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Mahabharata (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Take the Blindfold

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Essay | 15 minute read
Preti Taneja was invited to turn one aspect of 'The Mahabharata' into a fifteen-minute monologue. She reflects on its gender politics and the process of updating an ancient text for the modern world

Question: Why would a woman blindfold herself?

Gandhari: Let me say this – there is blindness and there is metaphor.

I am invited to adapt part of an epic story, for Tara theatre in Earlsfield, London. It is the home of Britain’s longest running theatre company for artists of colour. The space is intimate, it has carved doors and an earth floor: when I’m there, I am cocooned. It is a space in which one could say anything, become anyone.

The text is the Mahabharata. Composed from 300 BCE to 300 CE, its stories told, translated, reinterpreted and retold across India and South Asia for aeons. A complex treatise on how to practice life. A working out of how to be just. A warrior. On how to change genders, stand up to corruption, withstand shame (even when you are the only woman in a room full of men and your clothes are being ripped off you,) and on how to reverse the sense of being an outcast. It questions true piety and fixed ideas of duty; it exposes the illusions of ego. It is against war.

It has games for thrones, gambling, exiles in forests, great battles, blindness and fools. It also gives us hundreds of men. There are a clutch of brave women named in it, they are wise, fierce, spiritual warriors in themselves; they are sexual, polyamorous, able to forsee devastation and try to prevent it. Yet their courageousness is often placed in service to their fathers, uncles, brothers, nephews, husbands, gods and sons. The secrets this forces them to keep drive the story to its end. And while the text seems to enshrine the caste system as the best way of maintaining the order of a kingdom, its greater narrative reduces all civilizations to ash. It gives us the devastating, inarguable rationale that all will fall.

The text was passed down first in vernacular languages, and then written into formal, classical Sanskrit, the language of elite power, of male upper caste scholars (Brahmins). There is no textual purity in this mix; the stories within stories contain are told through the sage/ ventriloquist Vyasa, the overall narrator, or whoever is speaking through him. Yet, it is so much more than heroes and villains. It seems to uphold a certain status quo, even while it reveals society’s failings. Especially towards, as Doniger writes in Hindus: An Alternative History, ‘people who, from the standpoint of most high caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or species (animals), or gender (women).’

Who gets to tell the story matters as much as the story being told.

As children, my sister and I read fragments of the epic in Amar Chitra Katha comic books, brought back from India (strapline: the route to your roots). We also had a Bharatiya Vidya Bavan edition: it had a classic painted cover of the great battle, its pages had a different texture to our other books and smelled of unfamiliar glue. Its 75,000 verses were abridged to 107 stories and translated by C. Rajagopalachari, (known as C. R,) and his ‘kind friends.’ (If the name is unfamiliar here’s a brief biography: C. R. was a politician, a leader of the Indian independence movement. In 1950, he took over from the British Raj’s outgoing Governor General of India, Lord Mountbatten. He was the only Indian man to ever hold the post.)

C.R. knew how literature could influence ‘national character’ as much if not more than ‘the actual heroes and events’ of history. His Mahabharata was first published in 1951 just four years after the violence of Partition and declaration of Independence. It had sold over 1.3 million copies in India by 2009.

Back to Hertfordshire, UK. I am eight when Peter Brook’s nine-hour theatrical imagining is broadcast on UK television. In our house, for the first time I can remember, the TV is left on while we eat.

Peter Brook’s adaptation of the Mahabharata at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris (Photo by Julio Donoso/Sygma via Getty Images)

Years pass. I write a paper at university, arguing that a certain Sanskrit text on Yoga has relevance for contemporary Western feminism. Both of my markers are theologians, one a Hindu, one a Catholic. One a man, one a woman. I learn afterwards that when one gave the work low marks, the other went high. At the same time, my sister writes her PhD thesis on the representation of women and chastity in the Indian epics, including as abridged and translated by C. R. In a stretch of time that bridges the long illness and death of our mother, she writes and revises, and passes the exam. Then, under pressure she removes the contrasting chapter arguing that the Kama Sutra is a feminist text. She submits the final thesis and becomes a Dr. She gives me a copy of her PhD.

