The immortal seductresses, the celestial nymphs, the female spirits of the elements, forever youthful and elegant, exponents of dance and music, the courtesans at Indra’s court; apsaras have been described by numerous titles over ages. Indian mythology makes multiple references to these ethereal beings, often sent to earth by the devas (Gods) to check growing powers of asuras (demons), or to disrupt meditating ascetics who were becoming too powerful. In all these stories, however, the apsara is never the protagonist; instead hovering on the fringes in cameo roles. Menaka’s Choice by Kavita Kane shatters this tradition.
Menaka’s Choice is Menaka’s story all along. Menaka, literally meaning “born of the mind”, was born from Lord Brahma’s mind during Sagar Manthan (the churn of the ocean). She was considered the most beautiful of the ten Daivikas (the divine apsaras) as well as the most intelligent. Kavita’s Menaka lives up to her name, and questions the rules of Indralok, as well as the right and wrong of using apsaras as mere tools in the hands of Indra, employed to change the destiny of men.
The book starts with Menaka emerging from the ocean to face a smitten Indra, a feeling that she does not return. If anything, she is repulsed by the ego and possessiveness that she can feel emanating from Indra as he explains her duties as an apsara. She immediately sees Indra for who he is – an arrogant and unjust king, who would care naught about right and wrong in his bid to maintain his crown and supremacy.
The main story focuses on 3 prominent chapters in Menaka’s life. The first is her choice to fall in love with the king of the gandharvas (celestial musicians) – Vishwavasu, and marry him. As an apsara, lust is a given, but not love and domesticity. Indra, forever jealous of anyone who lays an eye on Menaka, and insecure about his own effectiveness as the King of devas, banishes Vishwavasu from heaven to roam earth as a monster. He is, however, unable to let go of Menaka, even though she claims equal responsibility. The second is her choice to assist Indra in diverting Vishwamitra from his quest to become a Brahmarishi. After Vishwavasu’s expulsion, she is looking for a way to escape heaven and Indra, and seizes the opportunity this exploit provides. The third chapter deals with her choice to leave Vishwamitra and her newborn daughter – Shakuntala on earth and return to heaven. This happens when she realizes that she has succeeded in her mission with Vishwamitra, but is unable to cope with the guilt her success brings, since she has fallen in love with the man.
Kavita Kane is known for providing a sound voice to the (often obscure) female characters in Indian mythology, be it Urmila in Sita’s Sister or Uruvi in Karna’s Wife. She does not disappoint with Menaka either. Where the book does fall short is its portrayal of other women – Kaushik’s wife Hemavati, the other apsaras Urvashi and Rambha, and Menaka’s daughter Shakuntala. They are either marginalized as meek and submissive, or portrayed as scheming and devious, re-enforcing stereotypes; a large deviation from the real stories of these women. Even Menaka, who starts out as being the seductress with a sharp intelligence and the learning to discern between right and wrong, seems to lose her defining qualities towards the end, taking on shades of a whiny sixty-year old maid than the apsara who is proud to have exerted her choices and has grown wiser from them.
There are some glaring editorial errors, and the end is hurried and unsatisfactory. In spite of this, Menaka’s Choice is one of those rare books about Indian mythology that keeps a woman at its core, brings out the essence of her power, and makes us wonder whether the stories we have heard since childhood are really as black and white as they were made out to be.
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