Many readers have asked me how I discovered the story of Vishpala, reimagined in Avishi. Quoting one of my editors, stories find their tellers and have a unique way of manifesting. I strongly feel they choose their time and gauge the readiness of the story teller too. Back in 2012, when I was struggling with an early draft of Abhaya, I got some feedback about breathing life into the characters. I was advised to meditate upon the daily life of the characters outside the story and the plot. This is an advice I value dearly and follow even today.
Once, I was writing a scene of Abhaya where the protagonist is a 6 year old toddler demanding her father to tell her stories while he fed her. What kind of stories would a father who is a King and a warrior tell his only daughter? He would want to inspire her with stories of valor too. As Abhaya was set in the times of Mahabharata, this story had to be older. I thought of warrior women from Ramayana. Kaikeyi did not offer a positive side to be narrated to a six year old. Savitri’s story had adventure, romance and philosophy but seemed too terse. It was then that I turned to the oldest book of India, the Rig Veda. The surprises that Rig Veda threw at me would make for quite a few posts! One of them was this warrior called Vishpala (Vishapala where Visha referred to a settlement and Pala referred to the one who headed it).
Vishpala is mentioned in one of the hymns dedicated to the divine healers and miracle workers called Asvinas. The hymn extols them for granting a prosthetic leg to Vishpala when she lost her leg in a battle. (Speculated as an iron leg by the 19th Century Indologist Ralph Griffith) Modern scholars speculate that the metal could be either bronze or copper. But setting the academic debate aside, the hymn happens to be the world’s first reference to the concept of prosthesis! Something that even international medical journals mention while broaching the topic!
I could not help setting aside the draft of Abhaya for a while and marveling at the heroine who fought with a prosthetic leg and about the ancient society which made such iron willed men and women. Consider it a promise made by a story teller to the ancient character who unexpectedly graced her. I resolved to revisit and explore the story of Vishpala after publishing Abhaya (Avishi is a fictional name).
Exploring the world of Avishi posed interesting challenges. The experience was a heavy contrast to writing Abhaya where I struggled to find place for my characters in the dense plot of Mahabharata. Vishpala who was mentioned nowhere but in the precious few shlokas of Rig Veda required me to reimagine the early Vedic society in all its egalitarian glory at the dawn of human civilization. Even the name of Vishpala (which clearly referred to her position) is lost to our memory.
Imagining Santagrahis or those endowed with lightning memory who carried out oral tradition in the times where script was yet to be invented, making sense of live-in relationships as the institution of wedlock was still nascent as a concept were just some aspects in the world creation process behind Avishi.
With each story he or she writes, the story teller challenges his/her comfort zones and turns richer with experience. I hope there are more such stories from the past waiting to reveal themselves when they think the time is ripe!
Saiswaroopa is an IITian and a former investment analyst turned author. Her keen interest in ancient Indian history, literature and culture made her take to writing. Her debut novel Abhaya, set in the times of Mahabharata was published in 2015. Avishi, her second novel set in Vedic India explores the legend of India’s first mentioned female warrior queen Vishpala.
She holds a certificate in Puranas from Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. She is also trained in Carnatic Classical music and has won a state level gold medal from Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams.
Long before the times of Draupadi and Sita
Immortalised in the hymns of the Rig Veda
But largely forgotten to the memory of India
Is the Warrior Queen with an iron leg, Vishpala
Brought up in the pristine forest school of Naimisha, Avishi reaches the republic of Ashtagani in search of her destiny. When Khela, the oppressive King of the neighbouring Vrishabhavati begins to overwhelm and invade Ashtagani, Avishi rises to protect her settlement. But peril pursues her everywhere.
Separated from her love, her settlement broken, with a brutal injury needing amputation of her leg, can Avishi overcome Khela?