Book Reviews

Vidur's Mother,

Pritha's First and Duryodhan

Buddhadeb Bose, the torchbearer of modernism in Bengali literature, was not one to discard as uselessly archaic the wealth of our cultural heritage. His attempt to find meaning in the vast ocean of epic lore for our present existence is represented in his verse-plays on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and his profound study of Yudhishthira as the central protagonist of the epic in a series of essays. While Mahabharater Katha was made accessible to the reader in English in Professor Sujit Mukherjee’s excellent translation in 1986, the deeply humane insights of the plays remained inaccessible to the non-Bengali reader. Finally, Kanak Kanti De has made good this lacuna by translating into English Sankranti [The Ending], Pratham Partha [The First Born], and Anamni Angana [Angana Unnamed] as Three Mahabharata Verse Plays (Writer's Workshop, Calcutta, 1991).

Why De should expect the reader to work backwards through the epic story by placing at the beginning the play on the last day of the war, climaxing in Duryodhan’s death, followed by the Karna-Kunti, Karna-Draupadi and Karna-Krishna encounters on the eve of the war, and end with the story of Vidura’s nameless mother, remains inexplicable. Moreover, why reduce Bose’s quartet of verse-dramas on the Mahabharata to a trio and deprive the reader of the poet’s evocation of the doomsday dimension of the epic, infused with an element of poetic justice in the annihilation of Krishna’s kith and kin, with reverberations ominously echoing the fateful crisis of a disintegrating polity in Kalsandhya, which was Bose’s first foray into Mahabharata epic material (1967-68)? These are obvious questions bound to arise in the reader’s mind which the translator’s excellent “Introduction” ought to have anticipated.

Composition-wise (De does not provide this essential data), Anamni Angana and Sankranti (both 1970) come after Pratham Partha which was published in 1969. It is interesting to see Bose first tackling Mahabharata from its very end, the Mausala Parva, possibly because in the 1960s the threat of nuclear annihilation was terrifyingly close and the senseless carnage in which the inhabitants of Dvaraka slaughtered one another became a paradigm for the Cold War world in Kalsandhya. From that general overview, Bose came to grips with the existential angst of man seeking for the meaning of being, aching to achieve some sort of self-actualization, in the story of Karna capturing the very core of his psyche as he is caught between Scylla and Charybdis, tempted in turn by his natural mother Pritha, his far-beloved Draupadi, and finally by Krishna, “whom some call the Perfect Human”, to find liberation ultimately in remaining true to himself, standing in solitary splendor like the Senecan tragic hero, “I am myself, alone”. Thereafter, Bose turned to create, out of virtually nothing beyond a passing reference in the epic, an ineffably romantic yet profoundly philosophic picture of the sudden summons with which a palace maid was faced—once again using a crisis to plumb the depths of character and investigating the transformation the personality undergoes having passed through an experience which is revolting to a queen but soul-stirring for the nameless maid. That play is also important because it is here that Bose became the first modern interpreter of the epic to accuse Shantanu bluntly through the mouth of a palace maid of being so maddened by lust as to lose sight of his son’s welfare. It is this taint of Lust in Action which dooms the dynasty of Chandra, whose seeds are sowed by its founder, the Venus fly-trap flowering in the heart-rending predicament of Yayati, full-grown in Pandu’s realization that lust and violence are twin fruits of the same tree of desire, and reaching its terrifying acme in the lust-rooted suicidal carnage of the Yadavas. Bose hints at it in Ambika’s question: why are kings childless—is there a taint in royal blood, a disease “fattening on luxury” [not translated on p. 15]?

Anamni Angana, the most lyrical of the trio, has been translated as Angana Unnamed. Bose was punning in the title, for “Angana” means “one belonging to the courtyard”, as opposed to the inner apartments of a palace that are royalty’s prerogative. In other words, the word refers to a serving woman. The pun lies in the protagonist being referred to only as “Angana” by every character in the play. She does not even possess the very basis of individuality—a name, which her companions Ruma, Sunanda and Hiranmati possess. Therefore, the title really means, “Nameless Maid”, an implication not brought out in the translation.

