The The maternal uncle or manu in Odia culture is someone who is very affectionate and caring towards his nephew (or niece) and mamu ghara (maternal uncle’s house) is a place where the nephew spends a happy time, where he eats dudha bhata (rice with milk), which stands for delicious food in the language. But whatever be the cultural norms, reality sometimes presents for us surprises of all kinds. Thus there are maternal uncles who are deviant from the norm in varying degrees. The mamu who is dangerously or even aggressively unfond of his nephew is called “kansa mamu”; everyone knows that the phrase embodies the relationship between Krishna and his maternal uncle, Kansa and everyone knows what all the uncle did to get rid of his nephew. The phrase is used to condemn a nasty maternal uncle. In Odia, “pulis (police man)” is called “mamu” and “jail” is called “mamu ghara” (uncle’s house) because of the association of both these expressions with punishment. There are two hills called mamu – bhanaja parbata (maternal uncle- nephew) in Balugaon in Khurda district and there is a saying about them: bhanaja parbata badhe, mamu parbata chide(the nephew mountain grows and the uncle mountain shrinks.
There are other popular expressions about the maternal uncle and his nephew, which conform to the cultural stereotype, where the mamu is benevolent and protective. These are “jahna mamu” (The Moon uncle – Mother Earth’s brother) and “bagha mamu” (The Tiger uncle), in which the protector of the forest becomes the protector of children as well. However, bagha mamu is also used to frighten children: dudha pi de nahele bagha mamu asiba (drink the milk, otherwise Tiger uncle will come.). “Kana mamu(uncle who is blind in one eye)”, created by the novelist Lakshmikanta Mohapatra, is a very lovable character in Odia literature. An accomplished wrestler, he was the common mamu of all those young persons in the village who came to train under him. He loved them and was loved by them.
Now, what is interesting is that there is no phrase “sakuni mamu” (Sakuni uncle); if the language
has “kansa mamu”, how come it does not have “sakuni mamu”?
The word “sakuni” is used in the language as a metaphor for a person who is treacherous
and uses low cunning to achieve his purpose. As Supriya Prashant tells me, a brother who meddles with matters his sister’s family, taking advantage of their vulnerability or trust, and exploits them, is referred to as a sakuni. One of the characters in Surendra Mohanty’s classic, Neela Saila, refers to the treacherous commander-in-chief of King Ramachandra Deva as ‘nirghata sakuni (an out and out Sakuni)”. But there is no expression in the language that condemns Sakuni as maternal uncle.
So, then, is Sakuni not popularly viewed as a harmful and dangerous uncle? It doesn’t seem he is. On the contrary, he is thought of as an aggressively caring uncle who was more worried than anyone else about the welfare of his nephew, Duryodhana and by implication, all the Kaurava princes. Dhritarashtra, the father of the Kaurava princes, was blind and for all practical purposes their mother, Gandhari, was blind too. The Kuru elders did not distinguish between the children of Dhritarashtra, the king and those of his deceased younger brother, the virtuous Pandu, who was the king before him. He gave up kingship after he was unfortunately cursed. Now the Kuru elders were favourably inclined towards Pandu’s children and wanted the Yudhisthira to inherit the throne of Hastinapura. Sakuni would not let this happen; he openly worked for his sister, Gandhari’s eldest born, Duryodhana, to become the future king. It was another matter that he failed in this mission and was instrumental in leading his nephews to a war with their cousins, which turned out to be a disaster for the former. But at the same time one can hardly say that he was a bad mamu, who was hostile towards his nephews.
Some think that Sakuni was actually a kansa mamu in the guise of a jahna mamu and that he was indeed much worse. He had left his kingdom and had stayed with his sister, not to look after his sister’s children, but to take revenge against the Kurus. When the incomparable Bhishma went to the king of Gandhar to seek his daughter Gandhari’s hand for Dhritarashta the king and his family were not pleased. Gandhari was beautiful and well-groomed and Dhritarashtra was blind from birth. But no one had the courage to reject the proposal for fear of Bhishma, who, everybody knew, had no equal in the battlefield.
