A work of fiction is said to pass the Bechdel Test when it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. In one of the most interesting parvas in the Mahabharata, also probably its smallest, there are no men. Two women, meeting each other after a long time, sit and discuss private matters. Though if you are expecting the Mahabharata to pass the Bechdel Test, you are putting your hopes far too high. The two women talk only about men; in fact, their conversation is strictly about rightful conduct before a husband.
This is the Draupadi-Satyabhama-sambada Parva. It takes place during the final half of the Pandavas’ exile, when they are being visited by many well-wishers.
Draupadi and Satyabhama do not do small talk. Right from the get-go, they speak of the deeds of the kings from the Kuru and Yadu lineages. You see, in the age of heroes, heroism is the only conversation starter.
Soon after, Satyabhama asks Draupadi as to how she conducts herself when attending to her husbands. Control is the one word Satyabhama uses repeatedly. She wonders how Draupadi keeps her husbands under control, how is it that they always do her bidding. Satyabhama even asks about sexual matters, and is curious about any mantras or herbs which Draupadi might be using: ‘Tell me about your famous knowledge of amorous matters, so that Krishna will always remain under my control.’ When reading this line, I couldn’t help but pause at the word famous, for it seemed proof that the sex lives of the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi were a matter for much speculation among their contemporaries.
Draupadi, on the other hand, does not like the direction Satyabhama is taking. She chastises Satyabhama for asking her about ‘the practices of evil women’. ‘No woman is able to control her husband through mantras,’ she says. Draupadi’s emphasis, rather disappointingly, is on service. ‘I always steadily serve the Pandavas and their wives.’ This sentence is problematic also because Draupadi here includes other wives within the ambit of those that she has to serve. This seems strange, for there is no clarification whether the Pandavas’ other wives have a similar devotion towards Draupadi. Or is Draupadi’s devotion special? Is it, in fact, her special duty, being the shared wife? The text doesn’t provide answers, though it is clear that Draupadi’s immersion in the mores of the day is stiflingly total. ‘It is my view that the eternal dharma of women is to be dependent on the husband.’
Here we need to remember that Draupadi here is a mouthpiece for someone else’s imagination. Any rendition of a private conversation is bound to be imaginary, and here the male writers of Mahabharata have granted to the two characters the words that they felt were necessary for their purposes. As for us, the modern readers of the story, the task at hand is to reimagine, even rewrite, this chapter entirely.
The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata