The Mahabharata retold – reinterpreted & reworked – yet again!
This Epic has always fascinated me, as indeed it has millions of Indians who have grown up listening to its stories at Granny’s feet and from reading the Amar Chitra Katha series (a staple diet for all budding readers when I was growing up). It’s just that – an Epic – a tale spanning generations, choc-a-bloc with fascinating, complexly-layered narrative & characters (gods, demons, humans and everything in between!). Vast in scope (The ‘Bhagwad Gita‘ is just one part of this rambling parable!), and yet still relevant in today’s milieu – it makes for an utterly engrossing read – a veritable treatise on human emotions and relationships.
Many authors have attempted their own interpretations and re-tellings and this is yet another version from yet another author. I’m a huge fan of the original and I think it’s always risky to tamper with a well-loved, well-known story, especially one that is an inseparable part of our collective Indian psyche – but I must confess – Krishna Udayshankar doesn’t let me down. There are no Gods here nor demons – just humans – in all their frailty, grace and courage – and that instantly offers a refreshing if challenging perspective. Challenging in that, often ‘divinity’ is explanation enough (even for sceptics like me, in the fictional context), but humanity beggars logic and rational justification. So, although I may accept a particular behaviour in the God Krishna, will I accept a similar behaviour in his purely-human avatar ‘Govinda Shauri’? Will I accept that their motivations are similar – ‘The Greater Good’ that the Gods bandy about as an excuse and explanation for everything? That’s the question isn’t it? And that’s what I particularly enjoyed about this version – the way the author challenged my beliefs and status quo, forcing me to at least allow for a new perspective, if not accept it. No mean feat that.
I also enjoyed that she took some of the lesser known characters from the original and turned them into game-changers in her version, while down-playing some of the major players! It made for refreshing reading. So Vyasa – who is author of the original, is a king-maker in this version – a calculating, powerful man of hidden intent and cunning, a master manipulator. Sanjaya – King Dhritarashtra’s faithful servant in the original – has a much larger presence and role in this version – as an important counsellor to the king and right-hand man to Vyasa. In contrast Shakuni, Vidur, Duryodhan, Partha/Arjun and even Bhishma are surprisingly downplayed – a fact that I enjoyed, especially in case of Partha – whom I’ve never liked much 😉 And Shikhandi! How can I not say how much I enjoyed the fact that he and not Partha is Govinda’s confidante in this version? Shikhandi is a fascinating if low-key character in the original, believed to be the reincarnation of the Princess Amba, who committed suicide rather than marry a man she didn’t love. She is reborn to revenge herself on Bhishma – the man she holds responsible for her tragedy. Here, Shikhandi is a peace-loving man and consummate warrior, at home with Nature, Govinda’s friend and confidante, loving brother to Panchali and Dhristhadyuma and at odds with his father King Drupad. I hope he continues to play an important role in the forthcoming books or I will be very disappointed indeed!
Another major and welcome change for me personally is that Panchali is a central, pivotal character and narrator along with Govinda. In a satisfactory change – her marriage here is to Dharma (the eldest Pandava brother), and not to all the five, a fact that disturbed me endlessly in the original. Although she is no less pivotal in the original, here, she is refreshingly center-stage while her husband Dharma takes a definite back-seat. Dharma – an epitome of honesty in the original, is similar here, but the author puts her own spin on his character – allowing us a glimpse into the psyche of one who is not as comfortable with his chosen path as one assumes. An indecisive man, easily influenced and full of his own self-importance, desiring to be right and true at all times while unwilling to do the work that makes it so – relying instead on Vyasa’s machinations, the prowess of his brothers and Govinda’s intellect – justifying their actions on his behalf as divine intervention. Fascinating! And so we come to the man who graces the title – the lynch pin – Govinda Shauri – without whom there would be epic. He is as enigmatic and charismatic as his namesake Krishna in the original. He may not be divine here, but his influence, principles, and readiness to sacrifice all for the ‘Greater Good’ are identical. What particularly intrigued me was his intimate relationship with Panchali. Whereas in the original, it came across as a brother-sister bond, here, it is anything but! The tensions between the two friends and almost-lovers are palpable and make for some very interesting, taut scenes that will translate excellently on film! I wonder whether she’s sold film rights? JP – are you listening?
I loved that she used lesser known names of the characters – so it’s Dwaipayana instead of Vyasa, Panchali instead of the more common Draupadi, Balabadra instead of Balaram, Partha and Dharma instead of Arjun and Yudhisthir – refreshes my memory and adds novelty. She also introduces a new concept – The Firewrights – a race of brilliant innovators & inventors (akin to magicians), that work with the First-Born (the Vyasas) and the Kings – but that have fallen into disrepute and are being hunted down by both. Her writing is spot-on – she manages to weave an undercurrent of mystery & suspense even when dealing with a story we all think we know by heart; her concept is interesting and her perspective refreshing. Except for the font-size which is too small, I have no major cribs! I will definitely read her next in this series – Kaurava, probably on Kindle to rest my poor eyes J
P.S. Reading this has made me want to re-read the original and I’ve downloaded The Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari to refresh my memory!