First things first. Kavita Kane, the author who previously penned Karna’s Wife and Sita’s Sister deserves a huge round of applause for her latest book Menaka’s Choice. If you assume that this book too, talks from a feminist’s point of view then you may need to read the book and correct yourself. This book is as much about men as about the women involved in this story. The protagonist Menaka is not just an enchantress apsara (heavenly nymph) who is treated as an object of lust. She is smart, savvy and slick when it comes to knowledge and wisdom. She has the grit, determination and power to voice her mind and take on her superiors like the king of devas, Indra and the queen of apsaras, Rambha. Most of the mythology lovers know Menaka as the heartless apsara who seduced the most powerful mortal Brahmarishi Vishwamitra and broke his penance. But there is much more to it. Is Menaka a vamp, as portrayed since eons? Or is she the unsung hero(ine) that our mythological texts have failed to address? Only the reader can judge about this after reading the book.
Plot: The story starts when a certain king Dushyant of Hastinapur, on a hunting trip, fatally injures a deer and faces the ire of Shakuntala who is the adopted daughter of Rishi Kanva and the caretaker of his ashram. The king gets fascinated by her beauty and promises to marry her by gandharva rituals and make her the queen of his kingdom. She talks about her biological parents Vishwamitra and Menaka. And thus the storytelling begins.
It is said that Menaka was born out of Brahma’s mind during the samudramanthan episode. When it comes to beauty and brains, she is only second best to Mohini (one of the nymph avatars of Lord Vishnu). The initial plot talks of the seven-tier heaven known as Amravati city. Each level describes its inhabitants and rulers. Menaka is the apple of everyone’s eyes. For some she is famous for being a fast learner in arts and for few she is either an epitome of love or an object of lust. But she is the reason of jealousy for her female counterparts. Menaka is in love with a devgandharva (king of gandharvas) Vishwavasu, much to the ire of Lord Indra (who is possessive) and Rambha (who wants Vishwavasu forever).
At different instances, Menaka tricks Indra through her sheer intellect to meet her demands. She defies the rules set for heavens much to the chagrin of Indra who is helpless because of his possessiveness about Menaka. Menaka marries Vasu as per Gandharva rituals and bears a daughter by the name of Pramadvara. The child is then sent to earth due to the rule ‘no offsprings allowed’ in heaven. Vasu is then cursed by Indra to live on earth as a monster. He is a victim of conspiracy woven by Rambha and Indra. Menaka clears Vasu’s name and exposes the conspirators.
In a parallel story plot, Vishwamitra is the King Kaushik. He has an interesting story related to his birth wherein he was supposed to be born as a Brahmin meant to do wonderful deeds and create a niche of his own. However, due to swapping of payasam by his biological mother (who would have been his maternal grandmother), he is born as a Kshatriya. He conquers majority of kingdoms by waging wars and ruling by fair and just means. One day, he seeks Sage Vashisht’s help for providing him food and water for his army. The sage gladly assists him with the help of his wife Arundhati and wish fulfilling cow. The greedy Kaushik later forcefully tries to acquire the cow for his vested interests. Failing to do so, he renunciates his kingdom and takes up rigorous penance. He soon creates his own heaven that threatens Indra of his position.
Indra sends Menaka to seduce Vishwamitra and stop him from being a Brahmarishi. Coyly, he also orders Kama (the God of love) to shoot his love dart on Menka so that she forgets Vasu. Unfortunately the dart hits her and she falls in love with Vishwamitra. Their life is filled with romanceful of love and lust until one day the Menaka’s guilt gets better of her. She pleads to Vishwamitra to get rid of her and their child Shakuntala and then fulfill his aim of being a Brahmarishi. Vishwamitra curses Menaka that they shall never meet again which Menaka accepts wholeheartedly. Indra is angry as Vishwamitra restarts his penance by giving up food, water as well as air to a certain extent. Indra orders Rambha to seduce Vishwamitra who then gets cursed and turns into a stone for a thousand years.
Indra then disguises himself as a lowly Brahmin and tries to break Vishwamitra’s penance but fails miserably. He decides to pit Vishwamitra against Vashisht one final time. Vishwamitra learns of Sage Vashisht preparing for samadhi in the pain of the death of his sons. Vishwamitra begs for his forgiveness.
What happens next? Does Vashisht forgive him? Does Menaka unite with Vasu? Does Vishwamitra meet Menaka again? Does Shakuntala reunite with Dushyant who left her shortly after their marriage? The answers lie in this wonderful book.
My Take: Repetitive stuffs are usually boring. And my statement Kavita Kane outdoes herself yet again seems to be a repetition as well. This is yet another wonderfully crafted novel that portrays not just women (like she always does) but men in a different way. The respect for the female counterpart increases fourfold yet again. Happy reading!
Peace, Poetry and Power.