Jul 30, 2016

reflections after madhavi

Watching or reading anything based on Mahabharata is painful for me, my heart always beating hard, looking for any alterations that demean the story or the character, and they are always there. Always.

Despite the excellent music, set, and acting, I take exception to the basic story itself which places so much value on the sexual victimization of the woman and ignores other kinds of victimization. The story seems unable to accept that madhavi was perfectly capable of trading her womb for 200 horses, and instead invented this love story for her, disorienting the entire center of the story. very convenient, to present her as this sexually victimized woman who was sold by her father and then by her lover, only that she was not. What I see here is her dedication to duty towards her father, and full control of her sexuality. She was the one who chose to give a son, and she did not see herself as a characterless woman or as someone who was abused.

Of course, there is abuse, but the abuse is at another level. The abuse is at the level of, how can a father give his daughter away to fulfill another man's quest? Not, how can this woman be asked to have sex with four men? For there, we see Madhavi voicing her own consent.

There are, of course, deeper levels to explore here, one being that the story written in a patriarchal perspective that saw nothing wrong in the actions of the father or of Galav may not have what was happening inside Madhavi. So maybe she was displeased with it after all. (This is the part where the divergence from the text is the strongest, where Madhavi yeas after hr son and Galav is fixed upon his duties, called her frail, an she replies with the strength of creation that only a woman can posses).

Maybe she was displeased at having to have sexual relations with may men that she did not care for, a the command of her father. But there is no evidence to say she thought of these acts as demeaning to herself and to her character, She and her second husband (she weds them all) are compared to celestial deities which signifies that this union was considered sacred enough, And if they wanted future heirs from her, obviously they don't consider her polluter. And then there is plenty of evidence in literature to suggest that a more liberal brand of sexuality existed at that period when multiple partners were not so much frowned upon as they are now.

And let us remember here that it is the kings who set the price, of begetting only one son from her because they cannot afford more, and that they wish they could.

Madhavi's consent in the story, and the kings' acceptance of her, even delight and humbleness at her, all go to show that Madhavi was not a victimized woman or viewed as characterless for her relationships. Not to say this is not a grotesque story (where father gives away a daughter to a stranger in dowry, and her reproductive powers are used for two men's own means), but this also signifies a free society where women with multiple partners are not stigmatized. For after all this happens, Yayati plans Madhavi's swayamvar. The fact that she chooses the life of a sanyasini in a forest signifies that she was unhappy with something. And the whole story is based on what that something was. The part where she yearns for her son, for example, or the part about her failed love (completely contrary to the original story where Galav happily and gratefully lets her go). But mostly, what is added is a voyeuristic imagination about Madhavi's sex life. Instead of focusing on the control of woman's sexuality by male family members or the trade of a woman's body simply for reproduction, we get to focus on the act of sex, why did Madhavi have sex with so many men? What did so many childbirths do to her body? (For the record, there is no evidence that Madhavi grew old after the last birth. She was about to be married, after all, And for another record, married women with plenty of children, like draupadi, are described as beautiful and desired by many men even late in their life. So the whole new addition is a farce)

And that, to me, demeans the whole story. What it does is look at the stories of women's sexuality from today's lens, judge her by the scales of virginity and loyalty, that did not exist then, or at least, not for everyone. The result is that the story becomes more sexist than what it was before, with moral policing added, and makes it seem like this is how it has been since ancient times (displacing stories of an even earlier era, of more innocent times when relationships were were more fluid).

To go a little off track, I was also reminded that the story of Madhavi repeats the pattern seen before in Mahabharata, which builds upon the article written by AK Ramanujan regarding the use of repetition in Mahabharata to explain a theme. Usually, the second time something happens, is more destructive, more important to the core story, as if the first was only a practice run. eg, the destruction by gambling (nala and yudhisthira), the abduction of wife (rama and pandavas), draupadi's denouncement of sleazy men, first in kaurava court then in matsya court  (this time the first one is more important), the naming of the hero (arjuna versus krishna).

And here, the repetition is very very subtle. Yayati is married to Devyani and Sharmistha, more of them formidable women with twisted relationships to their father, By twisted I mean in the same was as Madhavi's was to her father. Sharmistha and Devyani, fighting over who is superior, and Devyani goes into a rage, refusing to eat until her father comes looking for her. Acharya Shukra makes the king Vrishaparva bow to him, and the princess Sharmistha obediently bows down to Devyyani, since nothing is more important to her than her father's command. Devyani then goes on to have an affair with a spy (of the gods) who keeps pretending to die so he can learn the secrets of Sanjeevani. And at her request, her father, every time, revives the little git. Later, she also gets her father to punish her husband when she learns of his affair with her arch rival. So Yayati is this man who has these kinds of women in his life, and perhaps has developed the same kind of close knit obsessive relationship with his daughter. (Strangely, mother figures are absent in all these tales, making one wonder what they would say. Would Devyani consent to this treatment, she who sought her father over her husband to solve every problem? We are not told. And we never hear of the mothers of Sharmistha and Devyani who what they would have to say to their daughters' bizzare tales). The tale of motherless daughters with obsessive fathers, repeated within two generations, is an interesting motif, perhaps the closest and tightest repetition in Mahabharata, even though the specific incidents in the women's lives are different.

In another aside, yayati is also the man who exchanged his old age for his son's youth, because he wanted to have more sex. And after 60 thousands years returned it to his son because he realized that desire never ends. So yes, he probably knew exactly why and how the deal would work out. 
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