Book Reviews

The Great Indian Novel

Suddenly the Mahabharata is "in": The haut monde are seen crowding in pell-mell for Saoli Mitra's re-creations of the women of the epic; the aisles are jammed withdernier cri for performances of Andha Yug (presumably to imbibe Dharamvir Bharati and not gape at "Oye Oye" Shah and 'Mogambo' Puri); His Nibs and Mrs. Grundy alike sit through three hundred minutes of Peter Brook; and, above all, the Burra Sahibs bring to Indians Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi and Savitri. So theMahabharata is Spectacle'behind the proscenium arch, on the silver screen and prime time on the idiot box! What, then, of the printed word and the bestseller lists? There have been two attempts at novelizing this greatest of epics in terms of its relevance to mankind today. One is Maggi Lidchi-Grassi's trilogy, where a European settled in India and immersed in its spirituality, interprets the meaning of the Mahabharata. The other is Shashi Tharoor's romp through India's history, where an Indian (a Xaverian and Stephanian lo boot) settled in America looks at how India won freedom and what happened thereafter through the eyes of "V.V.", that is Ved Vyas.

This Ved Vyas, as distinct from Veda Vyasa who authored "The Great Epic of India" (vide E. W. Hopkins) is a conglomerate personality. He looks like Chakravarti Rajagopalachari but the impact is something like reading the recordings of a series of s'ances with differing personae flitting in-and-out. There is Wodehouse coming through pretty strongly, but of course impeccably set in the Raj: the British Resident in charge of Hastinapura is expressing his indignation regarding Gangadatta's eccentricities to his aides:

"And you tell me he cleans his own toilet, instead of letting his damn bhisti do it."
"Jamadar, Sir Richard. A bhisti is only a water-carrier."
"Really?" The Resident seemed surprised. 'Thought those were called lotas"
"They are, sir. Lotas are those little pots you carry water in, I mean they carry water in, Sir Richard, whereas. . ."
"A bhisti is the kind they have to balance on their heads, I suppose. Damn complicated language, this Hindustani. Different words for everything....And different genders too. I mean is there any good reason why a table should be feminine and a bed masculine? Do you think it has to do with what you do on them?"...
"Ah, boy," said the Resident as a white-haired and white-shirted bearer padded in.... "Whisky lao. Chhota whisky, barra water, understand?...a big jug of water, understand. Not a little lota eh? Bring it in a bhisti. Bhisti men lao" He smiled in satisfaction at the bearer....
"I bring instantly, sahib," the bearer assured him, "I am looking for bhisti all this time, as sahib wanted. I now found, sahib. With great difficulty. I bring him in, sahib?"...A grimy figure in a dirty undershirt and dirtier loincloth entered the verandah, carrying a black oilskin bag from one end of which water dripped relentlessly on to the tiled floor. "Bhisti, sahib," the bearer proudly announced.
At other times, it is almost the persona of Swift or of Dryden: Gangaji urges the infuriated Amba to take to a life of celibacy, emulating him.
"You smug, narcissistic bastard, you!" Amba screamed. "Be like you, with you enemas and your loincloths? Never!"

Or take this description of Ganga Datta, regent of Hastinapura:

Thin as a papaya plant, already balder than I am today, peering at you through round-rimmed glasses that gave him the look of a startled owl ... he was now beginning to shed part or most of even his traditional robes. . . . People were forever barging into his study unexpectedly and finding him in nothing but a loincloth. "Excuse me, I was just preparing myself an enema," he would say, with a feeble smile, as if that explained everything.

Sometimes there is the impish limericist who takes over:

To young Pandu, as you can imagine
It came as a painful wrench;
He could enjoy life's great pageant
Bui he couldn't lay hands on a wench . . .
Good deeds! was now the motto
Of the rest of their lives on this earth;
No frolic, no getting blotto,
No foreplay, no unseemly mirth.
groupies with rupees and large solar topis, 
bakers and fakers and enema takers, 
journalists who promoted his cause with their pen, 
these were among his favourite men!
or this succinct summary of Gangan philosophy:
of opposing caste
unto the last
(for Sudras are human too)
of meditation
and sanitation
(and cleaning out the loo)

But the limerick turns into a remorseless biting expose too in Tharoor's hands:

Away with Tolstoy, Ruskin, Buddha: 
Their ideas just make little men littler. 
No more "truth force," only yuddha
It's time to learn from that chap Hitler. . .
Our Aryan brothers, full of go-go 
Have revitalized the German nation, 
As India's S. S., I announce the O O - 
Short for Onward Organization. . . .
How he strutted, my son, how proud he became! 
You'd think he'd just won a battle. 
When in fact (as the Brits would snidely claim) 
His men just hung around like cattle.

In narrating the death of Pandu, V.V. breaks into erotic limerick made all the more hilarious through the lisp with which Tharoor invests the pneumatic Madri:

My darlingeth Pandu, let me thay to you
I thwear thith upon Vithnu and Thiv-
If anything happenth to my deareth Pandu
I thimply don't want to live . . .
Remember the doctor-when you nearly died-
Let'th kith, but not be gluttonth!
And indeed she looked a sight to behold
In the fatigues of the Swatantra Sena;
The cut of her shirt was not itself bold
But when she moved, no cloth could restrain her.

