Pratibha Ray’s award winning novel, Yajnaseni- The story of Draupadi was published in 1984. All the primary characters of the Mahabharat are present in the novel but it is Draupadi who occupies the centre stage with her trials and tribulations. Her inner psyche, which is often ignored, is worth exploring. The uniqueness of the novel lies in the fact that it is as relevant today as the narration was in Dvapar Yug. Women writers have always striven to bring to the forefront the female voices suppressed under patriarchy. Through her enigmatic heroine Draupadi/Yajnaseni/Panchali/Krishnaa (as called by various people), Pratibha Ray aims to represent the womankind and the suppressed voices.
Readers tend to deconstruct Mahabharat through the patriarchal eyes of Krishna or Pandavas or the Kauravas. It is here that the voice of Draupadi remains unheard. Ray’s Yajnaseni differs from Vyasa’s Draupadi with respect to her indomitable spirit where she not only dares to question the patriarchy but also attempts to subvert it. This novel is written in an epistolary form- a single longish letter that Draupadi addresses to her Sakha, Krishna, while awaiting her death at the foothills of the Himalayas. It is through this letter that she charts her remarkable life for the cognizance of the world and she firmly hopes history should not repeat itself where no woman should be humiliated in public as she was. As Anila Chandran says, Draupadi reveals the underlying mysteries of the society and often explodes at the objectification of woman.
The novel opens with her first misery. As her foot slips in the Himalayas Yudhishthira said to Bhima, “Do not turn back to look! Come forward!” With a heavy heart, Draupadi makes her first revelation to Krishna,
“Those words shattered my heart. I mused: how false is this bond between husband and wife! Affection, love, sacrifice and surrender! If man suffers the consequences of his own deeds, then offering myself at the feet of five husbands for the sake of preserving Yudhishthir’s dharma! Why did I have to bear the burden of the whole world’s mockery, sneers, innuendos, abuse, scorn and slander?”
Ray’s novel traces the journey of Draupadi from being Panchali to justifying her name Yajnaseni. Yajnaseni is a unique name in itself signifying one who is born out of the sacrificial fires. Hence with time she becomes the epitome of chastity, self sacrifice, courage and undying spirit. Draupadi summarises her life as “the life of one born of this spark created by the friction of wood and fire — how could that be complete without conflicts”. When women were denied access to education, Ray presents an unseen side of Draupadi. She portrays Draupadi as a poet and having profound knowledge in the Vedas which is not often mentioned in the other versions of the epic. Arjuna even once says:
“I had heard that the princess is adept in the scriptures. Then I believed that for women to know scriptures meant learning them by rote like parrots. But now it appears that you have not memorized the scriptures but internalized them. You are not only knowledgeable but full of wisdom too. I admit defeat before you.”
Draupadi’s wishes are ignored in the novel. Initially, she gives her heart to Krishna but on her father’s insistence she agrees to take Arjuna as her husband. Some people may critique the instability in Draupadi’s mind but it only accords her with more humanly qualities and not some other worldly creature.
Women are objectified in marriage and so was Draupadi. King Drupada agreed to give her away as an object in a swayamvar. She could not escape the lustful eyes of the invited guests only to be rescued by a veil formed by the bees. She seethed with anger and started questioning the norms of society when she was divided amongst the Pandavas. She questioned why a man with several wives was acceptable in society but a woman with several husbands would be called unchaste. It seemed women had to function only for the welfare of the state, like Kunti and Draupadi did. Draupadi’s mind rebelled at the humiliation hurled at her on being divided among five men.
“Did I have no say? . . . I had placed the garland of bridegroom-choice around the neck of one already. By law, and according to dharma, it was he alone who was my husband.… Why should I accept the other brothers as my husbands? Would that not destroy my dharma? The very idea was ridiculous: one woman to live as the wife of five men ! … Why should I silently bear such an insult? … bereft of reason and judgment, would these brothers impose upon me their whimsical authority and should I accept that ?”
On several instances she had to put up with the lustful eyes of Jayadratha, Dussashan, insults and humiliation from Karna and Duryodhan. The most humiliating episode was the disrobing of Draupadi in Kuru Sabha in front of her kinsmen. Being stripped naked in front of mute elders, menstruating Draupadi dared to question Yudhisthira as well as the other elders like no other woman would have the audacity to ask. Steadily Draupadi said Pratikami, “Go and ask my husband whether first he staked himself and lost or me?” She could not bear anyone’s unjust command over her and never did she flinch from resentment. Jordan and Weedon in Cultural Politics claim that “everything in social and cultural life is fundamentally to do with power. Power is at the centre of cultural politics. It is integral to culture.” She refused to accept husband (authority of power) as God as that would result in hierarchical dominance. It was unthinkable for her that Yudhisthira could stake her in a game of dice. She started questioning the laws of society found in Manusmriti where women had very limited roles in society- wife and householder curbing their independence. She questioned,
“Was woman merely men’s movable or immovable property…Being a woman did I not have right even over myself, my soul? If they had rights over this body of mine, did it mean they could do as they wished with me?”
