‘Apsara’ generally subsisting at the periphery of literature, quite often depicted for the consumption of a voyeur ends up being an object of sexual gratification rather than a living, flesh and blood character. Britannica’s description of ‘Apsara’ tersely sums up their prevailing representation in the works of literature, “Originally water nymphs, the apsaras provide sensual pleasure for both gods and men.” Given the context, Kavita Kane’s choice of a protagonist in her latest work, ‘Menaka’s Choice’ is as intriguing as it is interesting. The title in itself stimulates the reader to ponder, whether is it even possible to give an apsara a choice when they are even denied a voice till now.
Kane’s work refuses to disappoint the reader; although capturing one of the most arcane characters from mythology, the author moves away from the stereotypical portrayal and brings alive a challenging, willful, spirited and intelligent woman who refuses to be broken.
As suggested by the title, ‘Menaka’s Choice’ chronicles the life of the most beautiful apsara in heaven – Menaka. Pieced together from numerous mythological sources, the book is a re-telling of Menaka’s trials and tribulations in her own voice which has been silenced till now. However, the book is not just a story of Menaka but also of an arrogant, insecure and unjust king, Indra, who blinded by his ego, blurs the distinction between right and wrong to maintain his empire and the crown. At another level, it is also a story of another king, Kaushik who willingly relinquishes his kingdom and crown to become one of the most revered rishis, Vishwamitra.
Born during the infamous ‘Samudra Manthan’, Menaka is not just the most beautiful apsara in heaven, but also one of the most conniving, manipulative and shrewd, as these are the prerequisite qualities she needs to survive in Indra’s Heaven. Trained to be cold hearted and selfish, Menaka transgresses the edict that declares that although a woman, an Apsara can never be a mother or wife. Refusing to obey Indra’s diktat that demands apsaras to be “nymphs of lust and desire” “supposed to seduce mortals, those avaricious kings and ambitious rishis”, Menaka carves an independent space for herself by using deception and “convincing words”. Constantly demeaned and whittled down to a role of seductress and temptress, she refuses to be subdued and fights for her rights and honor in a world where none exists for her.
Voicing her discontent throughout, Menaka demands to be seen as a woman, to be granted the same rights as ‘devis’ and not be seen as mere entertainers in Indra’s court. No one is above the author’s scrutiny, whether it’s the devas who unashamedly use apsaras to protect their throne or the rishis who curse apsaras to distract them, but are themselves susceptible to their charms, “All these rishis, the all-so-enlightened, but go silly at the mere sight of an apsara!’”
A proto-feminist, she is the only one who raises her voice against the wrongs, the injustice done to Rambha, “’Don’t apsaras have a dignity, an honour worth protecting”. Throughout, Menaka transgresses, questions, fights for her rights, for empowerment of apsaras. And yet, this feminist stance of the author falls short when it comes to other apsaras whether it’s Rambha, Urvashi or Tilottama; these apsaras remain embroiled in their petty issues and re-assert the stereotypes usually associated with them.
Although the ending of the book is unsatisfactory; the book ends with an ultimate statement of empowerment where Menaka reasserts her right to choose; where she seizes the right to choose. In spite of a few glaring editing errors towards the end, ‘Menaka’s Choice’ makes for an interesting read.
As with her earlier works, Kavita Kane reclaims a female character who has been left in obscurity for too long and narrates her story in her own words which not only adds a fresh voice and perspective to earlier myths and stories but also provides a stage to discuss gender politics in a new light.
Title: Menaka’s Choice
Author: Kavita Kane
Publisher: Rupa Publishers
Genre: Fiction/ Mythology
P.S.: A review copy of the book had been sent by the publisher in return of an honest and unbiased review