More years later, I write We That Are Young. Sold as a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, it is for me a weaving together of my two ‘homelands’, in part via two national literatures. (Side note: I discover that C.R loved Shakespeare, and called King Lear, ‘the greatest of plays by the greatest of poets’.) The Mahabharata, in its searching exposition of absurdity, hubris, pain, loyalty and love holds the universal themes of King Lear: it questions nature: animal, human, divine. All of it understood in a social order. The more the characters try to do the right thing, the more difficult it becomes for them to understand exactly what that is. The book becomes an attempt to express all those different worlds, languages and times that share so much ground in my head. The young women in King Lear possess me, now imbued with the spirits of the Hindu Goddesses and their human counterparts, all wrestling with ‘the subtle art of dharma: the difficulty of being good.’

(Side note: With apologies to Gurcharan Das, the phrase is his. And further side note: no, my parents are not from the Brahmin caste. One of the reasons they left India for the UK was to try to get away from that system. Well, they were young, it was 1968.)

Then comes the commission: to take one of the women’s stories and make it new. Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara, sends me abridged sections from the fullest translation made of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into English to date: by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, who worked on it from 1883 to 1896 in Bengal, (India was still under British rule.) Choose anyone you want, he says. Do whatever you like. For fifteen minutes, the stage will be yours. It will be hers.

In these revolutionary days, to reclaim the voice of a woman from the Mahabharata feels urgent, necessary. A metaphoric translation of story, across bodies, time and form. A chance at a kind of poetic justice.


The possible women

Ganga – the river goddess, who takes human form and gets married. And then must consign every one of her newborns to the river, until her husband protests. The final boy survives; he is endowed with strength and wisdom, and cursed to be childless. Ganga is the mother of Bhishma, patriarch of all that follows.

A detail from one of the legends of Krishna; Krishna’s flute entrancing the gopis (daughters and wives of the cowherds) and prompting them to dance with him in the forest (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Satyavati – mother of the seer, Vyasa (who is traditionally known as the author of the Mahabharata).

Savitri – daughter of the sun god, so beautiful and pure, according to Wikipedia, that she intimidates all the men in the vicinity – so much so that no one will offer to marry her, and she gets to choose her own husband – whose life she later saves.

Kunti – single mother of the five Pandava heroes. Too good, yaar, to make up for her secret son.

Amba – a girl who becomes a man, waiting to fight after being rejected by a prince, a possible husband (she eventually kills him).

(Draupadi – wife of the five heroes – was not included in the list – she’s arguably the most famous and most interpreted and translated of all the women in the epic – including in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s brilliant novel, The Palace of Illusions, told through Draupadi’s eyes.)

Gandhari – mother of a hundred sons (and one daughter – Duhshala). Her grand uncle, Bhishma, arranges her marriage to a worthy, much older king. Who is blind. Story goes: she blindfolds herself for a husband she has never met. Story goes: she dies while in self-imposed exile, in a forest fire.

I’d like to say I chose Gandhari. But she has so many secrets and so much bad attitude. She is a woman constantly schooled by others. Because of this, she has such a strong sense of annihilation and of how to survive the end of the world, that it’s only fair to say she chose me.

Backstory, precis of Ganguli (with apologies). His actual text in italics.

From Suvala was born a son, Sakuni, who from the curse of the gods became the slayer of creatures and the foe of virtue; in other words, it wasn’t his fault. And to him was also born a daughter (Gandhari), the mother of Duryodhana. And both were well versed in the arts of acquiring worldly profits. Although it’s not clear here whether the ‘both’ goes with the son and daughter, or the father and son. I’ll take the later.

Gandhari, the amiable daughter of Suvala, having worshipped Siva had obtained from the deity the boon that she should have a century of sons. Jackpot. Later, someone gave me a book called May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons. I can’t remember what exactly it was about, but I remember thinking, Jesus (or the thirteen-year-old equivalent). Please, no.

Bhishma decides the boon of boys makes Gandhari a suitable catch for a blind old king. He sets it up. Her father isn’t sure, but the old king is rich and his family name renowned. The men agree to it.

At the wedding, Gandhari hearing that Dhritarashtra was blind, and that her parents had consented to marry her to him, from love for her future husband, blindfolded her own eyes.

She meets Vyasa, a sage, and he, satisfied with her hospitality, grants that Siva’s promise will be fulfilled. Gandhari will have the hundred sons.

