Quest for the carnal
Harbans Singh

Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust
by V. S. Khandekar. Orient Paperbacks. Pages 251. Rs 195.

FOR many spiritually inclined readers, the great epic Mahabharata is significant because it contains the eternal message of the Gita; but to the more earthly, it is a book that contains complex, intriguing and often enigmatic characters that are fascinating and real. Among the many such characters, two are better known for becoming syndromes that continue to rule the passions and motives of human beings. Of the two, the Dhritrashtra syndrome is often talked about though it is the Yayati syndrome, the unending search for carnal satiation that explores the underbelly of human beings.

However, the Jnanpith Award-winning author V.S. Khandekar’s Yayati does not explore this syndrome but focuses on the two important women in his life. As he has explained in the introduction to the novel, he does not follow the story of Yayati as written in the Adi Parva of the epic but following the example of Kalidas, creates his own version and interpretation of the characters and situations. Thus, he depicts Devyani, the daughter of Sukra, the Guru of the Asuras and Yayati’s wife as a woman who suffers the pangs of an unrequited love for Kacha and therefore does not find happiness with the King. But since the characters of the Mahabharata are all multi-dimensional, therefore she is also seen to be an ambitious woman who loves to wield power and dominate people around her. Thus, she has made Sharmishtha, the daughter of the King of Asuras, his maid and leaves no occasion to hector and embarrass her.

On the other hand, Khandekar has placed, and rightly so, Sharmishtha on a higher pedestal for making the sacrifice by choosing to be a maid so that her people may continue to live in safety and enjoy the blessings of the Guru Sukra. The author therefore does not find fault with her for stealing the affections of her effective mistress and queen of the land. He deviates from the version in Adi Parva where Guru Sukra curses Yayati with immediate decrepitude for committing the sin of lust for a woman other than his wife. Appropriately, he also deviates from the defence that Yayati offers in the original where he claims, "Adorable one, I was solicited by the daughter of the Danava king to fructify her season. I did it from a sense of virtue and not from other motives. That male person, who being solicited by a woman in her season doth not grant her wishes, is called, O Brahmana, by those conversant with the Vedas, a slayer of the embryo. He who, solicited in secret by a woman full of desire and in season, goeth not in unto her, loseth virtue and is called by the learned a killer of the embryo, O son of Bhrigu, for these reasons, and anxious to avoid sin, I went into Sarmishtha."

As a novel, his explanation of the affair of Yayati and Sharmishtha is more convincing to the modern reader than the verbosity of the original. But in doing so, the author fails to take into account a persistent and common flaw in men in general. His seeking gratification from other women because Devyani refuses to give him his conjugal rights would have been appreciated if the need to gratify had waned with age and time but since it does not, therefore, the suggestion that his indulgence was a kind of revenge upon Devyani is rather unconvincing. His story in fact is the spiritual journey of a man, to understand lust and sublimation of basic passions and instincts. Thus, when realisation finally dawns upon him it comes rather too simplistically. In this regard, those of us who might have hoped of having a better understanding of the lust among men long past their active sexual life the book has little to offer, though it makes the rest of the story more real with human emotions and drama.