Book Reviews

Fresh Retellings of The Mahabharata

What could be a better testimony to the perennial appeal of India's epics than the fresh retellings and translations being published every twenty years or so? Each generation appears to need its own version of Ramayana and Mahabharata in language that it can relate to. In the last couple of years Ramesh Menon has retold both in extenso (Harper Collins and Rupa publications running to nearly 900 and 1600 pages respectively). Now Penguin India has published a re-issue of Meera Uberoi's abridgement (Ratna Sagar1996).

Based on the K.M. Ganguli translation of the 1880s, this is a linear version following the straight path of the Pandava-Dhartarashtra conflict, eschewing everything that gives the epic its enduring place in our cultural memory. Even the short passages of exquisite poetry that Vyasa's narration is shot through with are absent because Ganguli's is an exclusively prose translation. Take, for instance, section XXVI (the burning of Khandava forest) that begins with Krishna and Arjuna on a picnic beside the Yamuna. Uberoi despatches this in just two and a half sentences. Here is what Vyasa says, in Padma Shri P. Lal's condensation of the epic (400 pages against Uberoi's 472):

'To the tree-shaded pleasure garden
Flower-perfumed and gem-adorned,
The group of people went'
Each making merry according to his or her pleasure,
The full-lipped and heavy-breasted ladies,
Large-eyed, a little unsteady from their wine,
Wandering amid flowers or splashing in the water,
Flirting and joking, with Krishna setting the example,
Wine-flushed Draupadi and Subhadra discarding ornaments,
Some singing or dancing,
Some quarrelling, some secretive,
The whole scene echoing the seductive sounds
Of flute and vina and kettledrum.'

Or take the organic tree image in terms of which the epic is figured forth, with each parva described appropriately as a different part of the massive ashvattha tree, an image that is extended to symbolize the Dhartarashtra-Pandava conflict; or the exquisite self-excul'patory and revelatory lament of Dhritarashtra with its haunting refrain tada na shamse vijayaya Sanjaya that occurs in the first parva summing up the Pandavas' major exploits and the reasons for their victory. With Draupadi being as much the cause celebre of the holocaust as Helen was for burning the topless towers of Ilium, it is difficult to appreciate why Uberoi leaves out Vyasa's description of her emergence, particularly when she is the only woman he describes in any detail in this ocean of characters:

'Eye-ravishing Panchali,
Dark-skinned Panchali,
Lotus-eyed lady,
Wavy-haired Panchali
Hair like dark blue clouds,
Shining coppery carved nails,
Soft eye-lashes,
Swelling breasts and
Shapely thighs'
Blue lotus
Fragrance for a full krosha
Flowed from her body' (the P. Lal transcreation)

The miraculous birth of Draupadi, appearing unasked for, full-grown, accompanied by a skiey announcement that she would cause the destruction of Kshatriyas, robs the linear storyline of its ominous overtones. To bring home to the reader the key role played by Draupadi in the destruction of the Dhartarashtras, it was necessary to include her brilliant haranguing of the court-elders, her marshalling of scriptural and political treatises to goad the Pandavas constantly during the exile and the skilful use of her sexuality with Bhima in Virata's kitchen to motivate him to kill Kichaka. Even Krishna stirring words reassuring her when her husbands (save Sahadeva) are suing for peace are left out:

'Consider those you disfavor
As already dead!'
The Himavant hills may move, the
Earth shatter
In a hundred pieces, heaven collapse;
My promise stands'
You will see your enemies killed.' (V.82.45, 48, the Lal transcreation)

From two opposing sides a remarkable tribute is paid to her that Uberoi omits. Both Karna and Krishna praise her for having, like a boat, rescued her husbands who were drowning in the ocean of misery in the assembly hall. The delightful marital byplay between Draupadi and Arjuna over his return from exile with Subhadra in tow has been turned into her 'icy rage'. Here is the original:

'Go son of Kunti, 
where she of the Satvatas is! 
A second knot loosens the first, 
however tightly re-tied.' (I.220.17'the Lal transcreation)

