Dr. Nandini Sahu is a poet and a creative writer of international repute, has been widely published in India, U.S.A, U.K., Africa and Pakistan. She has presented papers on various subjects in India and abroad. She is a double gold medalist in English literature and also the award winner of All India Poetry Contest. She is the author/editor of ten books. Her latest poetry collection Sita (A Poem) has acclaimed wide appreciation from literary world. Presently, she is an Associate Professor of English in Indira Gandhi National Open University [IGNOU], New Delhi (India). She is the Chief Editor of Interdisciplinary Journal of Literature and Language(IJLL), a bi-annual peer-reviewed journal in English.    email:  kavinandini@gmail.com


Reading Myth as an Epistolary Novel:  Prativa Ray’s Yajnaseni

Dr. Nandini Sahu


As a creative writer, I ask this question to myself quite often: for whom does the novel speak? Before attempting a response to this question, I would quote Indian English novelist Mulk Raj Anand, who had raised a somewhat similar concern. This is a part of his introduction to a collection of Indian fairy tales where he writes:

“The stories contained in this volume were told to me by my mother and my aunts during my childhood. The primary inspiration to retell them, therefore, came from the nostalgic memories of the hour when ‘once upon a time’ began and when one’s eyes closed long before the story had ended. But I also had in mind the fact that in the old stories of our country lay the only links with our broken tradition… There has been much international traffic in folk lore between India and the West through traders, travellers, gypsies, craftsmen and crusaders, and many of the stories current abroad have their source in the same springs in which these stories have their origin. (Anand, 1946,7-8)… Having said all this, it seems to me—are we are asking the crude question: ‘Is the novel essentially a bourgeois, individualist and Western (or imperialist)genre?’ “ (Indian Fairy Tales, 229)

To address the aforesaid issues, I would re-read the Jnanapith awardee Odia writer Prativa Ray’s epic-epistolary novel, Yajnaseni, written in Odia and translated into English by Pradip Bhattacharya. It is very difficult to illustrate these issues by means of selective quotations from a rather complex text like Yajnaseni, because of the shifts between a more traditional realism and the magic realism, which are arbitrated through a range of narrative techniques including a standard third-person narrative, riddles and sayings, dance-songs and verses engaged by Ray. I would examine, can this text be broadly categorized under the theoretical rubric of cultural translation? In an age of Hindu-hippie-hybridity, the pilgrims and tourists amalgamation in India, can this text be considered as a standalone book, which is either the Mahabharata subjectively interpreted/retold by the author, or it has been translated by the translator for a subsequent foreign consumption?

Thus, it would be apt for me narrowly to deal with:

o The glitches of defining realism, modernism and postmodernism in this novel

o Realism as content or realism as an effect on the reader vis-à-vis Yajnaseni

o Modernism and postmodernism as periodizations and as standard classifiers vis-à-vis Yajnaseni

o Modernism and the inner self of Ray as a creative writer

o Division of ‘realities’ in modernism and postmodernism, vis-à-vis Yajnaseni

o The use of creative writing to explore extreme experiences in myth

Conventionally, there may be four types or levels of meaning of narratives: literal or historical meaning, moral meaning, allegorical meaning, and analogical meaning. These meanings are different from l.A. Richard’s brand of four meanings “(a) the sense – what is actually said; (b) feeling—the writer’s emotional attitude towards it; (c) tone—the writer’s attitude towards his reader; (d) intention—the writer’s purpose, the effect of his aiming at” (Cuddon, 329). The four levels of meaning are affirmed in Yajnaseni, if deliberated from the point of view of a complex reader. I am intrusive to make an interpretation of Yajnaseni as a Bhasha text keeping in view almost all of these theoretical tools. Pradip Bhattacharya, the translator, has not done much to make his version of the text faithful to the original text. So I would make a textual interpretation of the original text in Odia, and quote from Bhattacharya’s translation only very rarely. Prativa Ray’s Draupadi is a symbol of the archetypal Indian woman, a character culturalized to symbolize chastity. A role model generated by a patriarchal society to showcase how they want their women to be, pure, law abiding, beholder of their honour, personification of beauty and sacrifice. Prativa Ray has put Draupadi into this categorized image of Indian woman. Ray writes, “Life is sacrifice from the minute you step into this world and God is your only shelter from it.” (Bhattacharya, Yajnaseni, 77) 