She is pregnant with something that feels like a ball of iron for two years.

Meanwhile other women, including Kunti, her sister-in-law, give birth to sons. Gandhari hates herself, and hits herself.

A ball of flesh, as hard as iron, falls from her.

The sage reappears and breaks it into a hundred thumb-like pieces. Each planted in a pot of ghee. The boys are born of clarified butter. As soon as the first one, Dhuryodhana, arrives, he began to cry and bray like an ass. And hearing that sound, the asses, vultures and jackals and crows uttered their respective cries responsively. Violent winds began to blow, and their were fires in various directions. So it goes.

And in case we didn’t understand, the sage explains: It’s evident that this one child shall be the exterminator of the race. The king, his father, is advised to sacrifice the boy for the good of the whole world.

He does not.

Page from a series of illustrations for Bhagavad Purana, Krishna and his brother Balarama in the forest with the cowherds (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Meantime, Gandhari also has a daughter, Duhshala. Meantime, she also finds out that in the two years she was pregnant with a ball of flesh hard as iron, there was a maid servant who used to attend on Dhritarastra (the blind king.) During that year was begotten upon her by Dhritarastra a son.

Later, on the eve of war, Gandhari tries to convince her husband again, to sacrifice his eldest son. Therefore, O King, abandon this wretch of our race….Know that the time has come for the destruction of our race through him. Err not, O King. He does not listen. Then she pleads with that child, now a man, not to fight his five heroic cousins. No one listens. There is war. The death of the hundred sons, and many other men besides.

Despite the blindfold, Gandhari is aware of the devastation. She becomes outraged that her eldest, was killed by unfair means. Watched by Krishna, meant to be the divine authority on how to be good.

Gandhari gives a lesson to the victor, the oldest of the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the Mahabharata. The lesson runs to pages and pages and pages. She curses the survivors, saying they will live to kill each other. She curses Krishna for his indifference to the destruction. And then has to listen while he says that was his plan, all along, and she has helped him achieve it. In fact, he says, as a mother, the evil doing of her son was her fault. All of the carnage he wrought was her fault.

And this is what he tells her about the order of the world:

Dead or lost, the person that grieves for what has already occurred obtains more grief. By indulging in grief, one increases it two fold. A woman of the regenerate classes bears children for the practice of austerities [cleaning bodies after deaths, and so on], the cow brings forth her young for bearing burdens [this means ‘regenerate’, later known as ‘backward’, classes are lower than animals here], the mare brings forth her young for acquiring speed of motion; the shudra woman bears a child for adding to the number of servitors; the Vaishya woman for adding to the number of keepers of cattle. A princess, however, like you, brings forth sons for being slaughtered. That is her role.

Gandhari, with her heart exceedingly agitated by grief, remained silent.

Then she, and the blind old king, and the too-good sister-in-law Kunti, go to live together in the forest.

Until one day, the whole thing burns down.


Notes on first reading:

Where is her mother? Never mentioned by name.

Why does the translator only mention (Gandhari) in ellipsis?

What is she like? Amiable. Also she’s later noted for her youth and beauty. And, for her rigid vows.

She was traded into marriage, and then blindfolded herself out of love and duty. Really? What, in this modern world might make a girl take the blindfold? Two years. Fibroids? Self-harm.

She has a hundred sons and then begs for just one daughter.

Gandhari insists on protecting her raped maid and her son.

The hundred sons and one daughter are born. Storm warning, war coming.

What survives? Krishna says the whole point is to rid the world of the warrior caste. Of soldiers and war.

The women are left. To pick up the pieces and remake the world.

(Did Gandhari know this would happen, all along? Is this what she wanted, all along? There’s nothing in the text to suggest this, but still…)

This is the truth – all of us will die. Grief breeds grief.

Silent – doesn’t mean nothing to say.

In the forest, a fire. Who lights it? What does the epic say about that? Spontaneous flames so strange in a story where nothing happens without purpose.

Does Gandhari ever take the blindfold off? In some versions she does. In others she is simply granted the gift of sight without removing it, or opening her eyes.

Who has the story been told by before? Who has told it most? What has not been said and what has been well said? What can you build on and borrow? (Is it possible to plagiarise your own life?)

