An Introduction to Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ and the Emergence of the Subaltern as her own Rescuer

"Draupadi" by Mahasveta Devi

In the Mahabaratha epic Yudhishthira, the Pandava prince, and a plural husband of the princess Draupadi, loses everything in the episode which narrates the story of the Game of Dice; a familiar and recounted episode from the great epic and one which plays a determinant role in the war between the cousins. In a pivotal scene of the episode, Draupadi is unceremoniously dragged from her private rooms to the central hall where the dice game was played and where the Kauravas, the cousins of the Pandavas are euphoric in their victory. Brazen and arrogant, they attempt to violate their sister-in-law and wife to the Pandavas. One of the enemy, a brother of Duryodhana, the primary antagonist in the popular version of the epic, attempts to disrobe her. Draupadi, bereft of any rescuer from amongst the valiant heroes decorating the court hall, raises her hands in prayer to the Almighty. A miracle happens. Gayatri Devi writes that Dharma, the sustaining principle of the Universal Law materializes as her garment which now appears to be unending. Draupadi cannot be disrobed. Her virtue remains intact. The valiant men would heave a sigh of relief in their gratitude to the Almighty who often comes to their rescue, as a deus ex machina, during times when these mighty warriors struggle with their morality or their physical prowess, throughout the epic. Now the enemy is confounded and humbled. Draupadi stands rescued by God. 

‘One is not born a woman but becomes one’, famously asserts Simone De Beauvoir at the beginning of Part IV of her seminal ‘The Second Sex’ which examines the oppressive nature of a civilizational unconscious and where De Beauvoir explains the prefabricated idea of the female as a ‘social construct’, one which is not a ‘naturally occurring phenomenon’. Freud’s idea of ‘anatomy is destiny’ defined femininity in the annals of psychoanalysis and the positioning of each in the gender order. If a girl climbs trees, it is explained, according to Adler, that she attempts to show herself as an equal to boys, without the idea occurring to him that it may just be that girls like to climb trees as much as anyone else. Such a collective unconscious permeates the development of psychological narratives emanating from a predominantly male gaze through myths and archetypical vignettes of encoding woman as ‘the Other’; a subaltern and second to Man in social, biological, and psychological hierarchies. The development of Myth is also explained in terms of its usefulness to man where the role of the Other is non-essential and essential only to the extent of man delivering on his potential. Beauvoir asserts that in her emancipation from the oppression of a socially constructed identity, a woman is a woman to the extent she feels as such, in that the essential features of her biology cannot be attributed to her causally experienced situation. Hence nature does not define her as much as she can define her own nature, says De Beauvoir. 

In Gayatri Devi’s translation of Mahasweta Devi’s Bengali short story ‘Draupadi’ (Agnigarbha 1978), the narrative is a revised and non-romanticized appraisal of the subaltern. The story opens with an introduction of Dopdi Mejhen, (Dopdi, being a corruption of the Sanskrit ‘Draupadi’), the tribal and wife of the deceased Dulna Majhi who worked the fields during harvest time. The year is 1971. Both had gone underground, hiding from the Special Forces searing through the dark forests in search of them. Both are accidents of the promise of equality that the Constitution provides to all its citizens, in a land where ‘even a worm is under the jurisdiction of some Police Station’

Enter our antagonist Senanayak, the specialist in combat and political jiu-jitsu, who Mahasweta Devi assures us, is not one to be trifled with. Senanayak is a pragmatist who unflinchingly asserts the male organ of his gun from the barrel of which, his power explodes and decimates the opposition. Senanayak knows that if you wanted to destroy the enemy, you had to become one with the enemy. He empathizes with the enemy and can hence anticipate every move the enemy makes. 

In this dark battle where young men and women whom Senanayak and his army are annihilating as a meditative ritual, Dopdi and Dulna are elusive in the impenetrable forest until they are finally surrounded by the soldiers. Dulna is shot dead as he crouches to drink water from a spring with the battle-cry ‘Ma-ho’ escaping his dying lips. It takes a while for his killers to interpret the cry, but still one can’t be sure what it really meant. The soldiers wait for someone to claim the body. No one comes. They continue searching for the fugitive Dopdi. The soldiers interrogate many. The rich are terrified. The hungry and naked are defiant. Sympathetic villagers are silent and hostile. 

Where is Dopdi? – she who loved Dulna more than her own blood? She is hiding, with some wet rice knotted around her waist and kerosene scrubbed in her hair to kill the invading lice. She knows that if she is captured, they will ‘kounter’ her. She is finally apprehended at 6.53 am. Senanayak goes for his dinner after commanding his soldiers to ‘do the needful’

When Dopdi opens her eyes, she senses sticky blood under her waist and legs. Her vagina is bleeding. Her body has been mutilated. She is thirsty, and in shame her tears flow. Then she passes out. When she awakens there is a guard leering at her. She is brought to the tent and her garment is flung over her body. She is commanded to accompany the guard to the Burra Sahib’s tent. 

Come, she says, I’ll go. She pours the drinking water to the ground and tears her garment with her teeth. The guard thinks she’s gone crazy and runs for orders. Senanayak arrives and sees Draupadi naked walking towards him with her head held high. He is not accustomed to this sort of behavior from one who is vanquished. Mahasweta Devi write that this Draupadi stands before him naked, thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds. There is no prayer for a savior to clothe her. No supplication to any God. 

Senanayak is told that she refused to put back her clothes. He cannot understand this. He is restrained from any sense of victory. 

Draupadi leers at him with her defiant laughter, wiping the blood off her ravaged lips. Why should she be ashamed? You can strip me, but you cannot clothe me again. She laughs at his idea of being a man. What more can you do? Kounter me?  

Senanayak, for the first time in his life is terribly afraid. 


  1. Draupadi by Mahasveta Devi 
  2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, Writing and Sexual Difference. (Winter, 1981), pp. 381-402. 
  3. The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir, 1949
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Anil D’Souza Associate Professor – OB & HR School of Business and Management, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. +919920746610 / [email protected]