Shakuntala and Dushyant by Ashok K. Banker is a book that can be finished within an hour or so. Yes, you heard me right, the book is really small. This is the first book in a series of five books called ‘Epic Love Stories’.
The love story of Shakuntala and Dushyant is a tale well-known to the fans of Indian mythology. We get the reference of this story in Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play The Recognition of Shakuntala (also known as Abhijanashakuntalam). This story tells us about the encounter of Dushyant with Shakuntala, their marriage, separation and finally reunion after a gap of nine long years. In this story, Dushyant (king of Hastinapur) meets Shakuntala (daughter of sage Viswamitra and celestial Menka) in a forest in sage Kanva’s ashram. Both of them fall in love with each other and get married in Gandharva style. Soon Dushyant returns to his kingdom on account of urgent matters. However, he makes a promise to Shakuntala that he will come back soon and fetch her. Shakuntala waits for Dushyant but he does not come back. While waiting, she gives birth to son whom she gives the name of Bharata. After a wait of nine long years in the ashram, Shakuntala decides to confront Dushyant. She goes to King Dushyant’s court but king does not even recognize her. Nevertheless, unlike a number of other historical love stories that meets a tragic end; this story ends on a happy note and shows us that true love is stronger than anything in the world. I am not going to tell you the events that lead to their reunion as it might act as a spoiler. Shakuntala’s son Bharata later on becomes a legendary emperor and the founder of Bharata dynasty.
As told you earlier, there are two different versions of this story. Kalidasa’s version of Shakuntala is somewhat different than what we find in Mahabharata. While Kalidasa’s Shakuntala is submissive in nature, in Mahabharata she seems more independent and an autonomous assertive figure. Ashok K. Bankar’s retelling of this ancient love story is based primarily on Mahabharata and not on Kalidasa’s play. Here also the author has taken some liberty to add his own charm to the well-known story-line.
This was my first encounter with Ashok K. Bankar’s writing and his writing has certainly left an impression on me. Bankar has done his job of retelling an ancient tale with extraordinary talent. However, I feel that he could have expanded and elaborated it in the form of a full-fledged novel where characters have beautiful details and mannerism. Most probably, the nature of this series did not allow him to do so. Almost all the stories in this series are very short and this series was probably formulated to cater and attract the young readers. Consequently the author confined himself to the idea of the ‘well-made short story’ and he accomplished this task successfully also. The book under review is not only compact, but also neatly structured. However, at the same time, ‘well-made short story’ technique led him to be satisfied with surface irony and snap ending. And, that’s why we do not find depth and complexity of characters in the book. While we find characters and their dilemmas in the book, we do not get emotionally involved with these. This book, therefore, appears to be, by and large, a compilation of some selected incidents of the life of Shakuntala. This, in turn, makes the book lacking in kind of thematic weight and the richness of experiences, the inclusion of which could have been a real delight and experience after reading this book.
Overall, this book is good for a quick reading but do not expect anything more than that.