“Ossature of Maternal Conquest & Reign”: An Excerpt from Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions

23 October, 2015

Paris-based poet, author, dance producer and curator Karthika Nair was born in Kerala. She began her career as a journalist, before moving to the France in 2000 to study art management. Nair’s first book, a collection of poetry titled Bearings, was published in 2009. In her latest book, Until the Lions, an experimental retelling of the epic Mahabharata, Nair writes poetry in the voices of those whose narratives remained untold. She calls them the “downtrodden of history.” The title of her book is derived from an African proverb: “Until the lions get their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.” Through the book, Nair attempts to conduct an “inquiry of power” through the eyes of those who do not possess it: most often, the women of the Mahabharata. The 18 voices she employs belong to characters such as Gandhari, the wife of Drithrashtra and the mother of the hundred Kauravas; the unnamed mother of Drithrashtra’s half-brother, Vidura, who she names Poorna; Mohini, the female avatar of Krishna; and Shunaka, a dog.

In the following excerpt, Nair writes in the voice of Kunti, wife of King Pandu of Hastinapur and the mother of the five Pandavs. In the poem, titled “Ossature of Maternal Conquest & Reign,” Kunti is talking about her sixth son Karna with her daughter-in-law, Draupadi.

No mother can ever love each of her sons

alike. You should know, Draupadi, you who own

two five-chambered hearts, the smaller for your sons,

the first for husbands. Yes, Karna is my son,

my firstborn, forged as a shaft of living light –

rare, brilliant – but an accident, a son

I neither desired nor envisioned, the son

born of an unsought boon, arcane spell that moved

from a sage’s lips to mine: power to move

much more than mountains or oceans—for a son

from a god could rule creation, etch your name

on myth and history, get planets renamed. 

Draupadi, you ask why I left him unnamed

all these years, why I never hailed him, my son

Karna, as mine: Karna the fulgent, the name

any parent would rejoice, would vie, to name

as theirs. No, I never proclaimed him my own,

though not because he’s baseborn, unnameable,

as the bards will soon sing. For who would not name

the scion of Surya, the Sun God who lights

the world? Vyaasa too, esteemed sage, alighted

out of wedlock—yet his mother takes his name

with joy and pride. Karna was an unplanned move:

at first, that enjoined silence. Too young, too moved,

was I to resist the Sun God. When he moved

towards me, eyes locking mine, I blazed; nameless

flames of purple and copper and crimson moved

through veins, our limbs dissolved, my womb glowed. Life moved

between our thighs, taut and sinuous. But sons,

like pleasure, should serve a purpose: I had moved

Karna from my sphere for I saw none, moving

swiftly before my faithless heart could disown

good sense. I sailed the child away from his own

kismat, down Ganga’s arms—first having removed

all signs of kinship, save his father’s lighted

armour and earrings, bequest to save, to light,

his life. Years later, when his fearsome skills lit

up Hastina’s skies, I knew at once: he moved

in cursives, he quelled like a god, and the light

from his earrings drowned midnight. But aurous light

is too firm, too pure to rule the realm—namely,

not in suta-breeding lies his flaw, backlit

that day by brilliance; no, it is lightness

Karna lacks. A mother needs most from her son

compliance, chiefly to reign—the perfect son

for that is Yuddhishtir, well-trained, just half-lit

by resolve. Were I now, in public, to own

Karna, none of my sons, Child, would ever own

Kuru: Karna would crown Duryodhan owner

of earth, cede this war unfought, all to highlight

his friend’s birthright. I’d rather sever my own

breath first! And hence I met him in stealth: I owned

the truth, he learnt we’re kin. For now when he moves

in battle, he’ll know that his siblings, his own

blood, face him; know either victory is owned

by fratricide. Arjun is the only name

he’ll not spare—for their rivalry has been named

by heaven, he says; they’ll duel till death owns

one, that is written. But I’ll still have five sons,

when war ends, he swears. Who that last living son

will be rests on who can best perform a son’s

role, Karna or Arjun, who’s armed in his own

innocence; Arjun, whose arrows will delight

to greet his foe while sorrow mires Karna’s moves.

A hero bears no shame, no grace, just his name.

Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions has been published by HarperCollins Publishers India.

Karthika Nair Karthika Nair is a Paris-based poet. She is the author of Bearings and her poems have been published in Indian Literature, 60 Indian Poets, Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets and The Literary Review.