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When myth breaches the news media ocean

[ by Charles Cameron — Draupadi in the Mahabharata, the anonymous med student recently gang-raped on an Indian bus ]

Humpback whale breaching, source: Wikipedia under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Some people go out on the oceans and watch and wait for whales to “breach” the surface — you know me, I go out on the interwebs and search for fragments of scripture and myth to breach the surface of the daily news — as when a minor warlord in Aleppo reports seeing angels, or Gregory Johnsen quotes the prophet Hosea in the title of a post on Waq-al-Waq.


Today’s main sighting concerns the rape of the young medical student in India, one of many tragedies in the tapestry of griefs and joys we all live with, and perhaps one that will make an incremental shift in global awareness.

It seems to me that India has had her share of violence both during and after Partition — most recently the Babri masjid takedown in Ayodhya, the Gujarat riots, two major sets of bombings in Mumbai, swathes of India under Naxalite influence, and so forth.

I’ve been noticing references to the recent rape, but not really following it in detail until today, when this Al Jazeera report, Rape of Draupadi: Why Indian democracy has failed women, caught my eye.

The author, Dinesh Sharma, quotes blogger Nilanjana Roy — the other person whose writing on the subject had particularly moved me — to list earlier instances of anti-woman violence:

Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.

For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow.

When I’d first read that on Roy’s blog, I’d been saddened as much by my own ignorance of the named events as by the litany of sorroes Roy put together.


But it was Sharma’s invocation of Draupadi that triggered this post:

Draupadi, heroine of the Mahabharata epic, is bold and forthright even in adversity. Her husband Yudhisthira succumbing to his weakness for gambling, stakes and loses all (in a rigged game), including his wife. Draupadi challenges the assembly and demands to know how it is possible for one who has staked and lost his own self to retain the right to wager her.

Duryodhana, the winner of the bet, insists that Draupadi is indeed his to do with as he pleases and orders that she be disrobed. Furious at this insult to her honor, Draupadi loosens her coifed hair and vows that she will not knot it again until she has washed it in Duryodhana’s blood. As she is disrobed, the more her sari is pulled away the longer it becomes. It is this event which turns Draupadi from a contented, but strong willed wife into a vengeful goddess.

Until I saw the title of Sharma’s piece, I hadn’t thought of Draupadi — but she’s the quintessential figure of the woman wrongly treated in the rich mythology of the subcontinent, and thus offers the appropriate background against which to see the terrible event.

Draupadi is celebrated for her devotion to Krishna, the anonymous woman raped in the recent incident on a bus for her devotion to education, medicine, healing…


As Sharma says:

The perennial question has to be asked – “Who will protect Draupadi’s honour?”

10 Responses to “When myth breaches the news media ocean”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    My friend Marshall Massey commented — and I quote him with his permission —

    I suspect that the myth of Draupadi is less significant, in the current cultural context, than the fact that Indian women are becoming feminized. And possibly the most potent force in this feminization process is not the news media or the political world, let alone the ancient myths, but the tremendous and vital modern Indian entertainment industry.
    It is significant, for example, that one of the hottest young female movie stars in India today — Vidya Balan, who by a nice coincidence just turned 35 today — is popularly nicknamed “the female hero” (Shekhar Rajiviani, of the Vishal-Shekhar duo, in a widely read review on Yahoo) and “the alpha female” (Vogue India), and that her forceful and utterly convincing acting in such recent hits as *Ishqiya*, *No One Killed Jessica*, *The Dirty Picture* and *Kahaani* — movies where she is the doer and the men around her are overcome by her initiative and grit — has made her a rôle model to millions.

  2. IndiaRising2020 Says:

    Such questions have been raised about Draupadi as well for a very long time. India lives in many spaces at once — first mythic, then media (which btw is playing on old myths), and time bound historical trends about women’s role changing which broke the camels back if you will….the global angle is not new either as Delhi has been a captial seven times but the pace and tempo is new….Delhi will be “lost and found” again and again!!!

  3. Madhu Says:

    “India lives in many spaces at once….”
    The case is horrifying. Treatment of Indian women-particularly the Northern States my family originates-is beyond cruel in many instances.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    .. speechless, having some small sense of the cumulative agony ..

  5. Madhu Says:

    “City Setting, but Village Mentalities” 
    Charles, my entire life I heard negative comments–rightly so–about the “village mentality.” The old village mentality, making live a misery. But Indian cities can be horrible too, with organized crime and corruption, so even that is not the entire story.
    And yet, I can believe some Indians living in the West when they express shock from afar, “India can’t be like that!” It is not always denial. If you visit some quieter and better run small towns, between village and city, you find a life that is relatively peaceful and interesting. If you leave a place like that at a young age to come to the West, you might have never encountered the more negative aspects of India, or only in small doses.
    Then, human nature creates a nostalgia, and a person can become very resentful of the way in which India is presented from afar. Human nature is funny that way.
    Back to the original point of the post, the crime is horrific, and the treatment of Indian women can be terrible. Heart-breaking. The stories I’ve heard from family! The village mentality is really bad in the North, sometimes. Very, very bad. 

  6. Madhu Says:

    The other issue, or some trusted friends and family tell me, is that the civic space in India is under developed. Once, in a visit to a family village, my mother complained that “you young people lie around when there is garbage in the streets. Why don’t you get together and find a way to keep the streets clean and orderly?”
    I’m not sure that went over well. One thing to understand is that the town of her Indian youth is relatively clean and orderly, being a quiet college town. Almost cantonment-like in its orderliness. When I saw it for the first time years and years ago, I began to better understand why the diversity of India confounded even my own Indian relatives. 

  7. Madhu Says:

    From the linked article:
    “That is true even now, but the village is also at the heart of most of India’s social problems. The most factual analysis of the Indian village was from a man who could not stand Gandhi — the primary author of the Indian Constitution and arguably the nation’s most underrated writer, B.R. Ambedkar, who wrote more than 60 years ago, “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic. … What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?””
    The saddest family stories in my memory are of the Dalit community (and I know that some Indians reading might complain that this is not exactly the story today, but I am not talking about today)  and how my mother always made sure when feeding a local family that did some work for my grandmother (a struggling widow) that she placed the roti directly in the hands of the worker, touching the hands to show that no one in the family believed such nonsense. For this ordinary human act, she received a kind of devotion in their behavior that saddened. “Can you imagine?” she’d say to me as a child. “Can you imagine anything so terrible that a simple human touch made people so happy?” It should have been nothing unusual.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Madhu, all:


    Devika Narayan has now posted Some thoughts on rape, sexual violence and protest – responding to responses, and my eye was caught particularly by this para suggesting a close link between RSS / Hindutva and the present situation:

    Mohan Bhagwat the head of the RSS recently said:


    “A husband and wife are involved in a contract under which the husband has said that you should take care of my house and I will take care of all your needs. I will keep you safe. So, the husband follows the contract terms. Till the time, the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her, if the wife violates the contract, he can disown her. Crimes against women happening in urban India are shameful. But such crimes won’t happen in Bharat or the rural areas of the country. You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gangrape or sex crimes. Besides new legislations, Indian ethos and attitude towards women should be revisited in the context of ancient Indian values. Where Bharat becomes ‘India’ with the influence of western culture, these types of incidents happen.”

    I would appreciate any comments on the relationship between the present, awful situation, authentic Hindu culture as found in scriptures, and its representation by contemporary Hindutva activists.
    Or indeed, whatever other comments or pointers seem appropriate.

  9. Madhu Says:

    On civic spaces:
    “Around 200 mosques across Punjab have been repaired, rebuilt or built from scratch with the help of Sikhs and Hindus in the last 10 years.”
    “It’s a reassertion, after decades, of Punjab’s unique religious and cultural synthesis.”
    Saw this linked at Himal Magazine; article from 2010. Wonder what is going on now?
    And on your previous questions, Himal Magazine has many articles:
    Mohan Bhagwat is deluding himself. Plenty of rape occurs in village, and, in some instances, they may be caste crimes. So what does he mean by the Indian ethos? The article I can’t find at the moment, but it is at Himal Magazine, traces the history of Hindutva to the middle class and upper middle class anti-colonial movement and points out that there are stressers within the movement because of this middle class and caste orientation. There are Hindu groups which will oppose the movement because it is, well, ahistorical among other things. The Bharat of their imagination is not a real place. In this, they are the parallel to other religious movements that ideal a past that was never so.

  10. Madhu Says:

    Charles, I have a comment in moderation that might provide some useful references for you.

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