The first novel in the series, The One Who Swam with the Fishes, is about Satyavati – the Kuru queen who altered the clan’s dynasty forever.
The Mahabharata refers to Satyavati, the great-grandmother of the Pandava and Kaurava princes, by multiple names: Matysyagandha (she who smells of fish), Gandhavati (the fragrant one) and Vasavi (daughter of king Vasu). But how much do we really know about her?
Sure, we know that her eldest son – the seer Vyasa – went on to write the Mahabharata, and she was raised by a fisherman despite being of royal descent. However, as with most female characters in the epic, readers don’t have any insight into her motivations or fears.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is here to change that. Her latest novel, The One Who Swam with the Fishes (released in June), reimagines Satvyavati’s journey – humanising her in the process. It’s the first book in a series that will feature stories of various intriguing and oft-ignored women in the Mahabharata.
- Did you grow up listening to Indian folklore and epics?
Yes! I was a reserved, bookish kind of child with no siblings and parents who worked. My favourites were folk tales from places around the world. But I also loved the Indian ones because I could picture the setting, food and language so much more vividly than – say – Russian folk tales. I think it took me a long time to separate fact from fiction, what actually happened, and what might have happened.
- How do you think women came to be largely sidelined in Indian epics, as we know them today?
The epics were generally passed around as oral tales, and my assumption is that somewhere, sometime, some man started writing them down. As he was far more interested in all the men than the women, he fleshed out the men and made all the women one-dimensional. Apart from Draupadi, of course. Every writer loves Draupadi.
- What prompted you to write The One Who Swam with the Fishes?
Like every other Indian kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was obsessed with the Mahabharata. Though we never watched the TV show at home, I did catch occasional glimpses at friends’ houses. I couldn’t help but wonder how cool it was for the entire family – grandmother, parents, kids and household help – to be watching it together. From this obsession grew a need to tell the story myself, but then I got into other writing projects, and other writers did versions of the story. Then, in 2015, I started talking about the women in the Mahabharata and how little we know about them. And that sort of sparked the dormant idea in my brain again.
- What made you start off the series with Satyavati?
I was going to start with Uttara, Abhimanyu’s young wife and the woman at the very end of the Mahabharata, but the more I read, the more I was attracted to the idea of doing this chronologically. The idea is that readers will be able to watch the story unfold as it happened, through different points of view.
- What was your research process like?
Very scattered. I absorb through osmosis, so there was a lot of dipping in and out of books I have on Hinduism and the myths. I read a bunch of other retellings of the epic novels (what I call “myth lit”), but I read them much before I started writing because I didn’t want to inadvertently take over one of their ideas. I used Ramesh Menon’s version of the Mahabharata – written clearly and succinctly in modern-day English – as a jumping-off point, and also read Irawati Karwe’s Yuganta to see what other ideas were out there. Still, there wasn’t a lot about Satyavati no matter where I looked, so I used just her origin story and worked around that.
- Tell us a little about the rest of the series. Who will we see as protagonists?
The next book will be out next year. It’s about Amba – one of the three princesses of Kashi – who was kidnapped by Bheeshma. She has a fascinating story, and I’m excited to tell it. After that, I hope to go on to ten more books, to truly do justice to the series.