Further, in this play Bose has consistently stressed the dialectical tension between Ambika, the queen, and her nameless female slave. The bait, the temptation Ambika dangles before her, is that instead of having to buy her freedom so that she can marry the person she loves, she will be gifted it along with a dowry. This aspect is slurred over by translating the reference to her condition as that of a “maid” (Bose has throughout used the word dasa, meaning “slave” or “bondwoman”) thereby detracting from the class-tension the playwright had sought to portray.

One of the most evocative scenes is that in which Ambika eagerly questions her maidservant about the night in obnoxious Vyasa’s arms, revealing a prurient curiosity which turns into jealousy and finally amazement. The earthy imagery Bose has used to describe Angana’s experience of Vyasa has been transcreated memorably by De:

Yes, his smell overwhelmed me-
a mixed aroma-
rising as if from grassy fields,
of herbs, wild beasts, and woods,
of distant salty seas,
of earth, freshly ploughed paddy field, filled with seeds,
or the branch of an ancient tree, marked with time.
In spite of that,
as from the old banyan tree burst out
the young green leaves of spring,
a smile, a moment,
dropped from that face into me
and rising out from me, dissolved into him. . . .
Lifting me out of my shell, by then
he had strewn me over the earth—
like new rice, spattered from paddy.

Bose has set up another tension between this experience and the set of images which form the “shell” of Angana’s virginal dreams—of her husband’s hut, thatch glowing gold in the sun, under the shivering shadows of a tamarind tree. Yet another tension is set up between the serene earthy imagery of the Vyasa-encounter and Angana’s vision of her son [a major portion of which has not been translated by De] on the one hand and the lines with which the play ends, powerfully echoing Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” in describing the Vyasa-Angana encounter, on the other:

In the dark of the night, merciless,
the great bird swooped.
With cruel beak and nails ravaged her.

It is another matter that this image contradicts all that Angana has said so far of her union with Vyasa, where no such violent violation has been spoken of, but instead an ineffable gentleness has been stressed repeatedly.

The other unforgettable passage is Satyavati’s iridescently romantic description of Parashara soliciting her in mid-Yamuna, which has been very sensitively brought alive on stage by Shaoli Mitra in her superb one-woman dramatization of the epic, Katha Amrita Saman.

The description of the characters with which the translation begins is itself incomplete. Thus, Satyavati is “Santanu’s [sic.] widowed wife”, leaving out the original “Vichitravirya’s mother”, which is essential. Ambika is only “Vichitravirya’s widowed wife” instead of “widowed wife of Vichitravirya, son of Shantanu”. The first stage direction has the awkward “Angana’s song in a humming tone” which could have been rendered as “Angana hums a song”. The song itself is not fully translated [the underlined portions indicate the missing parts in the translation]:

weaves merry patterns with deft hands,
on meeting, sweet is the smile of his eyes,
soft are his few words. . .

Similar lines and half-lines from the original text remain untranslated in this work. Unfortunately, these include some highly evocative images, such as in the speech of the Second Maid on page 125 where the line “Not a single night’s festival of lights” has been dropped. In the Third Maid’s speech on the same page, the last line, which is a terse, pregnant direction in the original [tar par anya sab] has unaccountably been diluted into “the fun can wait”. The Third Maid is not being salacious at all, but is very seriously cautioning her friend against pre-marital slips. Hence, a more fitting version would be “then—the rest”. On page 126, again in the Third Maid’s speech, the translator has her “set my eyes on a neighbor youth”, which implies that she went for a conquest. The original, however, has her speak of her mishap, for “When young I, too, had let my eyes meet those of a neighbor”, but as her mother lacked resources for a dowry, “hence, finally, hands did not meet” [not translated]. De’s translation in this passage also deprives the original of its ineffable romantic touch by referring to “the weaver’s son who smiles sweetly”, whereas the original speaks of “his eyes that smile sweetly”. De misses out a very important statement at the end of the first long speech by Angana, on page 127. The translation only says, “But Queen Ambika/is reluctant” while the original categorically says, “But Devi Ambika/is not agreeable to free me”, which makes her bondwoman status clear as is necessary for appreciating the tension the playwright seeks to build up between the protagonists in the play. On the same page, the chorus of the three maids is deprived of the First Maid’s outcry, coming as the climactic third statement after those of the other two: “Of deer the hunt-addicted Kshatriya!” That is an important line because the previous one spoken by the Second Maid denounces the cow-greedy Brahmin, bracketing him with the Third Maid’s comparison of the fondness of a carnivore for female birds. Angana, therefore, is no more than animal in the eyes of her mistress. Ambika’s response, as reported by Angana, is also truncated, missing out the line “your husband too I’ll employ in the palace”, without which Angana’s refusal to subject him to slavery, which follows, makes no sense. From that two significant lines have been dropped: “how could I put round his neck the slave’s collar?/No—I cannot do that—not on any account!”

