In a way, Bhishma achieved a pyrrhic victory through his vow: he saw his stepbrothers fail to enjoy the throne that his father Shantanu unhesitatingly let him renounce. With frightening indifference, Bhishma watches his stepmother Satyavati's grand-children make a mess of their lives. He says nothing when Pandu inexplicably exiles himself to the forest. During the exile, never once does Bhishma enquire about the welfare of Pandu and his wives even after what ought to have been cause for festivities: the birth of five sons. He says nothing when Gandhari decides to keep her eyes permanently bandaged, thereby depriving Hastinapura's blind king of sorely needed help. But, then, Dhritarashtra himself appears to like her self-imposed blindness, for he never protests. And what of the utter callousness with which Bhishma ignores the attempts of the adolescent Kauravas to kill their cousins, not to speak of the division of the kingdom, the dice game and the 13-year exile. Bhishma is, indeed, tragically flawed. Even in the light of the scriptures, he remains a failure. He never graduates beyond the first stage: brahmacharya. Where Satyavati, Ambika and Ambalika take to the forest (vanaprastha)after the coming of the Pandavas, Bhishma, who is older, cannot bring himself to retire gracefully. He is fascinated with the throne of Hastinapura that seems to have immobilised with a basilisk's glare so that, right or wrong, he sticks to that throne. It is a very narrow interpretation of dharma for the sake of which he turns into the inveterate compromiser, a prey to loneliness, unable to take hard decisions to avert catastrophes and perhaps one in whom the libido could neither be sublimated fully nor allowed to run its natural course.
Maggi Lidchi-Grassi's unique quality lies in her ability to plumb these secret chinks in this superman's armour. Her Bhishma tells Arjuna of the mistake Shantanu made in swearing an oath to Ganga, not realising that the hunger for sons is greater than that for a woman. 'One learns of it after the vow is taken,' says Bhishma; and that applies equally to himself.
In this quest for the true meaning of dharma, it is Yudhishthira that the author turns into the key, and it is his role in the death of Drona that leads to the realisation that, 'the world was full of decisions which the old Dharma could not lead you to.' He tells Arjuna, prostrate at Drona's death, that the man he is bewailing is the slayer of Abhimanyu; is the man who watched Draupadi being disrobed; is the general who promised Duryodhana to capture Yudhishthira for yet another dice-game and who swore that he would stop Arjuna from slaying Jayadratha. Yudhishthira tells Arjuna, 'If I have forgone Heaven for this lie, so be it. I do not feel the stain of sin. If Dronacharya is your Guru, mine is Krishna.' Maggi Lidchi-Grassi has voiced these ringing words which have been lying unspoken within the body of the epic for millennia, aching to be brought to the light of day, while generations have gone on berating the lie of Yudhishthira and, like veritable Dhritarashtras and Gandharis, whitewashing Drona and Bhishma, blind to their many sins of inexcusable omissions.
The novel raises a profound query: is surrender the best dharma? She asks through Arjuna whether surrender would have averted the war, as it saved the Pandava armies from the all-annihilating Narayana missile launched by Ashvatthama on hearing of Drona's death. Krishna replies in the negative and explains, 'Surrender to a dying dharma (like Bhishma's surrender) only feeds a dying dharma. It is not surrender to the Absolute. Discrimination'that is the most important thing.' It is precisely this faculty which Arjuna lacks and that is the root of his paralysing confusion. In a brilliant image she has Arjuna say, 'Discrimination is an astra that sunders doubt: it is the arrow's head that sunders darkness.' Then she has Krishna lash him into keen consciousness, saying, 'To be without memory as well is worse'I know what we are here for. You forget. Forgetting is the suffering. Ignorance is pain.' It is in this marvellous chapter, the fourteenth, that Maggi Lidchi-Grassi pierces to the core of the dilemma that has plagued the era following the Great War. That was a yugathat forgot and its people knew that they were forgetting. The succeeding generations, however, 'will not know they have forgotten. They will not believe'We have lost the age of sharing with the being in all things. The Kshatriyas have destroyed it with their sole belief in power.'
What of the enigma that is Krishna? The author provides answers through Ashvatthama, through Arjuna but, perhaps, most of all through Vyasa. Arjuna poses his dilemma to Vyasa, who replies, 'Krishna is free of Dharma as humans understand it. It will not work to act as if we are free if we are not'If you annihilate the self that thinks it is doing, then you act within this freedom. If you be the arrow that Krishna lets fly, then that is freedom. Without that, each one of us must walk within his human dharma.'