Gurcharan Das writes that ‘there has been no satisfactory English translation of the complete Mahabharata’. Ganguli’s is the most comprehensive but still, he leaves some stories out. Meanwhile, other kinds of translations – of form – arise, all of them with a different take on the motivations and actions of the queen.

Rabindranath Tagore’s 1930s poem/play Gandharir Abedan (Gandhari’s Plea) has Gandhari begging her husband to abandon his eldest child, in order to prevent the destruction that, despite the blindfold, she can see coming. Working in the late 1940s in the run up to Independence, C.R ignores this moment – his 444-page version of the Mahabharata does not mention Gandhari until page 407. Her story is compressed to a few lines.

C. R. writes, ‘Her eyes were bound in lifelong penance for her husband’s blindness’.

And where Ganguli has Krishna putting the burden of guilt on Gandhari, C. R. has her taking it on herself. In his version she says, ‘It is through my fault that this great tribe has been destroyed altogether.’ She is a perfect Hindu wife, taking all blame.

Other texts followed. In 1968 the sociologist and anthropologist Professor Irawati Karve, won India’s highest literary honour the Sahitya Akademy Award for her thrilling book, Yoganta: The End of an Epoch. It is a piece of poetic and critical thinking about the Mahabharata’s main characters, excavating their possible inner lives and motivations. She writes an extraordinary Gandhari, a woman, generally admired for wifely devotion, who as a girl was deceitfully betrothed to a blind prince, and in consequence, to share her husband’s misfortune, wore a bandage over her eyes by day and night until shortly before her death, is shown at the end of life to have inflicted the voluntary blindness upon herself not so  much from an exaggerated sense of marital duty as to give her husband and his family a guilty feeling in retaliation for the deception practised upon her.’

And then there is Carole Satyamurti’s 2015 Mahabharata: A modern retelling, which gives us the story in English blank verse. Mona Arshi has celebrated it as ‘one of the most important books published this decade,’ – and it is heartstopping, brilliant. Its language is clear and devastatingly sure, the complex messages are carefully threaded through using the techniques of repetition, of stories nested within stories that define the original text as hybrid and endlessly fluid. Satyamurti’s method, ‘was to read Ganguli and other translations, section by section, and then give myself time to digest what I had read, intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically. Out of this would come a decision about what to include and what could be excluded; what must be foregrounded and what could be mentioned briefly. I then wrote my own version, checking what I had written against the original (translated) source, and doing this repeatedly throughout the entire writing process.’

Here, Gandhari is the same, but different to Ganguli’s queen. She takes the blindfold ‘so that she would not enjoy/ superiority over her husband.’ As in Ganguli, this decision is described as an act of love. But this Gandhari agonises far more than in the earlier translation, blaming herself when she cannot give birth. ‘Fulfilled at last’ when she finally does, she becomes deaf to the cacophony of howling that accompanies her firstborn into the world. So that may have happened with, or without her voluntary blindness.

Satyamurti’s version also glosses the story of the maid (who she does not name,) ‘sent to serve’ (provide sex for) Gandhari’s husband while she is ‘indisposed’ (pregnant).

And when Gandhari stands on the final battlefield and laments the war, and all the many sons dead, she does not wait for the lesson, but says herself that the role of warrior-caste women is to be ‘broodmares for corpses’.

And then there is Karthika Naïr’s 2015, Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, which reclaims the points of view of ‘the most hunted’ in the epic, ‘many of them women’. She writes the maid, and names her as Suavali, exposing the violence of language as she tells her son, ‘When the king decides to rape me or my kind, no one will use the word “rape”. The word does not exist in the king’s world. This body is just another province he owns, from navel to nipple to eyelid, insole to clitoris,’ she says, and her response is that, nonetheless, even he cannot own her thoughts, nor her conscience.


Method (in five parts)

1

Give yourself complete freedom

The Mahabharata says: ‘What is here is also found elsewhere, but what is not here is found nowhere else.’ According to the text itself, it contains every thing we could imagine; and nothing outside it exists. It is known by its Sanskrit term itihasa – a history. Doniger writes: ‘Itihasa, or history, could be translated as “That’s what happened” … But the iti is most often used at the end of sentences as the Sanskrit equivalent of “end quote”, as in “‘let’s go [iti],’ he said.”‘ She makes a translator’s jump: Itihasa therefore implies not so much what happened, as what people said happened. The perfect linguistic conditions exist within the text itself, then, to rethink the story differently each time.