De misses out the violent picture of unbridled lust Bose conjures up in the speech of the Second Maid by not translating on p. 130 two lines (untranslated portions are italicized):

threw himself on the two wives’ bodies
with such abandon that death, hunting for chinks,
bound him in consumption’s coils,
tore him away even in his youth.

On p. 143, a line in Satyavati’s exhortation to Ambika has not been translated, viz. “scented in garlands and heart’s desire”. On p. 144 Ambika’s “I hear accusation—against” should be, “I hear accusation—suffering”. Again, for Ambika to call her bondmaid “beautiful”, as De translates sushri would be out of character for the arrogant, selfish queen. The condescending “good looking” would be a more appropriate translation, going well with the subsequent statement that no other maid is “as pretty as you”. Ambika’s over-dramatic exhortation, urging her maid to reveal her inmost thoughts has been translated too plainly as “Speak out/your thoughts, and tell me/if you have any special desire”, while the original is powerfully rhetorical:

Span the chasm between your thought and speech,
unite speech and desire! [my translation]

On p. 150, Ambika’s explanation of her revulsion has not been translated in full. Instead of “I did it once—for an heir—in vain, the son was blind from birth. / I won’t a second time”, it ought to read:

I accepted once—for an heir was essential.
But the attempt did not fructify—son born blind.
Hence, the second time I cannot face.
If you wish to call me weak, do so.

Ambika, typically, can see nothing wrong with herself. What Bose has not included is Vyasa’s warning to Satyavati that the two queens are tainted with Vichitravirya’s unbridled lust and need to purify themselves by observing a year-long vow. Satyavati, “hungry for grandsons”, overrules him, and urges immediate impregnation, telling her daughters-in-law that their elder brother-in-law will visit them for the purpose. Naturally, they await the renowned Bhishma, their abductor. That is why the shock is all the greater, and the revulsion, when Ambika, a princess who can face only what is tender, refined, graceful, meets instead

this venerable great soul
like a stone hard—profound—immovable,
some huge rock—black—
through which a mountain torrent
bursts forth-suddenly, [my translation]

De’s translation fails to keep pace, at times, with the imagery of the original. Thus, Angana’s “You have carried my ears so far, my tired mind tarries behind” misses out the imagery of distance and the failing laborious steps to keep up: “You have drawn my hearing to such distant reaches—my tired mind fails to keep company”’. The translation of Angana’s song on p. 155 leaves out key words and lines (italicized):

Why the sandal paste, the garland,
why the bridal dress,
queen’s robes on a slave’s limbs,
if in dark night’s cave finally
one has to turn beast. . .
or is it that the same slain beast reborn
will rise the woman pure?

On several occasions, De translates sadhu as “thanks” whereas it connotes approval. Ambika’s character will not permit her to thank her bondmaid, but she does approve of her compliant conduct (p. 156), while simultaneously reminding Angana that she must bow to royalty despite being a freed woman.

The translator has not stated which edition of the plays he has used as his source-text. Towards the end of the play, a number of passages appearing in the 1960 Ananda Publishers edition are missing. Thus, on p. 150 Angana does not say “Again? No, no!/Once is enough” which clashes with all that has gone before and is more typical of Ambika. Rather, she says, “That I would see him once, even that I hadn’t ever dreamt,/what I have seen even that perhaps is a dream.” On p. 159, Angana’s reply begins with “I do not know” (missing in the translation), and “fading drawl” is definitely an inappropriate Englishing of deergha nirghosha, which means “extended or deep roar”. Ambika’s retort, which follows, is incomplete because her “they do not take but give” lacks a referral. That line is “Those famed as rishis” which has been missed out in the translation. Also, “Plain rustics” is no substitute for “inexperienced Shudra maids” on the same page. Angana’s description of her experience of Vyasa (p. 161} should read:

“But still
when the night was most silent
and the darkness most deep,
he grew so unspeakably soft, so limitlessly light,
that at night’s end, the moment before dawn,
it seemed to me
that only the blowing of his breath made me pregnant.”

