In her books, Kavita Kane gives voice to the silenced and overlooked women from the epics, and her latest is Ahalya’s Awakening.
The bibliography of Kavita Kane has two elements in common — mythology and female characters. She hand-picks less-explored or silenced female characters from our epics and gives them voices, retelling their stories in sync with the current scenario. Going through them, no one would feel that these characters led a submissive life centuries ago in a faraway land. They are quite timely in their deeds and words, and open up their minds without any hesitation.
If Fisher Queen’s Dynasty empowers Satyavati, the queen of Hastinapur, Sita’s Sister is an account of Urmila, the neglected wife of Lakshmana and one of the most overlooked characters in the Ramayana. In Karna’s Wife, the author explores the story of Karna through the eyes of Urvi, the outcast queen, giving an alternative perspective of his life, while Menaka’s Choice pictures the ravishing Menaka fighting for her dreams in the male-centric world. Lanka’s Princess has Ravan’s infamous sister Surpanakha as the central character. The latest one, Ahalya’s Awakening, as the title suggests, is about the new life Ahalya, the otherwise quiet character in the Ramayana, gets to savour. Contrary to the traditional portrayal, in the book, the gorgeous Ahalya is vivacious, stubborn and extraordinary, and speaks her mind.
Kavita says Ahalya caught her fancy as she is the most dramatic character in the epic without uttering a word. “She swiftly morphs from being a devoted wife to an adulteress, then again, from a scorned woman to a revered figure. Although she faces the most tumultuous events in her life, we see her largely as a silent witness to her own trials and tribulations, a mute spectator to her own tragedy. Why is she bracketed into extremes: as the victim or the devi, the innocent or the immoral, the revered or the denounced? I was intrigued,” explains Kavita who depicts Ahalya as a free-spirited woman, freed from the shackles of societal judgement and moral inference. “In a censorious world, Ahalya is the honest transgressor who is weak enough to succumb to temptation, yet brave enough to face the outcome of her decisions. In this self-journey, she empowers herself while understanding the fragility of human desire through a slow spiritual awakening.”
Kavita has used Ahalya’s ‘internalisation’ in the scripture as a metaphor to depict her awakening in the book. According to her, Ahalya is one of the most voiced, but voiceless characters. She is invisible even before and after her curse. “She seems to have no say in whatever is decided for her,” she says. Besides, to the world, Ahalya is known as Rishi Gautam’s wife, who was seduced by Indra, the king of Gods, whereupon she is cursed for infidelity. Nobody knows her heart’s desires as a brilliant woman. Ahalya’s Awakening traces that missing part. And, Kavita wins in her attempt. The reader sees an Ahalya who is ambitious, studious and prefers education over marriage. She is in charge of her destiny.
Kavita sees Ahalya’s story of penalty for infidelity in the Ramayana as a precursor to the episode of Sita, who undergoes an ordeal to prove her purity. “It is ironical, it is a forerunner: and that’s how this Ahalya was birthed, blossomed and evolved in this book.”
Usually, during retelling, the author keeps the characters and events as close to the original. However, for Ahalya she took a different path. “I tried to show her less divine, more mortal with human flaws, follies and fallacies,” explains the author who considers mythology as a long metaphor containing foundational elements. “It is a literary device through which stories can be told and retold,” says Kavita.
She feels that all this while retelling has helped the original texts to survive and be enjoyed and understood by readers through centuries. And, the stories never fade out. “The fact that they are being retold, revisited and re-visioned makes them so dynamic, universal and identifiable. Is not the story of Ahalya relevant in today’s times, trapped in the same existential cauldron of love and loyalty, marriage and morals, desires, deceit and disappointment, rage, revenge and repentance?” she asks.
And, Kavita has a solid reason to stand up for women among numerous characters in our epics. She says the trigger to choose them is the fact that they are small characters playing major roles in the narrative — be it Urmila, Menaka, Surpanakha, Satyavati or Ahalya. “That by placing the spotlight on them, they can be fully seen, recognised and registered. That they get a voice to tell their story, to ask questions: of which they demand answers. These neglected, often overlooked characters have their own tales to tell by not changing the plot, but the course of the narrative and thereby provide an alternative perspective,” she believes. Her literary life is devoted to unearth more such interesting, intricate characters. Ask her about future plans, she says, “Write another book about another fascinating woman from yore!”