Absence is a term introduced by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida believed that in any discourse the speaker remains present but in writing the writer is absent, which is what I could discern in Ray’s Yajnaseni. Ray remains absent, making Draupadi most pronounced. Draupadi of the Mahabharata in the history of literature is perhaps comparable to Helen of Troy. The parallel between them however ends with the fact that they were both the harbingers of enormously powerful wars that altered the history of humanity. Anyway, Helen, rather, had a life less pathetic when compared with Panchali. Married off a few days after her birth from fire, Draupadi never had an opinion in deciding who her life partner should be; by a single word of Queen Kunti was she required to take polandry which remained a wound that the whole world (even in posterity) loved to sprinkle salt on. She writhed with the greatest slur ever done to a woman’s honour by being publicly attempted to be disrobed; she watched all her sons being killed in the great war at Kurukshetra; finally in the journey to the netherworld all her husbands left her alone when she fell by the mountain, bereft and orphaned—aren’t these enough trials for a woman? But she sustained all, she could embrace all. Ray’s Draupadi is an intense character from the epic and this is an epic novel through her eyes in the form of a letter, an epistolary novel, written to Lord Krishna, her platonic love, her Sakha, during the last few moments of her life.

Alternative literature signifies the sort of literature that does not follow the universally established rules of literature, it is anti-tradition and off-beat. Alternative literature is theoretically the product of an alternative culture and its sub-culture. Prativa Ray has employed that theory in telling the story of the Mahabharata from a woman’s perspective. Draupadi had platonic love with Krishna—that’s what Ray rightly imagines in her story. Lord Krishna saved the dignity of Panchali on that day in the royal court of Hastinapur, which her five husbands did not care to do, and they silently observed the grossest injustice a woman could be subjected to. The fact that the erudite, wise, noble men gave silent nods of concurrence to Draupadi’s violation at the hands of Duryodhan, presents this act as all the more deplorable. A husband, in the most conventional sense of the term, is supposed to be the ‘provider’ and the ‘protector’ of the wife, though in the post-modern situation this statement is redundant. Yajnaseni, being born from fire, didn’t need a provider for her; and Krishna became her protector when she was helpless in the royal court, being disrobed by Dusshasan. If Ray supports Draupadi’s love for Krishna and writes that she loved him more than she loved her five husbands, she has a point. Since this entire story is written by a woman and told from a woman’s point of view, the vulnerability and the naiveté of this one scene, that of the court, is supremely presented. Anyway, the best parts of Prativa Ray’s skills as an alternative storyteller comes when she describes Draupadi’s relation with her husbands. Her angst at the upright and impeccable Yudhistir, which is, again, both her respect and repulsion, the love mixed with fear and reverence for the colossal Bhim, the romantic and poetic love for Arjun and motherly care and friendliness with Nakul and Sahdev are all captured very well. Ray uses the technique Anamnesis, which refers to poets’ and novelists’ technique of recalling past experiences and utilizing them in their works. The entire story is sounds like a memoir of Draupadi.

Anti-novel is a mid-twentieth century new and pioneering technique which disregards the customary conventions about fiction, like describing a design, evolving atmospheres, raising up an impression of pragmatism in the plot. Nonetheless, the anti-novel has its own rubrics and resolutions, some of which can be:
o It generates its own kind of practicality in the plot;
o It attempts to expel the reader from recognizing with the personae;
o It does not cultivate any perceptible design of the plot;
o It does not attempt to design round characters; o Its incidents are not systematized;
o It involves recurrences of some of its components;
o It employs a comprehensive study of issues;
o It often differs with its own time orders;
o It concerns itself with tiny inner dreams on the border of consciousness.

