New Delhi, Feb 25: Much like her previous book, a retelling of the Mahabharata from Kunti's perspective, Madhavi S Mahadevan's latest novel "Bride of the Forest: the Untold Story of Yayati's Daughter" plucks as its heroine a little known character from mythology.

The untold stories of women in the epics, who suffered in silence many systemic atrocities of those times, have provided fodder for retellings that engage modern readers, probably because these myths continue to shape present realities.

In this context, Drishadvati is a delicately poised figure while tracing feminist lineage.

Mahadevan explains that "Bride of the Forest", published by Speaking Tiger, provides a kind of cultural glue between the past and the present, a reflection of how much things have, and have not, changed.

Her story makes it clear that the concept of leasing out a woman's womb (as surrogate mother) is a very old one.

Putting her heroine's identity in the context of other women from epics and legends, Mahadevan says: "In general, mortal women in the epics, even princesses and queens, have their share of travails. Shakuntala, Damayanti, Hidimba, to name a few, are women who, though seemingly empowered enough to choose their husbands, are not guaranteed a 'happily ever after'.

"In the Mahabharata, Draupadi and Gandhari lose all their sons in the war. In the Ramayana, Sita is banished to Valmiki's ashram. Women in the epics have little agency in their lives. Consequently, their tales, though inspirational to many, are usually tragic. However, there is no tale as heartbreaking and dark as that of Drishadvati, who is exploited for her fertility."

About the book's subtitle - "The Untold Story of Yayati's Daughter" - the author says: "Here 'untold' is the operative word, implying not only a first of sorts but also something unspeakable. Though the central episode, about the bartering of a woman's fertility for rare horses, has inspired modern playwrights and short story writers, it has never been anchored to other stories that can be clustered around it."

"This could be due to the fact that the story of Drishadvati itself is never presented as a whole, but lies fragmented with parts of it in Book 1, 'Adi Parva', and parts in Book 5, 'Udyog Parva'. As such, it has to be retrieved and pieced together to make meaning of it," she goes on to say.

"When one juxtaposes it with the stories of associated characters, the networks of societal relationships are held up to our view, fresh layers of meaning suggest themselves. This is what I have attempted to do. So I would describe this book as a reclamation, a refashioning and a reinterpretation."

Mahadevan sensitively focuses on Drishadvati's radical character instead of projecting her as a helpless woman, as in earlier adaptations.

She says Drishadvati's "silence spoke volumes to me. I wondered: What would she have been thinking? She is depicted in the original story, as also in its adaptations, as a submissive creature, mutely complying with the wishes of the different men who 'control' her: her father, the king Yayati, the Brahmin to whom she is given away, the four kings who beget heirs by her.

"It is only in her final decision that she exercises clear, and rather unexpected, agency and thus frees herself. This radical action suggests a fundamental change in her self-image. I was curious to examine the dawning of this new awareness and felt that a narrative anchored in her emotional life would make for a worthwhile exploration."

On whether historical or mythological fiction helps millennials and the modern generation to rediscover their roots, Mahadevan muses: "Given the fact that we are somewhat ambiguous about what is history and what is mythology, I'd say that any rediscovery of our roots through fiction would be nebulous.

"History tells us in material ways how cultures lived in the past, while mythologies reveal something about how they thought - their assumptions about the world and their place in it, their concerns and anxieties, their values and spiritual beliefs. The context in which a myth may arise could well be historical, but myths are much more fluid. They travel in time and space, are shared, adapted and even transformed."

She is also of the view that rarely does a myth have just one meaning.

"This innate flexibility extends to their role in generating fiction for modern readers. Such fiction may engage, entertain and possibly lead us to reflect, but it is still make-believe. If it leads to some kind of self discovery, that is a bonus," Mahadevan told PTI.

Retellings recently have become the desi storyteller's favoured route to bringing Indian culture, heritage and the epics to the younger set of readers.

On this Mahadevan agrees. "In the past, oral storytelling served pretty much the same role. Every storyteller was, in fact, retelling a story that had been passed on, thus explaining to his audience the raison d'etre and value of a cultural belief."

However, she feels inventive storytellers did not always tell the same story.

"They were performers. Depending on the audience, and the learning/ message they wanted to reinforce in that audience, they slanted the tone and tenor. All these variables allowed for multiple layers of meaning to be introduced. The real power of the story lies in its psychology," Mahadevan argues.

"What kind of emotion does it evoke in the audience? Just like the diet our forefathers traditionally ate is something we take to naturally, the stories that enthralled past generations have been shaped to suit our cultural makeup and thus continue to speak to us, including young readers. A retelling therefore strikes an equilibrium between continuity and change and works well as a mode of transfer," she says.