‘I am not sure that I am a man,’ said Yuvanashva. ‘I have created life outside me as men do. But I have also created life inside me, as women do. What does that make me? Will a body such as mine fetter or free me?’
Intrigued? I was too. After all, how could a man create a life inside him? The red cover complete with the intrinsic illustration called out to me, but I was skeptic. The copy belonged to my roommate, and it had been collecting dust on the shelf, and I kept telling myself that one day I would sit down with the book. Finally, it was only when I was frantically searching for a book I hadn’t read before, to accompany me on a train journey that I finally gave the book a chance. As the train trudged to Gokarna, I travelled to an India that could only Devdutt Pattanaik could take me.
The Mahabharata takes us to ancient India where we see a conflict brewing between two branches of a royal family—the Kauravas and the Pandavas—which results in an epic eighteen-day battle. But, anyone who has read the saga would know that the text is about much more than that. This story takes up a little more than one-fifth of the total book, and the remainder poem tells us about several legends and myths, The ideas of dharma (duty), artha (purpose), and kama (pleasure), moksha (freedom from samsara, or rebirth)—principles which dictate Hinduism—are extensively discussed in the text. In The Pregnant King, Pattanaik plucks out one from the numerous characters in Mahabharata and spins a tale like no other.
Among the many lesser-known tales in the Mahabharata is one that is told by the sage Lomasa to the exiled Pandavas, about a king named Yuvanashva, king of Vallabhi, who accidentally gets pregnant. It is a beautifully written book that boldly deals with the themes of gender, gender identity, gender roles, and societal roles in general. He uses the concept of dharma to further fuel his point.
Yuvanashva, the king of Vallabhi, is only one among the hundreds of characters who inhabit the Mahabharata. His story is barely remembered, but Pattanaik’s retelling of the tale, makes it unforgettable. The novel starts with Yuvanashva having a conversation with his mother, Shilavati, on his desire to fight for the Pandavas in the battle of Kurukshetra. His mother dissuades him claiming that he cannot go before fulfilling his responsibility of producing a son. A large part of this book is rooted in the social and political landscape of that time, which is why a lot of importance is placed on the fact that the actions of all, especially royalty, was dictated by dharma. There is no grey areas when it comes to dharma, which makes it extremely difficult to deal with situations where the truth that contradicts dharma. This is the conundrum that Yuvanashva faces through the course of the novel.
Through Yuvanashva, Pattanaik points out that dharma isn’t a fixed set of rules. He has different characters describe and discuss it, thereby explaining that it is a concept filled with contradictions. He uses different characters and their struggles to fit into the spiritual narrative of this book which ultimately deals with duality, a recurrent theme in Indian mysticism. Pattanaik uses the fantastical aspects of the Hindu mythology, such as Gandharvas, Yakshas, vengeful/impulsive Gods, to make sure that it fits into the Mahabharata narrative, that even though you know it is a work of fiction, it gets you thinking otherwise.
Sexuality, is another theme that has been discussed just as extensively as dharma. The characters in the novel view sex merely as a way of procreation, and not as an expression of their love, a fact that is made clear through the three marriages and the subsequent chapters that revolve around the possibility of a pregnancy. Pattnaik chooses to explore sexuality in terms of how gender-based roles and rules can be disruptive and harmful and he uses several characters to drive his point home.
In the first instance, we are introduced to Shilavati, a princess who exhibits the mettle to be a noble ruler. She understands dharma better than any man, but by virtue of being a woman she would never gain control over the throne. Her parents on realising her abilities, in an attempt to right this wrong, gets Shilavati married to Prasenjit, the sole heir of Vallabhi who is prophesied to die in two years. After the King’s demise, Shilavati takes up the role as a regent. The Brahmin elders find it difficult to accept the situation because“they were not used to a leader who nursed a child while discussing matters of dharma”. Even though she realises that the people of Vallabhi would never accept her as the queen, she carries out her duties with grace.
When Yuvanashva comes of age, his mother informs him no matter how able or ready he was, he couldn’t be the king unless he produces an heir. When all three of his marriages fail to produce offsprings, Yuvanashva gets agitated. When people began questioning his virility, he feels pressured and his need to prove a point takes him to two siddhis, who creates a child-endowing magic potion. As fate would have it, chaos erupts in the kingdom as the potion is being prepared, and amidst the mayhem, instead of one of the Queens, Yuvanashva consumes the concoction. It is only several months later, when his body starts exhibiting signs of pregnancy that he realises his mistake. The family tries to fix the situation by trying to kill the fetus, but ultimately comes into terms with it. He gives birth to a son, and in order to protect the king and the throne, Shilavati and three queens decide to keep the child, Mandhata, inside Queens’ chambers and distance him from Yuvanashva.
