Book Reviews

The Novel As Epic

The search for the meaning of Being is man's eternal quest and the subject of his greatest creations. Shivaji Sawant's Mrityunjaya is an outstanding instance of such a literary masterpiece in which a contemporary Marathi novelist investigates the meaning of the bewildering skein that is life through the personae of the Mahabharata protagonists. For over two decades since its first publication the vast non- Marathi and non-Hindi readership remained deprived of this remarkable exploration of the human psyche till the publication of this English translation by the Writers workshop – a contribution for which there is much to be grateful for.

Mrityunjaya is the autobiography of Karna, and yet it is not just that. With deceptive case, Sawant brings into play an exceptional stylistic innovation by combining six "dramatic soliloquies" to form the nine books of this novel of epic dimensions. Four books are spoken by Karna. These are interspersed with a book each from the lips of his unwed mother Kunti, Duryodhana (who considers Karna his mainstay), Shon (Shatruntapa, his foster-brother, who here-worships him), his wife Vrishali to whom he is like a god and, last of all, Krishna. Sawant depicts an uncanny similarity between Krishna and Karna and hints at a mystic link between them, investing his protagonist with a more-than-human aura to offset the un-heroic and even unmanly acts which mar this tremendously complex and utterly fascinating creating of Vyasa.

The beginning of the novel is riveting in its newness and simplicity: "I want to say something today.... a time comes when the dead have to speak too. When this flesh-and-bones living behave like the dead, then the dead have to come alive and speak out". That is Sawant's pregnant comment on the state of contemporary society, where class and caste ride roughshod over innate worth; where the most intimate ties are denied for the sake of conformity with social norms.

This blunt beginning is immediately capped with a succession of images. Memories are like peacock feathers or like vakula blossoms that fade but leave their fragrance behind; life's events disperse like herds of wild horses galloping crazily after ear-splitting flashes of lightning crash in a forest; life is a temple with Champanagari as its sweetest tinkling bell.

Sawant begins very much in the manner of an epic film, giving us first a panoramic view of life as a battlefield strewn with arrows and flashes of disparate memories of things past lighting up the gloom, with Karna's voice-over. He then zooms down in a sudden change of mood, to focus on "creeper-covered, bird-and –beast haunted" Champanagari where Karna's earliest memories begin. And why all this? "For one reason only", says Sawant's Karna. "To make sense of it for myself". And in that very reason lies the secret of the spell cast by the novel. For is not that the deepest craving of each one of us to make sense of our lives for ourselves?

Sawant's Karna is a rebel against caste. He does not hesitate to ask Drona who has refused to train him alongside the princes, " Are the royally born blessed with hundreds of arms? Why do they get this special importance?"

The keynote to Karna's character is egotism which cannot reconcile itself with low social status and absence of recognition. Sawant shows us a rebel who chooses the sun as guru and excels every one in skill and strength through self – discipline. A number of incidents are introduced to pour humiliation on Karna's head, such as Drona's rejection of his heroic capture of a cheetah for a sacrifice. Along with this we get an extremely realistic depiction of the perplexity within Karna who cannot understand why he alone should feel agitated at not being trained with the princes. With his crying need to be recognized and loved, Karna responds immediately to the affection displayed by Ashvatthama, who considers him the finest archer (why Kripa, the preceptor, never notices this remains a mystery), and to the sympathy shown by Duryodhana.

The turmoil within Karna arising out of his inability to understand why he feels ashamed to declare his lineage is splendidly brought out in the tournament. There, too, Sawant departs from Vyasa in having Bhishma declare Karna to have bested Arjuna's feats. Yet, this same Bhishma remains mysteriously silent when Bhima laughs at Karna for his low birth. That silence is repeated when the Pandavas are given Khandava forest to rule over and when Draupadi is disrobed in open court. Characteristically, Karna terms Bhishma a senile fool clinging to power only when he berates Karna for fleeing from the gandharvas and classes him as "ardha-rathi". That extreme sensitivity regarding his self-esteem is what makes Karna so appealingly human, and someone with whom we can identify, despite his being a hero.

Karna is not Sawant's only creation which is more fleshed out than in the Mahabharata. His Kunti is a splendid example of a character seen inside out and one can only marvel at the felicity with which a male author has got inside the skin of this epic heroine. Sawant shows us, in her own words, the three persons who make-up Kunti: the child Pritha given away by her father and made to abjure even her name and become Kuntibhoja's daughter Kunti; Maharani Kunti, losing Pandu to Madri and turning into a kingdomless widow mother of five sons; unwed mother Kunti, never able to acknowledge her son, let alone suckle him even for a moment.

Here is a life lived for others in utter loneliness. In that, her son resembles her uncannily, for Karna, too, lives for Duryodhana, for Vrishali, for his foster-parents, for all the mendicants who take alms from him, but, alas, never for himself, Kunti regards herself as a toy given away by her father, then a plaything of Durvasa (a telling give-away phrase) and thereafter made by Pandu to give to Madri that mantra which set her apart from other women.