One of the best examples of anti-novels could be The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in which there are some blank pages and disparate comic Obiter dicta. However, some of the objectively accepted anti-novels are: James Joyce’s (1882-1941) Ulysses; Virginai Woolf’s (1882-1941) Mrs. Dallway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves; Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Murphy. I read Yajnaseni as an anti-novel. Anyway, the author seems to be greatly influenced by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The name Yajnaseni  means she who was born of the yajna (the sacrificial fire) which is another way to say that she was not the biological daughter of her noble parents. After a show of power which can be read as the courting period, she is married off to prince Arjun, whom she had only heard of. In a period when words and assurances were inviolable, one word by her mother-in-law Kunti ends up making her the wife of five men. From the description of the situation by Ray, one can understand that the attitude of Kunti and the Pandavas towards her is more like that of a domestic animal, who can be “equally shared”. Draupadi, while bound in her deep love for Arjun, ransoms her feelings just to keep the unity of the Pandava family unharmed. While the Ramayana is hailed as an epic of morality, Mahabharata is more humanitarian in its maneuvers. Through offenses, sufferings, exultations, distresses and happiness she carries her family forward into her life until the dice game with the Kauravas. Inexorably, the Kurukshetra war, the Mahabharata war follows. Prativa Ray writes, in the Mahabharata war nobody wins; only corpses are the final outcome and nothing beyond it. Naively Arjun kills his eldest brother Karna who was sure that he would be killed but being honest to the word to his friend Duryodhan, accepted death with satisfaction. I wish Ray would have illustrated the character of Karna with a little more precision—it’s not clear if he is a flat or a round character in the novel. All the sons of the Pandavas are massacred in their sleep and only a grandson remains to carry forth their inheritance. The embodiment of the divine, Lord Krishna himself, watches his entire fraternity of the Yadava clan killing each other and He later capitulates to the arrow of a hunter. Yudhistir becomes the emperor of an arena of corpses. Abandoning worldly desires, the five Pandavas and their wife travel through the Himalayas to touch the heavenly abode. But, for all her attachment to life, Draupadi falls along the way and without a second glance the husbands walk away. Putting down the package of all her distresses at the feet of her lifelong friend Krishna in the form of a letter, she moves off from this world of torments, creating her own kind of realism. This is the plot of Yajnaseni. One cannot relate with Ray’s character Draupadi by any means; the tell-tale differs with its own time orders; the story line concerns itself with tiny inner dreams on the border of consciousness of Draupadi—thus creating all the attributes of an anti-novel.

Yajnaseni is a well-knit Architectonic novel. Architectonic comes from Greek archi, chief, and tekton, a builder. The word architectonics was brought together into literary criticism by Ezra Pound (1885-1972) from the discipline of architecture or the art of systematic arrangement to symbolize the skill of positioning the contrasting components of some fictional matter into a skillfully formed organic whole. Subsequently, in literary criticism, the term architectonic concerns the merits of the structural quantities, capacity, significance, organization, etc. of the fragments of a literary work. The novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) are architectonic novels. In Yajnaseni, the protagonist Lord Krishna remains the principal puppeteer, the architekton, of all the acts in the tale; Ray has painted him as an all knowing, supreme being with supernatural capabilities. Krishna can be read as Odysseus in his wonderful stratagem, eloquence and ambassadorial skills but in this novel He is presented as a God beyond anyone’s conception.

Ray seems to have understood the ‘atmosphere of the mind’ of the society before she penned the novel. The phrase was devised by Henry James (1843-1916). It represented the ‘atmosphere’ of the mind of the novelist and his/her emotions, values that s/he strives to transport into the mind of the reader. I guess, the ‘atmosphere’ (read preparedness) of the mind of Ray was to re-tell the story of this woman about whom we read in the newspaper before a few days, about an estranged father and mother selling off their 17 year old daughter to prostitution! Or about female feticide in many states in India, mostly Haryana, where there are villages where the male-female ratio is imbalanced, number of women being much less; thus, a woman is legally married off to one man, but is illegally shared by more than one brothers/relatives at home. Draupadi, to Ray, was the symbol of such mayhems against women in the ages to come. Men like Dushasan have now put on more refined threads and walk free among us. To me, thus, Yajnaseni is supreme protest literature. The Mahabharata has always been written by men from men’s perspective. Ray took up the responsibility of protesting against patriarchy in one of the world’s most powerful myths through her novel Yajnaseni.