On p. 164, Vidura has been described as “quiet” for the original dheer. “Serene” would be more appropriate. The last two speeches of Ambika and Angana depart considerably from the 1970 text, with no indication of the reasons for this. The missing portions are given below in my translations:

“AMBIKA: If he takes after his father
then know that for him you
are but a tunnel, through which
will occur his arrival on this earth; only two
orificed gushing springs devoted to exuding
his fostering; only two loving, laboring hands
that will gift his body growth,
but the need will end soon. And then
his life will leave his mother’s shores—where
you will not even know.
(after a slight pause, bitterly)
No cause for elation in this.

Angana: Elation, Devi? No—
Only a dim feeling, a current in my blood,
a murmur in the dark caverns of my body.
Is it not wondrous, Devi,
that all the emptinesses in me,
all are being filled by one drop of Vyasadev—
moment after moment?
Is it not wondrous
that I have known the mysteries of woman’s body,
tasted my own femininity,
as through I have drunk mine own essence,
like some reviving nectar,
at your command, one night, for all time?
And now
after that night my prayer is but this:
accept the offering of my gratitude
by binding me again in your service.

AMBIKA: But why, Angana?
I am experienced, listen to me:
No greater sorrow than husbandlessness for woman,
and life is long. And your youth is but just begun,
your door just unbarred.
In whose future you’ll have no part,
whose thoughts will exceed your imagination,
joys and sorrows beyond your understanding,
for that son why will you make barren your flowering puberty? . . .

ANGANA: No, Devi, not for my son—
It is for myself, I wish to see the far-wanderer
from the shore. I wish to see
my victory pennant against the sky—
the only sign of white purity—
when horrid war has bloodied earth . . .
my memento, my proof, my identity.
Hence, Devi, for me bondage is today a welcome ornament
anonymous existence a fortress
within whose shelter my seedfull night—
without agitation, without waste—
can fructify like bunches of golden grain
born within me, but whose enjoyer is the future.
Compassionate one, give me shelter ...
With ruthless speed the mighty bird swooped,
rent every limb with steely beak,
sharp nails rived open the body,
ravaged the bud,
tore off all leaves . . .
the new birdlet
now slowly lifts up from the earth
into the light of the dawn—
in the blue sky—

Occasionally, stage directions in the original have been left out in the translation, as on p. 132 where the Third Maid puts her hand on Angana’s shoulder after the first two lines to persuade her to come away to work. On p. 134, the “slight smile” with which Satyavati answers Ambika’s revulsion about Vyasa is missing. One wonders why where pranam is used without translation, devi should be turned into the jarring “lady”, or be omitted altogether in translation on several occasions (p. 156, 158, 160) although no bondmaid would dare address her owner without the honorific.

The First Born, or more appropriately Pritha’s First, follows far more consciously the Greek Tragedy model, with a chorus of old men providing the backdrop and commentary to the cut-and-thrust of Karna’s encounters. The challenge Bose faced has to be appreciated in order to gauge the extent of his achievement as a creative artist. Already Aparesh Chandra had turned the episode into a hugely popular “jatra”, Karna-Arjun which had been staged by a star cast consisting of Bengali filmdom’s biggest names: Durgadas Bandopadhyaya, Jahar Ganguly, Monoranjan Bhattacharya (the author of the fascinating Chakravyuha in Shakuni’s role) and Kananbala. Kshirodeprasad Bidyabinode’s play Nara Narayana revolved around Karna’s relationship with Krishna. Tagore had written his famous “Karna-Kunti Sambad”. Bose radically departed from them by inverting the ordinal epic sequence. Krishna comes last of all, instead of being the first, to meet Karna. Kunti, who meets her son last of all in Vyasa, is the first to confront him here. And, most arresting of all, Bose introduces Draupadi who holds out to Karna the tempting offer of friendship. Further, by having old citizens of Hastinapura as witnesses to the three encounters, Bose imposes a Grecian Chorus effect on the structure, wholly foreign to Vyasa, but an integral part of the verse-play he creates. Each encounter is used as a sharply honed psychological probe for opening up the innermost workings of the heart and mind of Karna, climaxing in the ultimate statement, when he has found himself, that he glories in the defeat which he knows to be inevitable, for it is engineered painstakingly by not Arjuna, but Krishna, “whom some declare finest of men—world-sustainer”. Bose also sets up in this play a novel juxtaposition of Karna and Vibhishan as standing for opposing ideals of conduct—

“Are they good who rebel in crisis?
Perhaps against Ravana’s brother Vibhishan (De adds a gratuitous “the betrayer” and omits ‘Ravana’s brother”)
in history Karna will stand as an example.”

