During a recent conversation on women’s empowerment in mythology, I was handed a book that caught my attention for two reasons. A most unusual title, and a story set in the times of the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s first work of fiction, The Pregnant King introduces kings who lived during this great war depicted in the Hindu mythology. The central characters of the book, King Yuvanashva, the ruler of Vallabhi, and his family fight their own battle of Dharma. Similar to the Mahabharata, this battle also seems to centre around the themes of individual existence, ambition and gender roles.
The narrative engages the reader with the story of the king’s mother Shilavati, an intelligent, strong and ambitious queen, who is widowed two months before her first son is born. Her marriage to a king destined to die is a calculated move by her father who understands her intellect and capabilities. Taught all about Dharma by her father, and to hunt and appreciate nature by her husband, Shilavati takes the reins of Vallabhi in her hands until her son comes of age.
To its credit, the book rides on the shoulders of the female characters, each one as strong and decisive as the other, despite the social constraints of the time. Pattanaik addresses with ease, controversial subjects like homosexuality and the maternal instincts of a man. The author pulls the reader into a fictional world of merging gender roles. The narrative highlights the tug-of-war people face when they don’t always conform to what they are supposed to.
The relatable dilemma of King Yuvanashva, caught between his desire and what is desired of him, draws the reader into the story. An interesting take on the times and set social roles, the plot cleverly weaves its numerous characters together giving the book a labyrinthine quality.
Sometimes startling, many-a-time fascinating, the unusual theme of The Pregnant King makes it an intriguing read.