Out of virtually nothing Sawant creates the characters of Vrishali and Shatruntapa- Shona to provide Karna's figure with those dimensions of love and fraternal affection which Vyasa does not give. Yet, in both relationships Karna is ever alone, ever unsatisfied and constantly lashed by the unsolved mystery of his true self. It is tragic that his conviction about his innate worth is not enough for him until that is recognized by society. And in that quest he turns himself into the greatest of gift-givers. Even in that act of a charity the motivation is that of self-glorification, an identification with the generosity of the sun, a driving need to carve an unforgettable niche for himself in the social memory. Sawant goes yet further and provides Karna with a second wife, Surpriya, and plays with the similarity of sound between Panchali and Vrishali, Subhadra and Supriya. And, in keeping with his concept of a hero, Sawant gives Karna eight sons, but no daughter.

Sawant carefully builds up a mysterious empathy between Krishna and Karna. Both are born Kshatriyas but are reared by low-caste foster parents. Both are of divine origin: both fight maternal cousins/ brothers. If Karna is known as a charioteer's son despite the kingship of Anga, Krishna performs the role of a charioteer in war. But, Karna, unlike Krishna, does not even wish to forget his foster parents and beloved of that Suta caste. And Sawant has Karna indict Krishna in words not to be found in any other creative work.

Krishna has never stirred a finger to extricate him out of the unremitting agonies suffered throughout life and displays the ultimate callousness in asking him to change sides before the war, besides adding to his torture and turmoil by revealing the truth of his birth. In an inspired image, Sawant describes Karna's self- sacrifice as the juice in which the seeds of Pandava fortune will be nurtured to bloom. Karna poses questions about Krishna which remain unanswered: why did he not slay Jarasandha with the infallible discuss? Why did he flee in Mathura? How could Jarasandha, whom Karna defeated, defeat Krishna? Above all, who is Krishna?

These are problems facing every reader of the epic and which defy explanation till one turns to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and his Krishna-charitra, another masterpiece remaining a closed book to the English – reading public over the past hundred years and more.

The high point in Sawant's portrayal comes in the totally engrossing picture he draws of the volcanic turmoil seething within Karna during the dice-game. Here is a superb depiction of the conflict between the sun-disciple the charioteer's son. Ultimately, it is the attachment to the Dury-odhana-gifted crown which throttles the sun-disciple's anguish at the humiliation of Draupadi; and the charioteer's son, incensed with Draupadi's avoiding him in her pleas for protection, calls her a harlot and the venom pours out in a series of powerful images: "Unsheathe the dark sword Draupadi from the scabbard of her clothes, she has been dangling all this while on the hips of the impotent Pandavas. Like the shrieking of a flock of parrots fluttering out of their tree-holes these words emerged scattering in a flurry of green feathers... I lifted the plate of my years- long neglect, filled with the flaming embers of revenge and emptied it on Draupadi's proud head".

In a masterly touch, Sawant has Karna suddenly feel it is Vrishali being assaulted instead of Draupadi, and thus realize that he has lowered himself to the level of Shishupala, or Kamsa.

The second outstanding scene in the novel is that of Karna becoming Vaikartana. Sawant's description of skin-less Karna is horrifying but transfixing. And it is typical of Karna that for self-glorification he should deprive himself of that very invulnerability for which he is prized by Duryodhana as his finest bulwark. Later, Sawant has Karna use the Indra-missile to save soldiers from Ghatotkacha, when they rush to him clamoring for this gift, and thus he loses the sure weapon for Arjuna's death and Duryodhana's victory. When Karna rejects Krishna's offer, he does so with the declaration that the coming battle will be his alone and his body will be its unique holocaust, the likes of which will never be seen and will make him eternally memorable.

Sawant's Karna-Kunti meeting is of a stature which is in no way inferior to that of Tagore and Buddhadev Bose. This is one of the finest bits of writing ever done along with the Karna Krishna meeting. Karna reveals before Kunti his deepest desire: a united kingdom of millions of Kaurava descendants linked in harmonious kinship, for which he gladly becomes the foundation stone with his life laid down for Pandavas.

The last few pages describing Karna's death and funeral are possibly the most poignant in the book. Karna's Karna-hood as the supreme gift-giver is taken to a shattering climax with the dying here breaking his golden teeth to gift to a Brahmin.

A magnificent creating indeed. In translating from the Hindi translation of the Marathi original, P. Lal and Nandini Nopany almost never give one the sense of being twice removed from the original. Here and there, some mistranslations do occur and a few images (which are Sawant's strongest point) have been missed. Sawant himself makes certain inexplicable errors, such as turning the Kuru dynasty into a solar one, possibly to reinforce Karna's fascination with the Hastinapura throne, when the Mahabharata categorically classifies it as a lunar dynasty. He also has Krishna referred to constantly as a king, although this is not the purana-itihasa tradition.

These can be overlooked as not major issues. One cannot, however, avoid pointing out jarring translations such as "back arm" in place of "rear arm" (p.321); "indeliberately" (p.526) use of the jocular "discombodulated" in a serious context (p.531) the inappropriate "vizier" on page 28 and the repeated occurrence of "pipe-guns" and "fire-guns" (for "shataghni") at a time when gunpowder was unknown.

Most of all, one misses Sawant's preface to the 1983 Hindi edition which takes the reader into the making of this great literary work. All this does not, however, detract from the overwhelming impact of Sawant's magnum opus which has deservedly won a place in practically every Marathi household and now, surely will become a treasured part of the consciousness of English litterateurs.

Mrityunjaya: The Death Conqueror by Shivaji Sawant. Translated by P. Lal and Nandini Nopany. (Writers Workshop, Calcutta. Rs.400).  


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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