Politics and Passion
A veteran Congressman’s retelling of the epic is an unashamed love song to a most complicated character
Dr Veerappa Moily’s The Flaming Tresses of Draupadi—newly translated from Kannada into English by D.A. Shankar— retells the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. The feminist approach offers “the ambrosia of original epic in [a different] vessel”, as Dr Moily puts it, and is an unashamed love song to one of the most complicated female figures in Indian literature.
Fate is cruel to Draupadi. Her marriage to five brothers makes her life unimaginably complicated. But society reserves only mystified sympathy and the occasional “oh, poor dear”, for those who suffer such trials. To Dr Moily, that is why the character is misunderstood. “By portraying [Draupadi] as soft and delicate,” he says, “civilised society has undermined her personality.” Given the present concern of the Hindu right over polygamy, it’s an interesting choice of source material for the veteran Congress party leader from Karnataka, whose book was launched at Rashtrapati Bhavan last month. But if there’s any comment on the times, it’s subtle.
“There is an impression in India that women are subjugated,” he says. “Draupadi is something above that. She is not tied to any husband.” When pressed about those five husbands, he quickly reaches for the text. “She was the woman who underwent oppression and exploitation more than any other woman in the Mahabharata,” he reads aloud, pausing to glower at us over his moustache. “But,” he makes a fist and punches in the air for emphasis, “she did not shrink with fear or diffidence, nor did she blame providence! Not only did she submit herself for the great cause, but was also a powerful influence behind many of her contemporaries!”
Though the poetry is occasionally made stilted by translation, Dr Moily’s passion for the subject is clear. Moreover, his formidable knowledge of the epics offers some interesting perspectives. Take Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna. As Dr Moily says, “Krishna called her sakhi. That is more than just ‘friend’.”