Book Review: The Kaunteyas by Madhavi S. Mahadevan

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‘Death is important to a man, but survival is more important to a woman.’
With a split destiny ruling her life, Kunti, given away at birth, leads a hard but uneventful existence in her foster-father’s home. At fourteen she is pressed into the service of the temperamental sage Durvasa who grants her a boon. Its first use, however, only brings her adversity and a shameful secret.
With marriage to Pandu, Kunti dreams of a better future, but a curse makes him leave the throne of Hastinapur to his sibling, the blind Dhritarashtra, and retreat to the forest. The births of the five Pandavas rekindle Kunti’s hopes of returning to Hastinapur, but these are destroyed once again when Pandu dies suddenly. Kunti journeys to the kingdom, no longer its queen but a widow, a dependant as are her sons. She must now take up the task of guiding them through the long struggle to get their inheritance, a struggle made harder by the discovery that the illegitimate child she had abandoned long ago is alive and a sworn enemy of the Pandavas.
Recasting the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of Kunti, The Kaunteyas replaces the idealized mother figure with a fully three-dimensional woman, providing new insights into the epic.

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I honestly just stumbled upon this book while looking for another Indian mythology based series on Kindle Unlimited, and I couldn’t resist. While I’m a huge huge fan of the epic Mahabharata and have already read many versions of it by different authors, I haven’t gone back to these old favorites much since I started blogging. So, when I realized this was a retelling of the epic from Kunti’s POV, I knew I had to read it immediately. And it definitely was a very interesting look at an already well known tale.

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While most of our epics (even when written by different authors) are usually narrated by omnipresent narrators, it’s kinda obvious that they are telling us the story of the heroes in the epic, and many of the female characters are mostly just sidelined. Even Kunti, who is a formidable figure and one of the most important persons who shaped the lives of the Pandavas, hardly features except at important moments within the story. That’s why this book is special. Here, we get to know so much more about her life as a foster child of Kuntibhoja and her year of service for Rishi Durvasa which has such everlasting consequences. We also get a more in-depth look at her life as one of the wives of Pandu and the various tribulations they have to go through.

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The author does a great job of bringing to light the sense of isolation that Kunti feels right from childhood – her feeling that she has been abandoned always and just wants to find that place which she can finally call her home – and also her frustrations about being a woman which limits her ability to make a lot of decisions. The author also captures wonderfully both the kinship and antagonism that she feels towards Gandhari as well as Madri and how this dichotomy of feelings essentially follows her throughout her life. However, it’s the third part of this book where the writing faltered for me a bit. In the first two parts, we get such a deep insight into Kunti’s feelings, her frustrations and her philosophical musings on various issues. However, once we reach the story where all the kids become adults, her character turns into an almost dispassionate narrator and I never could understand why she wasn’t reacting more deeply during some very intense moments. I also felt that the author never really explored her feelings regarding Karna, which is probably one thing I expected a lot from this retelling. Also, the exile of the Pandavas and the Kurukshetra war itself are almost rushed through, because she is not actually present during those times. The ending almost makes up for these lackluster aspects a bit, but not completely. However, I won’t deny that the author’s writing style is very beautiful and well suited for mythological storytelling. And this book is full of such amazing quotes that I feel I can always go back to.

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Finally, I want to say if you would love to learn more about Kunti’s story and her role in the Mahabharata epic, you should definitely check this out. It’s wonderfully written and quite unputdownable. However, this is quite a short book which means a lot of events are rushed through or cut out, so don’t expect a very comprehensive Mahabharata retelling.

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