2

Form and language

Dramatic monologue, the performance of self, is the form I choose. To let the story be told in Gandhari’s own words, and not reported by the sage Vyasa, narrator of the whole. Important to use the text’s own devices: repetition, stories within stories, doubling back and folding over time. Strange coincidences, direct address. Maybe screens over a forest clearing. The stage will allow it. The writing can be rhythmic, intertextual. Construct and deconstruct reality.

3

Real time / epic time

Let her present herself, and invite the audience to take pictures of her. Let her own that. Then have her offer us the freedom of a blindfold, to experience ourselves in the dark and be free of being judged on appearance. Of judging others. Gandhari understands that just because you are desirable it does not mean you can’t also be wise. Gandhari will invoke the recent hashtags: #distractinglysexy, #stylishacademic. The details matter: I tend towards epic for weight, modern for delight, local for nuance. I think that is the secret to this kind of translation’s success. She has an epic name, so I will give her a mobile phone, long nails, hoop earrings and good lines. No fear, even as she seems to do what she  has been told. She’s a recipe for mixed-metaphors (which are always going to annoy the purists). Isn’t that the point?

4

Props (to you)

I think about shame, motherhood and what the damage of ingrained longing for children, specifically sons, can do to a young Indian woman. Bitterness seems to hang over Gandhari. Though she is the mother of one hundred sons, none of them are heroes. Bad luck – it is more like a curse, to be their mother. She is written as angry, the worst emotion a good girl can express. I give her a jharu as a prop. A broom. Brushing away all the dirt (gand), enshrined in her own name, if the laughing letters h, a, r go wandering. If you grew up on Grimm’s fairytales, my Gandhari might suggest an old woman with a broomstick. A Western witch. Or maybe she’s just a motherless woman collecting some kindling in a forest, binding it with sacred thread. (But she is the one who curses Krishna to die, and says all of his people will be lost.)

5

Complete freedom

Don’t forget that nothing is sacred. Attachment is illusion.

Epilogue

Question: Who started the fire?

Gandhari: Who else would?

Arjuna in carriage behind Krishna mounted on horse (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)


Take the Blindfold – an extract

GANDHARI: ‘From Suvala was born a son, Sakuni, who from the curse of the gods became the slayer of creatures and the foe of virtue. And to him was also born a daughter brackets Gandhari close brackets. Me. Ellipsed into lineage, slipping through the net of language, captured in punctuation as if I was too dangerous to release into a full paragraph [possible screen behind her with text] and take up my space. O let me be a woman and brood [poses brooding]. O let me be a man and be a sage [poses in the exact same way].

My mother was dead to the word. Disappeared from the syntax and the conjugation of verbs. Language can do that to you, over and over and across time. Try and tweet that and you’ll find yourself leaving something out. Probably my name: it’s hard to say, and easy to misspell, a wandering ‘h’ and you’ll mistake it for dirt. Gandi Gandhari. Hysterical, my father called me. This is how he wants me seen: beautiful, amiable. Virtuous. Good.

It is always written that I chose to blindfold myself. It’s always written that I did it for love for a man I had never met. I mean – who does that?’

She sits on the floor. She stands the jharu upright next to her, and rests her head on the pole. A position that suggests cold comfort.

Grief sat on my heart in the months after my mother died, and on the left side of my face, my eyelid drooped. My brother told me that no one wanted to see a girl half crushed with sadness. I said, fine. They don’t want to see me? I will stay in my room. And if you make me come out I will shut my eyes. I won’t look at them. I missed her. They told me the eyelid would never fully open again. A streak of my hair went white. I felt a hardening inside my body, where I should have felt an opening sense of life to come. This is the knowledge that sustained me:

She stands and lifts the jharu above her head in a position of power and brings it down into her arms as if it is a person she is comforting. She looks at the audience.

We all have dead mothers, or we will, one day.

Take the Blindfold was commissioned and performed as part of ‘Women of the Mahabharata: A Sharing’ during a month of work by women artists held at Tara Theatre in May. It is in development with them for future performances. Watch the full performance here (Take the Blindfold is 42 minutes into the recording).