The story that follows shows his predicament in having to choose whether he wants to be the father, mother or the king, as the lines between the three start to blur for him. Yuvanashva finds himself unable to cope with the separation from his son. He yearns to nurse him, and take care of him, just as any mother would. He would sing lullabies from his chambers to soothe the young prince, but it wasn’t enough. He constantly tries to win the affection of his son, and be a mother to him, but fails, because he is unable to tell his subjects that he is a mother. Guided, or rather constrained by dharma, he is forced to curb his desire to be Madhanta’s mother, and as a result he painfully distances himself from his child. His entire life becomes a Hamlet-like quandary of whether he should be a mother to his son, or a king to this subjects. The irony is not lost on the readers. At the beginning of the novel we see a king who can be easily considered as the epitome of manhood and upholder of Dharma and we see him become a man who is left with no other wish than to be called ‘mother’ by his son.
The Pregnant King is story of men and women who are oppressed by a society founded on an unbending code of ethics, something that is extremely relevant even today. He uses several characters who do not find into the binary mould of gender to prove his point. We see Shikhandi, the man who was always mocked as an eunuch but ends up being the one to bring down the legendary Kaurava general, Bhishma, to his knees. It gives us a peek into the life of Somvat, who surrenders his genitals to become a wife; Arjuna, the great warrior with many wives, who is forced to masquerade as a woman after being castrated by a nymph; Ileshwara, who is a god on full-moon days and a goddess on new-moon nights; Nar and Narayana, who produced a nymph from tehri thighs; and Adi-natha, the teacher of teachers, worshipped as a hermit by some and as an enchantress by others. An important thing to note is that Shilavati, despite her own unconventional life and her desire to break the confines of dharma, is unable to understand or accept her son’s situation, which underlines the point that non-conformity can take many forms, which are not always sentimental to each other.
In order to further demonstrate how gender roles based on dharma can destroy people, Pattanaik uses the lives of Yuvanashva’s three wives, Simantini, Poulami and Keshni. He dedicates space to talk about the pain these women experience, by virtue of being unable to bear a child. They become despondent and blame themselves, even though there is a good chance that it is Yuvanashva and not them who is sterile. He also shows the envy and disappointment they face when their husband brings home a new wife. The idea that women only exist to sow their husbands seeds is very beautifully depicted, without ever actually saying those words. The women quietly accept their fate, and finally even finds some sort of companionship with each other. Poulami is the only wife who blames their failure to be a mother on Yuvanashva, and she even ridicules him for birthing a child. When Yuvanashva hears about it, he angrily forces himself on her, almost as if he wished to prove a point. Poulami becomes pregnant as a result, but the relationship between the two is soured forever.
This novel is Pattanaik’s first work of fiction, but to the readers this seems real. The book is rooted in mythology, and he uses several popular anecdotes and symbols throughout the book. However, not once does the story of Vallabhi get overshadowed by the war. He cleverly interjects the storyline with events of the war through royal spies and bards, making the plot extremely credible. He also gives vivid descriptions of the erstwhile Indian society– the division of a household’s responsibility in four different ashrams, compulsion to follow dharma, worshiping Goddesses but not respecting women of the house, the manipulations done to attain power, belief in ancestors and spirits, the populist attitude of monarchy, and so on. His characters are far from being one dimensional. We are given insight into the lives of smaller characters, as well, because they are all intertwined with each other. It is fast paced book, that hooks you right from the first page, but it is the impregnation of the Yuvanashva that really blows your mind.
The book very aptly points out that gender and sexuality are non-binary, something which people seem to constantly forget. It makes us question certain rules that the society seems to have set for us, and we seem to accept without questions. Why can’t Shilavati be a king merely because she’s a woman? Why do people believe that somehow the gender of a person determines the kind of leader they would be? Why can’t Yuvanashva be the primary caretaker of the child? Why does the society always expect men to the breadwinner? The issues that he so subtly brings up in this book is one that the world still seems to be struggling with. The undue pressure to act a certain way by virtue of what was given between your legs at birth is very vividly and epically discussed in this book.
The slightest disappointment I have with the book is that I would have loved to know more. While we are given an insight into his postpartum life, what we get is a fast forward through the next 16 years of his life. Given the build up we get, it was only natural to want to know more. Or maybe, he thought that the monotony and melancholy was best left unexplained. But, if you are someone who loves mythology or historical fiction, this is definitely a book that you should crack open.