He frees Draupadi of the responsibility of having denied Karna the right to contest for her hand, attributing it to the whispered command of the royal priest, and has her point out to Karna the uncanny resemblance between him and Arjuna.

By and large the translation here is more satisfying than the earlier play. There is little lyricism, and much more conflict. However, on p. 64 “how friendship was galled to hatred” does not adequately translate the original. It could, more faithfully, read:

“how friendship was destroyed,
how enmity was fed fat
so far ...”

While describing Karna on p. 66 “he doesn’t indulge in hunting or women” is too bald a version for “Hunting is not his vice nor women his indulgence”. The critical nature of the encounter is divested of its urgency by omission of “at this moment” after “it rests on him...whether the Kurus will live or die”. Not “justice” but “sound sense” is the meaning intended by Bose when he says that subichar is better than utter ruin.

In Kunti’s exhortation to the old men on p. 67 the poignancy of her appeal loses much in De’s cryptic “you will keep secret-for ever.” It would be a more complete translation to say, “you will keep immured in your memory—for ever. None will hear of it from your lips.” On p. 71 the line “Pritha’s first, his name” is incomplete as the phrase “Bharata dynast” has to come in the beginning. The virulence of Karna’s report when he is told that he is the son of the Sun is partially lost in “even the worm, born of excrement, is not an exception”, which ought to read, “even the worm, born of animal excreta, is also Surya’s son.” On p. 73 Kunti’s description of her impregnation, “Devoted to them I was”, makes no sense as there is no referral. The original clearly states, “Devoted to the gods I was”. The speech also misses out the line “unaccustomed to youth, but heart and mind eager, awaiting some untasted honey” after “That night I was bathed”. And, on p. 76 surely “Cry out your fie” is idiomatically unacceptable and could be replaced by, “Hurt me, despise me!” On p. 77 Karna’s “Pain—futile now” should read, “Pain-remorse-penance: all meaningless now.” The last line of that same speech is incomplete without “even if I stretch forth hands” after “will fail to reach you now.” The scorn in Karna’s reply after he has understood why Kunti has approached him at long last is not fully communicated in De’s “So—this sudden flow of love for the long forgotten child?” A more complete alternative would be: “For only that, this discarded son today you anointed with maternal love?”


In this play, too, Bose has hinted at a dialectical tension between classes which the translation misses out on p. 78 in Karna’s description of his humiliation in the royal tournament. It is not “all the assembly” that laughed at his lineage, but “the elite”. And the enormity of the humiliation is sought to be conveyed in the sheer magnitude numbers, which De unaccountably reduces to “a thousand eyes” from the original “millions”. He does not also use “forgotten” as a hammering refrain ramming home the indelible quality of this heart-rending experience for Karna in last sentence which should read “But—I have not forgotten” instead of the plain “I have not”. Kunti caps it, seeking to establish rapport, by using that same word in her reply, “Nor have I forgotten that moment”, which De renders as, “Nor I. I remember the moment”. The rivalry between Surya and Indra which Bose borrows from Vyasa’s description of Karna and Arjuna facing-off is missing from De’s rendering. “The shine of the sun on face/on Arjun’s the shade of the god of the clouds” could be more appropriately conveyed by “Suryadev’s splendor on your face, on Arjuna the cloud-blue shade of Indra”. It is “a sight entrancing to other women” (not “all women”, for that would include Kunti). In his reply on p. 79, Karna mockingly echoes Kunti’s proud exhortation on p.72, “Only the mother knows who her son is, only the mother knows who is her child’s father”. De loses this dimension of a riposte by translating Karna’s reply as, “Only the mother knows whose womb has brought the child on earth, only the mother knows who fathered him” instead of, “Only the mother knows who is the child’s mother, only the mother knows who is the child’s father.” 