After her marriage, Gandhari chose to cover her eyes and live the rest of her life that way. Whatever she might have said by way of justifying her action, some think that it was her – a helpless woman’s – way of protesting against her destiny. But her brother Sakuni chose to take revenge. He told absolutely no one about it. Not even his sister. He died with it. He was determined to make the Kuru family pay for insulting the king of Gandhar. War with Hastinapura, protected by Bhishma, was not an option; foul means was the only option for him. Chasing his dark dream, he left his kingdom and spent a difficult life in his sister’s house in order to execute his revenge, unsuspected by anyone. His revenge was against Bhishma and the family he represented and if making them pay meant destroying his sister’s children, he let that be. In this reading of the Mahabharata, he still remains the mamu extremely fond of his bhanajas. No one had any suspicion that he didn’t have the welfare of his nephews in mind.
Sarala’s version is no different as far as – only as far as – Sakuni’s uncle-hood is concerned. Duryodhana had implicit trust in him. He had greater trust in him than in his mother who had warned him against her own brother. She had told him clearly and emphatically that Sakuni was no well-wisher of his and that he would ensure the destruction of the Kauravas and take revenge for what he had done to his family.
And what Duryodhana had done to his maternal grandfather’s family, in Sarala’s version, was foul beyond description. Before Gandhari was married to Dhritarashtra, she had been married to a sahadatree, which died immediately and with that ended the hindrance to her wedding, in a manner of speaking. Both she and Dhritarashtra were born under inauspicious stars. Once a princess was chosen for Dhritarastra, she would die. Once a prince was chosen for Gandhari, he would die. Dhritarastra was destined to marry a widow, which he did, when Gandhari’s first husband, the sahada tree, died.
When Duryodhana knew this, he was livid and wanted to punish the king of Gandhar and his family and relatives for marrying a widow to his father. He imprisoned his unsuspecting relations and starved them to death. Only Sakuni had survived. His father had instructed him to avenge their death, if he lived and had thereby defined the purpose of his living. Thus Sakuni was condemned to a second imprisonment, from which he freed himself on the battlefield of Kurukshetra on the penultimate day of the War. This story of Sakuni’s death occurs in this blog.
Returning to his first imprisonment, everyone had died and only Sakuni had lived. One day things so happened that Duryodhana came to look upon him as bhuta bhavishya jnata(the knower of the past and the future), set him free, made him his minister and wouldn’t hear anything against him from anyone whatsoever. That made things easier for Sakuni. One kindness he had shown his father’s enemy: he had kept his mission a secret from him. Duryodhana died, after he had died, without knowing the truth about the uncle who he had trusted completely. For the bhanaja, he was the perfect mamu.
Post-script: Our patriarchal cultures are loaded against the mother’s family, observes Sewa Bhattaray, responding to this piece. In real life, father’s brothers can be as bad or even worse – one certainly cannot disagree. But consider there is no phrase in Odia comparable to Kansa Mamu that condemns the wicked and evil brother of the father, who ill-treats his nephew; perhaps the patriarchal culture takes care of this linguistic gap, going by Bhattarai. It’s different in the puranic stories though.
In Sarala Mahabharata, as in some other versions of the ancient story, Vidura had pleaded with Dhritarashtra to allow him to kill his first-born, Duryodhana, after the wise man had foretold that he would be the cause of the destruction of the kula (here, “family”). Let that one child die, in order that his ninety-nine siblings live and the family does not suffer annihilation, uncle Vidura had pleaded. As the Great War on the Kurukshetra battlefield was nearing its end, Vidura reminded the helpless, grieving father about his suggestion. He told him that he would not have suffered that pain in his old age had he sacrificed just one child of his.
I have often thought about it. To me, it does not matter that the father did not allow his brother to do this; what does is that with that thought and with those words the virtuous uncle had killed his infant nephew that day. Now, was this a killing any less agonizing than the killing that Duryodhana suffered later on the battlefield?