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An apsara and her divine, difficult loves

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Title: Menaka’s Choice; Author: Kavita Kane; Publisher: Rupa Publications; Pages: 290; Price: Rs.295

Forever young and beguilingly beautiful, capable of swaying gods, men and demons alike from their resolve, they are the Hindu pantheon’s most alluring and mysterious characters, but have never got their due, appearing only in cameo roles (though significant and catalytic) or in old legends recounted afresh. It was high time the apsaras got a chance to occupy the story’s centrestage and reveal their own version.

They are first mentioned in the Rigveda where it is implied that there is more than one, but the only specifically named is Urvashi. Later epics, specially the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Puranas amplify on them, naming and describing several of them and their contributions in the affairs of gods and men – specially their remit from their lord Indra, the king of the gods, to seduce and distract anyone whose accomplishments threaten his power.

Out of his three plays, the legendary Kalidasa, in “Vikramorvasiyam”, focussed on the love between an apsara – the aforesaid Urvashi – and mortal prince Pururavas (an ancestor of the Pandavas), while his most famous work, the “Abhijnanasakuntalam”, though having Shakuntala as its heroine, has a major apsara in the back story. Though raised by Rishi Kanva, Shakuntala is the daughter of legendary sage Vishwamitra, and apsara Menaka, who was despatched to foil his spiritual ascent.

It is this engaging tale from Hindu mythology that Kavita Kane has picked and adapted in her third book, which provides a panoramic and nuanced view of the life and mindset of the celestial nymphs, their motivations, and their desires (not only sexual!) and aspirations.

A journalist-turned-full time author, Kane excels in presenting an engrossing different perspective on familiar legends through characters left languishing on borders of obscurity, be it Uruvi in “Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen” (2013) or Urmila in “Sita’s Sister” (2014). And Menaka, who not only holds her own amid a bevy of beautiful women, but is also possessed of a quick intelligence and an independent spirit, is a most suitable protagonist for a tale of intrigue, obsession and longing.
n this tale, which starts from the meeting between Shakuntala and King Dushyant before wending its way heavenwards, Menaka however has most “unapsaralike” cravings of permanent commitment in relationships and family – which neither her queen Rambha, or overlord Indra can even comprehend, or are prepared to countenance. She is in love with Vishwavasu, the divine king of the gandharvas, and they defy Indra to marry.

But when Menaka has a child, they are not allowed to keep it and it is given to a human sage to raise. The smarting Indra, who has never been able to work his will on Menaka, and Rambha, who resents her independence, are still not done. While she is away, Vasu is accused of a serious crime, hideously transformed in Indra’s attack and condemned to roam the earth as a monster.

This nearly breaks Menaka and she looks for a way she can escape her sad destiny. Her chance soon comes, when she is asked to foil the efforts of a powerful sage, who has already bested the gods, and is striving for greater spiritual power.

This is Kaushik, now Vishwamitra, a Kshatriya-turned-Brahmin, whose more well-known story is running parallel, and now intersects with that of Menaka.

The outcome of their encounter is already known, but masterful is the way it is depicted, while drawing in a wide gamut of other characters, from shifty, insecure Indra to unrestrained Kama and other apsaras specially Urvashi and Tilottama. And in the course of her narrative, Kane raises some key issues including of choices, self-worth, life’s purpose, gender roles and politics, even office politics (of a kind!), and above all, a lesson which has been flagrantly disobeyed ever since then – capability and endeavour over birth and background!

Not just a tale of titillation or divine intrigue, the book goes into deeper issues of what it means to be human – even for divine, supernatural beings, who turn out to share many attributes. Perhaps that is why we look for gods – not to find them, but discover ourselves!

By Vikas Datta -IANS

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