It is interesting to compare Bose’s imagery for the Surya-Kunti encounter with that of the Vyasa-Angana meeting. In both the core image is one of softness: a ray of Surya, a whisper of Vyasa, at the moment when the night meets the dawn, casting the recipient into a profound slumber. But where Angana glories in her pregnancy and in her child being an apostle of peace, Kunti is lost in shame and frantic to get rid of her godly progeny.

Another image that Bose repeats consciously on pages 72 and 87 is an extension of this, describing Karna’s faint memory of his true origins in terms of a far-off murmur half-heard in the depths of a dream. De would have contributed considerably to our understanding of the plays had he, in his Introduction, done a comparative study of this aspect. Another image Bose repeats is that of Karna “condemned without a trial, defeated without a test”, on two occasions leaving a royal assembly “silently, with bowed head” (not translated on p. 82), because Kunti’s “dharma slept”.

Bose has Kunti shamelessly attempt to incite Karna’s suppressed desires by having her tell him directly that she knows him to be worthy of Draupadi, “maybe the worthiest”, and inviting him “So I say, come, accept the woman/of your desire”. But she does not say, “and by dharma the wife of your brothers is your wife too”, as De translates. She puts it quite differently: “So I say, come with me, take your desired woman;/Panchali, wife of five Pandavas—by dharma your spouse too.” Kunti’s sharp retort to the intervention of an old man is incompletely translated (the missing portions are italicized):

But can you
douse the flames of Duryodhan’s envy . . .
will never give a needle’s point of land without war.

Karna’s reply to Kunti, seeking to fire her imagination, loses the trenchant force of the original: 

“sight for the eyes of the gods,
for the memory of eternity, a fight
between two of the same single womb?”
This could be translated as:
“Do you not see how beautiful, how wondrous that event—
a sight for the gods, eternally memorable,
two duelling men born of the same womb?”

Kunti’s speech on p. 86, as translated, contains some inaccuracies. She does not plead that Karna should return to her with his five brothers after the war “in peace”, but “with joy”. She describes herself as “not only a queen, not only a leader, a woman—for my solace, can you not return?” In response, Karna asks her to give him leave not “with a smile”’, but “with a serene heart”. It is not “remorse” but “sorrow” that he assures her he will not feel. His farewell words to Kunti are also incompletely translated (omitted portions are italicized) :

“You in your own place, with five Pandavas,
And I, in my loneliness.”

The speech of the First Old Man on p. 87 has some mistakes in translation. Instead of “Longer the shade, sunshine mellows into crimson”, it ought to read, “Shadows lengthen,/afternoon’s yellow touches the sunshine . . , Dharmaraj would come and fall at Karna’s feet, Arjun would humbly brave his pardon, panic would spring in Duryodhan’s heart (italicized parts not translated).” In his description of Draupadi, the phrases “dulcet voiced, jewel among women” have been omitted. In her speech about Karna on p. 89, it is incorrect to translate “I hate him though” instead of “but I consider him despicable”. Draupadi’s anguish is hardly conveyed through the cryptic “my utter disgrace”, where the original speaks of “my unspeakable, unimaginable disgrace”. Substituting the original’s “general of the gods” by the far less intelligible “Kartikeya” on p. 90 in the speech of the First Old Man does not appear justified. On p. 92 part of Draupadi’s speech is not fully translated (omitted portions are italicized):

“Bhishma, Drona will fight on the Kaurava side,
but only with bodily strength, force of weapons—
not with heart, mind and soul...
Only Karna exists, sworn enemy of Pandavas
and mighty—only he will fight with all his heart and soul
. . . should I meet Karna, or will that be improper?”

On p. 96 the first line of Karna’s speech is not “That is what I feel too, Panchali”, but “You have expressed my inmost feelings, Panchali”. A key line is omitted from Draupadi’s reply: “You seem to be kin of Arjun himself” and “in a flash at times the resemblance is captured”. Her description of the bridegroom-choice ceremony is unsatisfactorily translated with several omissions and inaccuracies. The complete version would read:

“I saw only a flash of radiance,
only the hint of a radiant man,
because right then the priest whispered into my ears: . . .
I dropped my eyes, understood you were going back,
When you were at the door, my sight darted towards you,
at that moment you were gone.
--Karna, why sigh?