Pandu's death is a holocaust in which Madri accompanies him as their plane is shot down, and the limerick suddenly transforms into semi-high-seriousness:

Then she knew; and she smiled, in the stillness
that followed.
The shell that was coming made scarcely a ripple. 
She lifted his head, kissed him, slightly swallowed; 
Then lowered him gently, his mouth to her nipple. 
When the shell hit she could have sworn she felt 
A life-seeking tug at her soft swollen breast; 
A split-second, perhaps, and then came a pelt 
Of death-dealing shrapnel that tore open her chest.
... it burst into a flaming ball in the air 
Burning crimson, consuming my son-and widow.

Thematically speaking, Tharoor's approach to Indian politics through India's greatest epic provides a powerful instrument for us to "place" the events of the last ninety years against the deeply rooted traditions animating our society through the ages. And his point-of-view is all the more welcome in the context of the purely political and genuflectory exercises churned out by journalists-turned-politicians recently. Tharoor's brilliance lies in the selection of the epic prototype to embody his interpretation of the characters of those who shaped (or mis-shaped) India's destiny.

Take, for instance, the blind Dhritarashtra whose affair with the Vicereine, Lady Georgina Drewpad, leads to the birth of the five-husbanded Draupadi Mokrasi. Lady Drewpad and Dhritarashtra are "midnight's parents" and how well Tharoor sums up "di-mokrasi" in the words of Professor Jennings, her tutor: "exquisite looks, an open manner, an ability to learn from and adapt to the conditions . . . she spoke a little too readily. . . somewhat too loud. . . ought to have been more self-restrained. She did not always eat enough, and though she studied hard she often tended to learn by rote. . . she was blessed with great faith in herself. . . she could always muddle through," The villain of the piece is Priya Duryodhani, seeking to poison Bhim (the Army), "Even at the age of twelve, overkill was already her problem." One of most daring and delightful allegories in the book is that of Mohammad AH Karna, founder of Karnistan! The other, more traumatic and a superb vignette, is that of Amba-Shikhandin, rejected by Gangaji, undergoing a transformation into a transvestite in the filthy back-lanes of Delhi, and killing the unsuccessful regent of Hastinapura in the arms of Sarah behn, "Your life has been a waste, unproductive, barren," spits Shikhandin at Bhishma, "you are nothing but an impotent old walrus sucking other reptiles' eggs, an infertile old fool seeking solace like a calf from the udders of foreign cows, a man who is less than a woman. The tragedy of this country springs from you."

The book is rich in insights and bears re-reading well, for each time the epic figures throw fresh shades of light on our history. Tharoor's easy handling of the epic material is admirable: he turns Jayaprakash Drona into the hero of the battle against Priya Duryodhani. In that context, it is the portraits of the Pandavas which are the weakest part of the allegory. Yudhishtir is clearly recognisable as the insufferably upright and inflexible fourth prime minister of India. But Bhima as the Army, Nakula as the glib talker who, by mistake, joins the Administration, and Sahadeva, the silent acquiescer who strays into the Foreign Service, are unsuccessful creations. Arjuna is, perhaps, an even weaker portrait. He seems to stand for the journalist-in-arms. Keeping the epic in mind, the most disappointing part relates to Krishna who is, here, a politician from the south who keeps far apart from the mainstream and does not justify the name Tharoor has borrowed for him from the epic. Tharoor suddenly seems to be in a hurry to end his novel, and rushes through the seventies and early eighties leaving one gasping and quite dissatisfied; for it is in these decades that our history was re-written in such radical terms. Does one sense the discomfort of an author too close to his subject? The earlier parts of the book read typically as the product of a mind detached, which has not lived through these events, but has read of them. Not so, perhaps, here.

It is the last few pages which redeem these failings. Heavily and openly allegorical, they are also an incisive summing-up of what ails the nation. This is the account of the journey of the five brothers and their common wife to the Himalayas. The first to fall is Draupadi for "Democracy always falters first- She can only be sustained by the strength of her husbands." Sahadeva falls, for "he knew what was right but did nothing with his knowledge. He stayed outside the country, saw its greatness and its failings in perspective but did not involve himself in its true struggle for survival." What a commentary on our Foreign Service cadre! Nakul is next to fall, for "he was too willing to serve institutions rather than values. Dharma consists of more than just doing one's duty as narrowly defined by one's immediate job. There is a larger duty, a duty to a greater cause, that Nakul ignored." An excellent summing-up of the failing of administrative bureaucracy in India. Once again it is the explanation of Arjuna's fall which does not ring true: "He believed himself to be perfect and allowed others to believe it. . . .His arrogance tripped him up." Bhim, the army, falls because, though he protected the country, "he did not do enough to shield Draupadi Mokrasi from abuse because he saw himself as only one of her guardians and placed his commitment to his brothers above his commitment to her." The most amusing, and the tour-de-force literally, comes in Yudhishthir refusing to accept heaven when Dharma irritably tells him that he has passed the tests and deserves to be praised. Yudhishthir wants to know why this is so. "What purpose has it served? Has my righteousness helped either me, my wife, my family or my country? Does justice prevail in India, or in its history? What has adherence to dharma achieved in our own story?" Dharma is scandalized and points out the precept that dharma must be practised at any cost, for dharma alone is eternal. Yudhisthir's response is the finest: piece of philosophy written by Tharoor: "India is eternal'there are no classical verities valid for all time. . . for too many generations now we have allowed ourselves to believe India had all the answers. . . Now I realise that we don't even know all the questions." And as he says this, the resplendent god, Dharma, begins to change slowly back into a dog!And V. V. wakes up from his dream to today's India, "of computers and corruption, of myths and politicians. . . beset with uncertainties, muddling chaotically through to the twentyfirst century."

Much to Ganapathi's horror, V.V. announces that he told the story from a wrong perspective, and must retell it! And he begins again. But that is another story. 


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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