Prativa Ray, the woman, had to negate her ‘self’ while writing all of this. In Yajnaseni, as Ray writes, Draupadi is legally wed to five husbands, but her individual sovereignty regarding the social and ethical principles permit her to love Arjun more than anyone else. Let me contextualize my opinion with a few quotes. At one point, all of the Pandavas face a crucial situation, they are almost dead, when Draupadi is embracing Arjun’s feet, grateful that he is alive, because he is her only love among her husbands. Arjun quickly takes away his feet, “As a wife, all [the Pandava brothers] are your husbands. You ought to behave in the same manner with all… If we countenance injustice then the defeat of the Pandavas is inevitable. Draupadi, remove this mountainous burden of unjust love from me.” (Bhattacharya, Yajnaseni, 112) Draupadi writes in her letter to Krishna, “That is all. I thought my grief would provide Arjun with some encouragement. But lecturing me regarding justice, law, rules, he again turned me into an untouchable. My tears keep flowing, washing away the guilt and sin of loving my husband.”(Bhattacharya, Yajnaseni, 112) Ray’s Draupadi nourished this anti-idealistic and realistic value of life, which is undeniably avant-gardean.

Yajnaseni is a gynocritical text. Gynocriticism, is a distinctive “branch of modern feminist literary studies that focuses on women as writers” (Baldick, 93). Yajnaseni can be better interpreted as a hypertext. Conventionally, a creative text is explicit; it has a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’ and it is lasting¯it does not alter. A hypertext, on the other hand, is something molten, altering with the thought process of a nation. The change happens due to a steady boundary between the reader and the writer. Further, the hypertext contains not only the text but also supplementary material about the text and the author. Elementary to the idea of the hypertext is the substitution of linear evolution of a text, an in this case, that of a novel, between two predetermined ends—a beginning and an end— with many prospective passages through the text which is constantly being supplemented to, revised, and re-mapped. Yajnaseni is a novel for social mapping, social change—and our concept of the woman, Draupadi, is ever-changing, altering with each generation. In fact, Draupadi is the implied author in Yajnaseni, if Prativa Ray is the voice. The reader, in the course of reading a text, progressively builds a picture of a writer beyond the actual author of the text, on the basis of the significance, tenor, approach, etc. of the narrating or speaking voice, and this image of the author is the implied author. This is somewhat similar to Metafiction. The term Metafiction was introduced by Robert Scholes and is often used as an equivalent of ‘surfiction’. It symbolizes that category of novels where “the role of the author and reader in inventing and receiving the fiction” (Abrams, 196). Metafiction is “fiction about fiction… that openly comments on its own fictional status.”(Abrams, 196) Ray and Draupadi are invariably the two speaking voices in the novel, affirming the quality of metafiction in it. The intervention of the most powerful character, Krishna, in the plot introduces magic realism to the fiction, which can be compared to Salman Rushdie’s intervention in the plot in Midnight’s Children.

As I think of speaking about the Narrative technique of Prativa Ray, let me characterize the different categories of the narrator a creative writer can employ (Meindl, 2008,35):
o Personified narrator or unpersonified narrator;
o Character narrator or non-character narrator;
Character or non-character narrators
are of various kinds:
o Extra-heterodiegetic narrator: a first person narrator who tells a story in which he or she is absent;
o Extra-homodiegetic narrator: a first person narrator who tells a story in which he or she is present;
o Intra-heterodiegetic narrator: a second person narrator who tells a story in which he or she is absent;
o Intra-homodiegetic narrator: a second person narrator who tells a story in which he or she is present;

