The Hindu epic, Mahabharata, written over 2000 years ago, narrates the tale of one Yuvanashva, a childless king, who accidentally drinks the magic potion meant to make his queens pregnant. The child thus conceived in and delivered from his body grows up to be Mandhata, a ruler of great repute.
What does the son call Yuvanashva? Father or mother? Can mothers be kings? Can kings be mothers? In the ancient epic, and the sacred chronicles known as the Puranas, which hurry through this slip of a tale, nobody raises these uncomfortable questions. They do so in this book.
And so a new narrative emerges: a fiction fashioned out of mythological and imaginary tales where lines are blurred between men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
There is Pruthalashva, who must be father because he is a man, and Shilavati, who cannot be king because she is a woman. There is Sthunakarna, a Yaksha, who forsakes his manhood to make Shikhandi a husband and then reclaims it to make Somavat a wife. There is Arjuna, a great warrior with many wives, who is forced to masquerade as a woman after being castrated by a nymph. There is Ileshwar Mahadev, god on full moon days and goddess of new moon nights and Adi-Natha, the teacher of teachers, worshipped as a hermit by Yaja and an enchantress by Upayaja. And finally there is Yuvanashva, the hero, king of Vallabhi, who after marrying three times to three very different women, creates a life within him, as mothers do, and then a life outside him, as fathers do, and wonders if he is either, neither or both.
If biology is destiny, if gender is a cornerstone of dharma, then how does Yuvanashva make room for such disruptions in order? For a good king, who wants to be great, must be fair to all: those here, those there and all those in between.
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Plot Discussion: Yes, the title sounds weird and confusing, but the book is a wonderful journey into Indian mythology and the oddities that it contains. This is the tale of Yuvanashva, a King who is denied his right to sitting on the throne by his own mother because he fails to produce an heir to the throne, even after having three wives. After years of trying naturally, he seeks the answer in the supernatural and that backfires when he drinks the potion that was meant for his wives and hence, the strange title of the story.
The whole book then follows Yuvanashva and him fighting his maternal instincts. One of his first dilemmas being what should his son call him, mother or father? Pattanaik plays with the timeline a little and tells this story with a few others from the Mahabharat like of Shikhandi, the daughter of king Darupad (yes, the father of Draupadi) who raised her like a man so he could take revenge on his enemies. Shikhandi later borrows male genitals from a demon and has a child. There is also a story of Somvat who gives up his male genitals to be the wife of his best friend because of a misunderstanding.
The book very aptly points out how thin a line there is between the Male and the Female powers. The issue of sexuality and gender is a very big one in this day and age when people tend to forget that we our self have mythologies and hence come from a culture that was tolerant, but yet very private.
The Pregnant King is a fast paced book and has a lot of information in its few pages. I read it in two days flat and can say it is a very different take on the myths on India which usually focus more on the wars and the demons while this very fascinating tale was kept hidden from us for ages, kudos to Pattanaik for unveiling it to us in such an interesting way.