Ulupi's boon to Arjuna to be unharmed by water creatures is deprived of its significance by omission of his ridding lakes of five crocodiles thereafter. 
The cosmic dimensions that underpin the epic and lend it a memorability far beyond a fratricidal war are completely absent, particularly the all-encompassing metaphor of Time with which the epic begins. Even if we look for the simple linear tale, Uberoi misses out why the Mahabharata is celebrated as encyclopedic and Sauti's brilliant summary of the epic's highlights:

'It tells the story of the greatness of the house of Kuru, the goodness of Gandhari, the wisdom of Vidura, the constancy of Kunti; it describes the divinity of Krishna, the honesty of the five Pandavas, and the misdeeds of the sons of Dhritarashtra.' (P. Lal)

That is how the epic appeared to the narrator and there has not been much change in the audience-appreciation even today. Uberoi also omits Vyasa's moral perspective. The Dhartarashtras and Pandavas are described in the very first parva, Anukramanika, in terms of giant trees, one born of passion, the other of Dharma; the root of the one is the weak-minded Dhritarashtra, that of the other Krishna, Brahma and Brahmins.

Uberoi's very beginning is flawed: 'I bow to Nara and Narayana/And to Sarasvati I say 'Victory'!' There is no question of addressing Sarasvati at all. Here is the Ganguli version, which she claims to have followed: 'Om! Having bowed down to Narayana and Nara, the most exalted male being, and also to the goddess Saraswati, must the word Jaya be uttered.'

In the account of Bhishma abducting the three Kashi princesses, Uberoi leaves out his trouncing Shalva though it explains why the humiliated king rejects Amba when she approaches him, while devoting several pages to the Bhishma-Parashurama episode that adds nothing to the linear plot. Further, Duryodhana, scoffed at by Bhima when he crowns Karna ruler of Anga, retorts crushingly that the dubious births of the Pandavas are well known, revealing that the Dhartarashtras considered the five brothers parvenus and pretenders, which Uberoi omits.

Vyasa is not a poet who glosses over facts of life. Quite bluntly he states that sexual over-indulgence led to Vichitravirya's premature death, that Pandu preferred erotic pleasures with his wives to ruling the kingdom, that Ganga's sexual skills kept Shantanu enslaved. Uberoi avoids all such references throughout. Often one wonders what is the audience she has in mind, particularly when she reduces the Gita to a dreary chapter the reader prefers to skip over instead of the dynamic cut-and-thrust of question and answer that it is. Uberoi deprives the reader of a key feature of the war famed as dharma-yuddha(chivalrous fighting): Bhishma lays down rules of righteous engagement that are violated the moment Drona takes over.

The abridgement is not sensitive to delicate hints Vyasa provides. Thus, when Pandu asks Kunti to summon Dharma for a son, the epic states that when the god asked her what she wanted, she smiled and answered, 'A son'. But there is no such smile indicating familiarity and ease when Vayu and Indra are invoked. The special relationship between Dharma (of whom Vidura, her brother-in-law is an avatara) is something that is hinted at. This comes to the fore again when the Pandavas return to Hastinapura having won Draupadi and Kunti addresses Vidura with great emotion, assuring him that she has taken good care of his sons. Uberoi omits both passages as also Kunti's thrilling exhortation to her sons to fight for their rights, narrating the inspiring story of Vidula telling her cowardly son to flare up like tinduka wood even for an instant instead of living out a long inglorious life. Uberoi has omitted the reason she gives her sons for her astonishing departure from the kingdom so sorely won by them, as also the peculiar death of Vidura witnessed by Yudhishthira. Kunti's remarkable fortitude in bringing up her sons single-handedly, planning all the while for winning back their inheritance, is another casualty. In the house of lac it is Kunti who gets a Nishada woman and her five sons drunk, leaving them to be burnt alive, to throw Duryodhana off the track. It is she who realizes that an alliance with Hidimba will strengthen them and overrules Yudhishthira's objections to her marrying Bhima. When Ghatotkacha is born, she takes care to educate him in his responsibilities to assist the Pandavas. Uberoi omits these.