First-person narration is restricted in its narration; the narrator cannot plainly state the inner world opinion or approach of others. On the contrary, the first-person narrator – a real personality or issue – is unrestricted in its approach, can be authoritative in telling the truth. The narrative action of the third-person narrative is not an individual or an issue; hence, third-person narrative can hardly be subjective or unreliable, but is essentially consistent in the logic of being a powerful voice. In Yajnaseni, Draupadi is both an Extra-homodiegetic narrator and an Intra-homodiegetic narrator, thus her scope is both narrow and broad, giving room to the author to intervene every now and then. Prativa Ray, on the grounds of making a feminist book, has tried to gather more sympathies for Draupadi. To do that, she had to change the other characters too, like Bhima is presented as a lecherous food lover like one of those dakoos of Bollywood movies. And Karna, ever since the original Mahabharata was written, is one character that everybody sought to re-define. Ray, too, re-defines him as a poor Aryan who had to live a humiliated life. of a Dalit. This is nothing but a vicious design of a society which couldn’t tolerate that a Dalit could also be chivalrous and gracious. So they have to say that he is not actually a Dalit but the son of Sun God. I wonder, why is it hard to accept that he was a Dalit and still a bold fighter? And the love-story of Draupadi and Karna—I guess this is the creation of Prativa Ray. I don’t argue that Draupadi as a woman cannot fall in love with Karna as any other man due to ethics. But just because the author was fanatical about the tragic hero Karna, she had to give him emancipation by letting the royal heroine fall for him. This is where the narrative needed to be tightened in Yajnaseni.

Ultimately, what disappointed me the most in this otherwise wonderful novel is an attempt to rewrite myth by personalizing its text and context. Draupadi is someone who had to stay as a wife of five men, which was not a unique thing entirely because polyandry used to be practiced in societies where matrilineal hierarchy was there. My question to Ray as well as to the society would be, is that really such shameful for a woman to marry more than one man, as Ray has penned it? If so, why? Unlike the case of polygamy, where a man can spend his time with any number of women at any time, Draupadi was not given an option like that, she had to follow a one-year-one-husband policy. Again this could be dubious as it is likely to be an amendment made by moral policymakers, people who cannot endure/accept a woman having to marry more than one man, even if due to some compulsion. Is Prativa Ray one of them? We talk of solidarity and women’s liberation in this century or the later part of the previous century. I read the Editorial of Women’s Era, a magazine for the free thinking, elite, progressive women, and was amused at the patriarchal undertone in it. Is there any change in our mind set? Is there any role for women rather than being better wives or mothers, as prescribed by the social norms? I don’t think there is any.

Rewriting myth or history is a challenging as well as incomprehensible task, which Ray has taken up in Yajnaseni. With a mixed reaction to Ray’s re-writing the Mahabharata as an epistolary novel, I would quote Milan Kundera, “Someday all past culture will be completely rewritten and completely forgotten behind its re-write” (Introduction to Jacques and His Master). I somewhat agree, though not with such extremity, with Kundera, when he says, “Death to all who dare rewrite what has been written! Impale them and roast them over a slow fire! Castrate them and cut off their ears!” (Jacques and His Master.)

Works Cited
Primary Sources
1. Ray, Prativa. Yajnaseni, NAlanda, Binodbehari, Cuttack,1985.
2. Translated by Pradip Bhattacharya, Yajnaseni: The Story of Draupadi, Rupa & Co, 1997.

Secondary Sources
Anand, M.R. , Indian Fairy Tales, Bombay: Kotub Publishers, 1966.
James Phelan , Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.
J. A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
Kundera, Milan. Jacques and His Master, Colophon Books / Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.
Jeremy Hawthorn, Studying the Novel, Bloomsbury, 1985
Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, Aspen Journal, no. 5-6, 1967
Michel Foucault, What is an Author?, 1969
Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (3 ed.), Oxford University Press, 2008.
J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, S. , Mulholland Books, 2013.
Arnold Kettle , An Introduction to the English Novel, Grey Arrow, London, 1962.
Ed. Peter Burke & Roy Porter, The Social History of Language, Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture
Michael McKeon, Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740, John Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Meindl, D. (2008) , ‘Henry James’s Turn-of-the-Century Nouvelles:Centers of Consciousness and Unlived Lives’, in J.Lothe,H.H.Skei and P. Winter(Eds.), Less is More:Short Fiction Theory and Analysis, Oslo: Novus Press, 2008.
Women’s Era: 1973, issue: 1. November 1973.
The Quran, www.quran.com

© Author
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2015)