I don’t exactly remember how I ended up ordering Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli. One of these days I was trying to find something from Maithili Sharan Gupt and ended up ordering Matsyagandha and Baton-Baton Mein – on Flipkart they have listed Bato-Baton Mein by Maithili Sharan Gupt but when I got it I discovered that it is actually written by Manohar Shyam Joshi of the Hum Log fame.
Anyway, there are two Hindi writers I can read any given day: Narendra Kohli and Amritlal Nagar – I have written about both these writers on this blog previously on this link. Narendra Kohli turns the stories of Indian epics into real-world stories. For example, he has written two volumes of Abhyuday; it’s Ramayana written in such a manner that there are no miracles involved. All the people in the story are normal human beings achieving normal feats and dealing with extraordinary circumstances as human beings rather than divine beings. So he actually explains how Hanuman, a very learned and physically strong individual, crosses the sea from that part of the Indian Ocean that is not very deep and reaches Sri Lanka without drowning. Similarly, Ravan, his army and his brothers are not demons, they are just people who have turned so materialistic due to prosperity that the only objective of their lives is to consume and indulge.
Matsyagandha was found floating in a jute basket, in the river Ganges, by a group of fishermen. Since she couldn’t be sold as fish, the men handed the infant girl to the village head, Dasraj. When she was found she was wrapped in very expensive garments. She was extraordinarily beautiful so both Dasraj and his wife assumed that she must had been a princess and due to some circumstances, she ended up floating in the river. The childless couple started raising her as their own daughter hoping that one day they would be able to return her to her family and get rewarded for keeping her alive. Just like other village folks, she went to fishing expeditions and she spent so much time among fish that she started smelling like fish and hence came to be known as Matsyagandha (matsya in Sanskrit means fish and gandha means smell)
The story begins with the Prince of Hastinapur and the son of Shantanu, Devavrat, coming to Dasraj and asking her daughter’s hand for his father who is smitten by her extraordinary beauty and cannot get a single moment of peace. Moved by the pain the longing was causing his father, Devavrat decides that no matter what, he is going to fulfil his father’s desire.
Dasraj knows that had Devavrat wanted he could have simply kidnapped Satyawati (Matsyagandha’s real name) but due to his Dharma (a strong sense of right and wrong and an undying desire to follow the age-old conducts of his long and illustrious lineage of Kuru ancestors) he wouldn’t do so. He asks the Prince, “Would you still be so cordial and friendly if I refused the hand? Wouldn’t you simply kidnap her? After all what can I do? I am simply a fisherman and I don’t have the sort of mighty army you have.”
Devavrat assures Dasraj that under no circumstances he is going to kidnap Satyawati because a woman is kidnapped only if her household can put up an equal fight.
Dasraj then raises the question of Shantanu’s age. There was big age gap between Satyawati and Shantanu, and what will happen when Shantanu dies? Won’t Satyawati then be reduced to a mere minion and her children the children of a minion?
“What do you want then?” asks Devavrat.
“Well, like any farther, I want my daughter to remain the queen for as long as she lives, and I want her children to become the heirs to the throne, and you being so mighty and strong, how is it possible? You are as capable of being the heir to the throne of Hastinapur as a human can be without being a god, how is it even possible that my daughter will remain the queen and one of her sons will be the king of Hastinapur? I want the eldest son of Satyawati to become the King of Hastinapur,” says Dasraj.
“This is not an issue,” says Devavrat casually and instantly. “I give you my word that I will forsake my claim to the throne and one of the sons of Satyawati will be the king of Hastinapur.”
Dasraj isn’t content with what Devavrat promises, so he goes further, “But is it fair to give your word when your son isn’t even born? How can you make a promise on his behalf? What if, when he grows up, he refuses to accept your word and rightfully claims the throne? And being the rightful descendant, the army and your people will be on your son’s side and the fate of my daughter and her sons will be sealed forever.”
“The sun, the earth and the air be my witnesses, I take the pledge to remain celibate for the rest of my life. I shall never marry, I shall never have my own wife and I shall never have my own children,” declares Devavrat and there is all-round panic among the ministers and the army accompanying him.
Henceforth, Devavrat, due to his Bheeshma (extraordinary) pledge, comes to be known by the name of Bheeshma.
But the story is about Satyawati, Matsyagandha.
Before becoming the attraction of King Shantanu Satyawati falls in love with an ascetic but highly renowned Sage Parashar. They have a son out of wedlock but Dasraj manages to convince Satyawati that she is meant to spend her life in the palaces, not in the modest surroundings of a hermitage. She hands the infant son to Sage Parashar and decides to lead the path of materialistic pursuits shown by her father. The rest of the story follows.
Satyawati becomes the queen but she hasn’t been brought up as a princess so Shantanu is quite uncomfortable living with her. But then he reconciles that when he desired her, he desired her for her body and not for her wisdom, upbringing and intellect. On the very first night when Shantanu satisfies his lust with her, she comes to understand that she wields total control over him and hence the downfall of the Kuru clan begins.
Satyawati can never understand how someone like Devavrat who commands so much power and respect can suddenly give up everything just so that his father can get the woman he wants for his bed? Why would he let her eldest son get the throne of one of the mightiest empires in the world? There must be some catch. He must be scheming something. He must want her downfall. Someday, he would slaughter her and her children when Shantanu would be no more. She constantly conspires against Devavrat. “Consider Devavrat your biggest enemy,” had counselled Dasraj when she was leaving and she constantly thinks that he is her biggest enemy.
Her own conceit, her own doubts and her own sense of insecurity bring her to the precipice of ruin. Totally detached, Bheeshma is there, but only as a caretaker and a protector until a worthy king emerges out of Satyawati’s lineage. He is tied with his woe. Satyawati, due to her character flaws, fails to raise sons who can defend themselves as well as their empire.
Matsyagandha is a tragic story although it is not even the beginning of the Mahabharata that we are familiar with, yet. She sows the seeds of the destruction that is wrought upon the Kuru clan by always mollycoddling her sons and grandsons, totally undermining the age-old traditions of righteousness, values, hard work and principles. She thinks that being a king or a prince means constantly living in the lap of luxury and abundance, weakening her progeny physically and mentally in the process.
She is Matsyagandha – the one who smells of fish and the smell of fish always makes the surroundings difficult to bear. The smell of fish is like the rotting flesh. True to her name, she brings a rot that can never be reversed.
But to be fair, she is not solely responsible for the destruction described in the Mahabharata. If she is the rot, who introduces the rot to the family? Shantanu. Just because he cannot control his impulses.
Matsyagandha is a very well written book by Narendra Kohli. Without being preachy or righteous he imparts the ancient values of Dharma in a manner you can easily fall in love with. Reading a good writer is like listening to classical music, as I often comment in my various writings. The words, the language, the sentences, they sound like music, so beautifully they are written. It’s a book to be read in one sitting, as I did. Do read it. In order to fully enjoy it, your command over Hindi must be good, though.