmini, by Saiswaroopa Iyer


Rukmini: Krishna's Wife, by Saiswaroopa Iyer

Writing fiction based on our epics is easy. Writing fiction based on our epics is tough. Somewhere along this dichotomy lies the secret to writing a story that holds your attention and interest while at the same time staying faithful to the original. 

Anyone picking up Saiswaroopa's "Rukmini" is likely to know the story in varying degree of details. Whether it is the Harivamsha (considered a part of the Mahabharata, but referred to as a kheel - appendix) or the Puranas - the Bhagvatam primarily, the basic story goes like this - Rukmini was the princess of Vidarbha, daughter of King Bhishmaka and sister of Prince Rukma (or Rukmi). Her marriage was arranged with Shishupala, king of Chedi, without her knowledge or consent. Shishupala was a commander in Jarasandha's army and an implacable foe of Krishna. Rukmini had no desire of being married off to Shishupala. She sent a message to Krishna at Dwarka that she would marry none other than him. On the eve of her marriage, Krishna and Balarama descended on Vidarbha. While Balarama's armies held off Vidarbha's, Krishna carried off Rukmini in his chariot, defeating Rukma in the process. 

When writing a novel based on the Mahabharata, for any other epic for that matter, an author's job is made easier owing to the fact that people know the characters, the basic plot, the ending, and so on. The reader has an affinity with the story, identifies with these characters, and when it comes to the Mahabharata and Krishna, one can never have enough. There have been many, many novels over the decades, centuries, and millennia based on characters in the Mahabharata, from Bhasa's 'Urubhanga' and K.M. Munshi's magnificent series, 'Krishnavatara', to Iravati Karve's 'Yuganta', V.S. Khandekar's 'Yayati', and more recently Kavita Kane's novels on female characters from the epics, Aditi Banerjee's 'The Curse of Gandhari', and now Saiswaroopa's 'Rukmini'.

On the other hand, because everyone already knows the story, the characters, and have read and re-read about their favourite characters and stories umpteen times already, how do you make your story different and interesting to the reader? I deliberately chose the word 'different', for it is a difficult path to tread for any author here. In trying to make things 'interesting', the temptation to also make things 'different' is often irresistible and sometimes unavoidable! From 'different' to 'distortion' is but a line, a paragraph, a chapter away! Creative license can become a synonym for casual corruption also. There are many examples where an author is unable or unwilling to differentiate between the two, leaving the reader with a book where only the characters' names are familiar, but everything else about the story feels disconnected from our expectations and existing in a discombobulated, parallel universe.

Given all this push and pull, how well does Rukmini the novel measure up? Before answering that, let's take a look at the story itself. The novel is Rukmini's. Krishna is the student, the god, the lover, the husband, but the story is Rukmini's. The plot moves ahead with Rukmini, key episodes are told from Rukmini's point of view, and through her we get to know Krishna, Draupadi, Satyabhama, Mitravinda, and others. Whether it is Shishupala's death at the hands of Krishna, or Subhadra's abduction by Arjuna, or the exile of the Pandavas, or even the eighteen-day battle in Kurukshetra, we see and experience the story through Rukmini. Some incidents are either mentioned or described post-fact, or mentioned very briefly, so as to not distract from the story and its core - Rukmini.

Rukmini's strength of character and strong will come out alive through her words and actions. Her defiance of her father's decision in the face of Jarasandha's might, at her brother's strong-headedness, contempt for Shishupala and what he represents, the flutter of the heart and the longing for the one whom she knows she belongs to, or the inevitable pangs of envy, we read and feel Rukmini's emotions in her words and thoughts. A mix of dialogue and narrative, intelligently interspersed, bring alive the pages, and neither element overpowers the other. It is a successful case of 'showing', rather than 'telling'. The story move at a brisk pace and you keep turning the pages.

If the beginning of the book reveals to us Krishna the youthful and mischievous romancer, as the book moves approaches the end, an indescribable sense of foreboding and sadness descends on the entire narrative. You know what's coming - the end of Dwarka, the end of the Vrishnis, a terrible slaughter - as foretold and cursed by Gandhari, reinforced into imminent inevitability by the curses of Vishwamitra, Narada, and Kanva the sages, goaded by the thoughtless actions of Samba and others. You know Krishna's end is near and you feel the approaching desolation. Lessening its gravity would be doing injustice, and inventing an alternative, happier ending a graver disservice and distortion. The book does not take the easy path. If you enjoy the romance and bliss of the youthful protagonist, you must also live her pain and travails.

I asked, does Rukmini succeed in being 'different' without 'distorting'? Yes, it does. It retells a story we all know in away that engages our attention. It stays faithful to the 'bhaav' and 'rasa'. Do read this one.
This review was first published in The New Indian Express on May 9th 2021.

  © 2021, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.