Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli – Book Review


Book Review - Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli
Narendra Kohli is a master storyteller. His forte lies in bringing out the Dwanda or dilemmas that go inside a human mind all the time. He picks up characters from Mahabharata and tells you the same story from a single character’s view. I had earlier reviewed his book on Hidimba, who is a minor character in the story Matsyagandha. But the way he brings out the differences between the tribal and civilized societies is amazing. In the book, Matsyagandha, he talks about Satyavati – a central character, for giving the story and the turn it took by binding Bhishma in a vow of celibacy.

Narendra Kohli begins by bringing out the character of Satyavati. She is the adopted daughter in the house of a fisherman, who used to row the boats for a living. He calls her Matsyagandha – the one who smells of fish. She falls in love with an ascetic,  and has a son with him but pursued by her father she does not marry him.

Her father wanted her to be married to a King, to be a Queen and to be a queen mother. As a result, he agrees to marry her off to aged Shantanu with a condition that his son Devvrata would not marry. Moreover, he would not lay any claim to the throne, to which the son agrees. As luck would have it, King and Satyavati’s two sons die without leaving an heir behind. The events that follow to create a line of heirs from the rest of the story that kind of ends with the war of Mahabharata.

What makes this books an extremely good read is the mental dialogues of Satyavati. An ambitious woman who wants to hold on to her acquired status of queen. She keeps doubting the motives of her step-son, who is always trying to beat the destiny. Only to be beaten by it time and again. She is not just a strong woman but also one who is all out to get what she wants. But she wants to make things available for her next few generations too.

At every step when she has to make a decision, you learn the different thoughts going on in her mind. You realize her dilemma that she has to fall back on the very Bhishma all the time. The one she wants to keep away from the throne of Hastinapur. Every time a calamity falls on her, she needs him, but she never trusts him completely even when he has truly given up everything for her and his father.

You see the journey of a beautiful woman who grew up in a fisherman colony and who goes on to become the most powerful queen. We see a woman who finds it difficult to give up her materialistic needs. You see her guilt of denying Bhishma his right manifesting in various actions.  Be it not allowing him to train her sons, be it asking him to get wives for her sons and grandsons. Or be it asking him to take the throne when she thinks throne is inauspicious and kills anyone who sits on it. You see her relationship with her first son who treats her with love and respect.  Satyavati used to love the materialistic world. But her son grows up to be like her father and the materialistic world doesn’t tempt him. She fails to understand both Vyasa and Bhishma but they still try to understand her.

It is a book that gives you a lot of insights into the human psyche. I would highly recommend reading Matsyagandha.

You may buy this book – Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli at Amazon.

This site is Amazon Associate and may earn a small commission on purchases that you make through the links, without impacting what you pay for it.


  1. Very interesting. I’d missed your Hidimba review earlier– both books sound very interesting indeed– perhaps better additions to the growing body of Mahabharata analyses than many other works. From your Hidimba review, he might have left out some interesting bits connected to her viewpoint about the treatment of Ghatotkacha.

    • Narendra Kohli has written this huge series on Mahabharata called Maha Samar – these are all small parts of that big multi-volume magnum opus. So yes, some contexts are missing in smaller series. You would love his ability to portray the mental monologues of the characters as they weigh their options in various situations.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here