Simon de Beauvoir once said, “Women have gained only what men have been willing to grant” .Since time immemorial men have tried to subjugate women and positioned them as subalterns. Shakuni enraged her more in the assembly saying she could have been saved had she asked for forgiveness and not put forth volleys of question. In response she claimed that she never pleaded for mercy but justice. Even her words are laced with sarcasm when she said the elders should forgive her for not greeting them when she entered the sabha.
Draupadi also bears a softer side when she selflessly fed two orphaned kids- Kambu and Jambu- while on exile in the forest. She even pardons Ashwathama who had ruthlessly murdered her children while still in sleep. She understands the deeper meaning of life and renounces riches despite being the queen of the majestic Indraprastha. She is confounded as to why men like Arjun and Karna vow to stay away from women till they fulfill their vows. Is it like women wheedle the soul out of them?
There is a sense of female solidarity seen in the novel. Yajnaseni bears no grudges against Subhadra, her co wife. Rather she treats her as her younger sister. She sympathised with her mother-in-law, Kunti who had to bear children through different men and put up with the taunt of society like her. Harita, Drona’s second wife receives no love from her husband and lives only for Ashwathama. Draupadi pities her loveless life. Harita’s chastity, self control, sacrifices and dutifulness empowers Panchali. She even develops friendship with Karna’s wife, Ritubati who later informs her how Karna sees highly of her because of her self esteem.
Draupadi plays a multi faceted role in Yajnaseni. She is Annapurna in forest, a wife who maintains equilibrium among her five husbands, she is a wailing mother in the battle field, she is a queen who fights materialism and altruistically follows her husband in exile. She resents the ills done to her in the name of preserving Dharma. She even does not flinch to express her desire for the third Pandava, Arjuna. This outspokenness of Draupadi is often misconstrued as her outrageousness. Yajnaseni is a novel written by a woman which makes its pathos all the more vivid. Writing liberates. Hence Draupadi at the end of her life manages to write her woes to her Sakha.
Draupadi constantly refers to Sita (a sati) in the novel. Sita was a docile wife unable to raise voice against the wrongs meted out to her and she ultimately enters Mother Earth to prove her chaste life. But Draupadi rebels for every wrong done to her. She is never reluctant to question the patriarchal hegemony. Draupadi does not obey the stridharma passively. Vyasa’s Draupadi joyfully bore the pressure of ten feet on her body but not Ray’s Yajnaseni who burnt with anger at such dehumanization. Every reader should question would Draupadi be Yajnaseni had she married Karna. No. She would not have established any identity of her own. It would be like Vyasa’s Mahabharat which does not look into the life of Draupadi but Ray does.
Draupadi epitomises women of all ages. The pain, the journey, the humiliation, the patience keeps all women going. Bhavna Sharma rightly points out that this novel was dedicated to the repercussion of aftermath of colonial rule. The relation between man and woman was also to be analysed. The position of women had to be re located. Pratibha Ray revisits this mythical character Draupadi to assert that she is a lady of flesh and blood with feeling like ordinary women. Ray draws attention to the realities of Draupadi’s life. It is through the pen of Ray that Draupadi is no longer an object but rather the subject.
- Ray, Pratibha. Yajnaseni: The Story of Draupadi. Trans. Pradip Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Rupa Books, 1995. Print.
2. Sharma, Bhavna. “Mythic Re-Vision of Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni: The story of Draupadi”. International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities. Volume II, Issue X. Feb 2015: 218-24. Print.
3. Das, Shruti. “Draupadi- A Changing Cultural Image”. Odisha Review. April 2015: 66-72. Print.
4. Chandran, Anila. “A Present Voice from the Past: Revisionist Myth making in Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni: The Story of Draupadi”. The Criterion: An International Journal in English. Volume IV, Issue II, April 2013: 1-5.
5. Thakor, Daxa. “Feminist Perspectives in the novel Yajnaseni of Pratibha Ray”. The Criterion: An International Journal in English. Volume II, Issue IV, Dec 2011: 1-5 Submitted by: Shibangi Dash (39)