Apparently Uberoi did not feel it necessary to revise her 1996 text, otherwise we would not have come across errors like 'kshatri' instead of 'kshatta' for Vidura (57), 'Parankoti' for 'Pramankoti' (p.54), 'Brihannala' (!) being killed by Abhimanyu instead of Brihadbala (p.352) and again 'Brihannala' as the name of one of the five villages the Pandavas offered to be content with (p.272), 'Draupada' instead of Drupada all through, 'Duryodhana' instead of Satyaki of the Satvatas (p.255), Arjuna's chariot incinerating on his stepping down instead of when Krishna alights (p.413), Karna asking for Indra's vajra instead of his infallible dart (shakti) 221.

Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna do not enter Girivraja 'surreptitiously' (131), but after breaking three massive drums and punching an entrance through a wall. When Ashvatthama attacks the Panchala camp, Uberoi has him bypass a rakshasa sentinel, whereas in Vyasa Rudra guards the camp and lets the murderous Brahmin in after he has offered to sacrifice himself.

The Introduction needed amplification, particularly in view of the linear design adopted, to provide the reader with a larger view such as leit motifs and themes that are the warp and the woof weaving the vast narrative together. The Epilogue is rather unsatisfactorily put together besides omitting critical facts such as the arrowhead that killed Krishna being made from the cursed iron pestle, Vyasa advising Arjuna that it is time they leave the world, Agni demanding return of the celestial bow and quivers from Arjuna.

Comparisons are odious, but Menon does do a better job diction-wise for the 21st century reader than Uberoi who, while being better than R.K. Narayan's pedestrian summary of the epic, is readable but not gripping.

Anjum Katyal's richly satisfying translation of Mahasweta Devi's three pieces on the epic calls to mind two other great creations: Buddhadeb Basu's Kalsandhya, a poetic drama on the destruction of the Yadavas and Arjuna's discomfiture at the hands of staff-wielding dacoits, and Dharmavir Bharati'sAndha Yug on the end of the war.

Mahasweta Devi typically portrays what Vyasa never touches upon: what did the war mean to the proletariat, specially the women? Panchakanya ('Five Women') is a superb portrayal of the plight of the widows of ordinary farmers and artisans pressed into service, contrasting their resilience with the effete royalty of the Pandava queens by a masterly stroke in which the pregnant, sorrowing Uttara is provided with five ordinary widows as companions to divert her mind. Lokavritta (the folk way of life) and Rajavritta (the life of the rulers) are thrown into powerful contrast. The low class women'tribal or otherwise'do not remain widows, because life must go on and if they do not bear children, cultivate the fields, grind the grain, society will collapse. So, they elect to leave the palace and seek out new husbands.

There is a fine passage in which Kunti sharply asks Draupadi'who is endlessly condemning the Kauravas'whether she has ever looked at the Kaurava women, husband-and-son-less. 'Kunti and the Nishadin' brings face-to-face the killer of a tribal woman and her five sons with that woman's daughter-in-law when Kunti is eking out her last days in the forest. Just as those tribals were burnt alive in the house of lac, so is Kunti in a forest fire along with Gandhari and Dhritarashtra. Before that climax, there is an engrossing portrayal of Kunti's ceaseless angst over Karna. Mahasweta Devi, however, does take it to an extreme when she has Kunti cogitate that she never thought of doing anything on her own. The entire upbringing of the Pandavas and rallying them to battle for their inheritance were her achievements alone. There is a minor error when Kunti laments that Karna was known as a carpenter's son (p.29). 'Souvali' celebrates the nameless Vaishya maid who was the mother of Dhritarashtra's sole surviving son, Yuyutsu, as Buddhadeb Basu did with the unnamed mother of Vidura in his memorable Anamni Angana. Preferring to stay outside the city with her own people, when her neighbors come to help her observe the fasting rituals on Dhritarashtra's death, Souvali says: 'I'll feast on sweet kheer laddoos, ghee-rich jowar pithas, golden honey. And after I'm full, I'll sleep peacefully, holding my son in my arms.' There is a piercing comment on Vyasa who, she has heard will write about this righteous war: 'So let him! Souvali doesn't want even a mention of her name anywhere.' Indeed, she remains nameless in the epic. The slim volume of under fifty pages is a rewarding and thought provoking read indeed.    


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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