Monday, September 15, 2014

Winds of Hastinapur - A Review

This year brought with itself the love of Mahabharata. I had always been fascinated by the epic and its various stories, eloquently presented through different classical texts in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. It is specifically the numerous stories prior to the war which I adore delving deep into, but the curious little fact is - out of the 18 Parvas in Mahabharata, the story from the beginning of Kuru race till the point Pandavas and Kauravas come to being enemies is told in just the first Parva.

Now, for a story monger like me, that is too less! Each little story, in fact, feels like an independent little book - and then, authors like Sharath Komarraju come along to present just the literary treat I had been yearning for.

Winds of Hastinapur came my way earlier this year - an interesting blue coloured novel, which I had no clue what to expect from. The title assured me that the story in some way is plotted around Mahabharata - but how, I could not be sure. The epic has a scope which runs over generations. Was this book going to be another of those brief retellings, I wondered. Thankfully, it was not just a recapitulation of the events of the Mahabharata, but a well thought out, well researched and well written narrative, focussed within a particular time frame.

Very briefly put, Winds of Hastinapur is the story of the Ganga and Satyavati, the two strong ladies who appear the very beginning of Mahabharata - women who were responsible for thoughts and actions influencing the later generations of Kuru dynasty in a profound manner. There are two distinct narratives to the book, one themed around Ganga - the River Maiden/Lady, and the other around Satyavati (also called Matsyagandha and Kali) - the Fisher Girl.

The story begins in the Meru Hills, where lived the divine beings, drinking divine fluids to enhance their youth and longevity. Ganga has to descend on the Earth as a result of an unfortunate curse. She then meets King Shantanu and gives birth to the longest living character in the Mahabharata - Devavrata, better known as Bhishma. Interestingly, Bhishma himself is born on Earth as the result of a curse incurred by stealing of a cow - he was a Vasu during his life on Mount Meru (taken to be equivalent of Swarga, the dwelling of elemental deities and other celestial beings).

The other part of the book is the story of Satyavati, born of a fish as 'Kali' and ever surrounded by a foul fish smell. It was upon being seduced by Rishi Parashara that she found an antidote to her stink, and hence was able to attract King Shantanu of Hastinapur towards herself. Devavrata takes the vow of celibacy due to the condition Satyavati placed upon her marriage with Shantanu, thus earning the sobriquet of Bhishma (the one with a terrible vow). Rest of the story, well, many of us would know that.

The wonderful thing about this book is its female-centric narrative. Is it a feminist retelling of the tale? I could certainly see it in that prism. Women are portrayed in this book as rather strong characters, with a mind of their own. While Ganga, I saw, as a woman bound in complex set of obligations, Satyavati comes across as a woman with an agenda, ever-ready to manipulate and dictate to allow smooth fruition of her desires. In the popular renditions of the epic, seldom is such limelight granted to female characters except for Draupadi - hailed and condemned simultaneously, sympathised and castigated for the role she played in supposedly causing the DharmaYuddha at Kurukshetra. For etching out such fine female characters, conscious of and playing with their sexuality as well, full marks to the author! The empowered portrayal of the characters also perhaps insinuates towards the author's conviction of the elevated stature of women in the social codes of ancient times.

Compared to these two leading ladies, the other characters lack shape and lustre. A possible exception to this is Devavrata, but he too is not depicted as the invincible, strong, valorous warrior as seen popularly (remeber Mukesh Khanna from B. R. Chopra's television adaptation?), but rather emasculated.  Brilliant, skillful, but emasculated. His description, in fact, left me a little uncomfortable, for Sharath's sketching of the character was in sharp contrast to how I imagined him.

The book reads like a fantasy sometimes, and like a history at others. If you are not a know-it-all of Mahabharata, Winds of Hastinapur can give you many new perspectives to dwell upon. The language is not archaic, hence easy to follow, and the flow of the book is maintained throughout.

I only hope this is the first in a long list of books that Sharath writes on the Mahabharata, revealing story after story, from points of view of lesser understood and explored characters.

Its a 3.5 stars on 5 book for me. A writing job well done!

Book Details -
Author - Sharath Komarraju
Publisher - Harper Collins
Source - Review Copy provided by the author (Sorry for the delay in writing Sharath!)
Genre - Mythological Fiction
Price - Rs. 299
Pages - 320


  1. Thank you very much for this, Saumya. I'm glad you like the book. If you were to ask me whether it is a 'feminist' retelling, I would say no. To me it's a 'feminine' retelling. But then you can think of it whatever you want. I'd be the last person to influence a reader's mind with my own thoughts.

    Thanks once again :-)

    1. Thanks to you for writing such fine books! Eager to read your next novel!