KARNA: It is not good, Panchali,
not good to stir up pains anew,
revive that burning,
that injustice unredressed.
Drupada’s daughter, go back.
I cannot bear your beauty’s radiance,
your dulcet voice is torture to me ...
My memory, too, is dim. Only this I recall:
Suddenly I saw you in the assembly-hall-
a flood of tears in your eyes, your eyes burning in rage,
dishevelled hair, disarrayed dress,
more resplendent in your shame, radiant in insult,
beautiful as blazing flames,
agitated like a storm-tossed boat,
a wondrous, agonizing unveiling,
an unbelievable heart-stirring revelation.
And at that instant
my blood set afire,
as if my head exploded, darkness shrouded my thoughts,
wild tremors in my nerves—
desire, anger, grief—all together,
massive desire, limitless grief—together;
and then—I can’t recollect precisely:
Did I laugh out aloud—as if drunk?
Disgorged—some words—my abomination?
Only this little I know: None understood
the meaning of that blind outburst of mine.”

On p. 99 the line “that injustice you spoke of” has been omitted after “Still I have a question to ask” from Draupadi’s speech. On p. 100 the first line of Karna’s reply to Draupadi is incomplete: “He who is not born in the Bharata dynasty, he will get a share of the kingdom! . .. Again I hear my inmost feelings on your lips.” Draupadi’s speech that follows omits the fourth line: “Not joining your camp, not the opposite camp—detached.” On p. 101 the last line of Draupadi’s speech is incomplete: “but you are not even Kshatriya by birth”. On the same page the line, “I shall speak the truth” has been omitted in the translation of Draupadi’s speech before, “I want the fall of the Kauravas”. The translation of Karna’s critical speech in response to Draupadi’s offer of friendship is unsatisfactory. I give an alternative version:

So much destruction, so many deaths, endangered state-
and then amity with the five Pandavas,
with Draupadi’s friendship—
of Adhiratha’s son Vaikartan.
What are the Pandavas to me?…Nothing.
Did I want to be Draupadi’s friend? . . . Only
This is my answer, Panchali: No!
Know that I am sworn to oppose the Pandavas
with all my arms, till the last drop of my blood—
not for Duryodhan, but because
in that alone is my fulfillment.”

Karna’s reply on p. 103 to Draupadi’s exclamation “Such thirst for battle!” loses significantly in its poetic quality as the translation unnecessarily departs from the repetitive, reiterative cadence of Bose. For instance, Bose dose not write “Victory is sought by both—Pandavas and Kauravas”, “nobody is my friend or adversary” and “I am alone, free”, but “Today the Pandavas are eager for victory, the Kauravas are eager for victory”, “no one is my friend, none do I consider my foe” and “I am free, I am alone”. This is true of the speech of the First Old Man on p. 107 too which should read, “But none is as able as he, I have heard; none is as wise as he, I have heard”, instead of De’s “But he is the ablest man, I heard, I heard he is the wisest”. “Karna, do not fight, and be my friend” on p. 109 should read”,Karna, do not fight. I want to be your friend.” Karna’s reply to Krishna on p. 110, “The sun sinks into the night, morning sees him fresh. But our bygone times, only in fancies come, in moments of unawareness” could be rendered instead as:

“The sun sinks into dusk,
reborn again at dawn. But we
can travel back in time-only in fantasy,
in some unaware moment sometimes.”

On p. 115, “defeat has been with me for long./Its taste is strong/ . . . Poverty fails to daunt them . . . Defeat remains/That bitter pang, during anguish./Krishna, I am insatiate”, should read, 

“defeat has been my companion ever. The taste of defeat is sharp...
Pandavas losing all, yet win…Defeat none forgets.
Bitter that frenzy, unforgettable heart-burning,
no satiety, even now I am unsated.” 

De’s translation of Krishna’s speech on p. 113 leaves out his description of Karna as “you are a renouncer” in the first line after “Karna, I know you are free from greed”. The rhetorical structure of Krishna’s speech is lost in De’s translation on p. 115, where he is repeatedly urging Karna to reconsider his decision: 

“So I say-not because Kunti is your mother,
or for family ties,
but for the general good of man,
for mitigation of their sorrows. Can’t you allow some pliance,
your ego forgotten, and come
back to your blood?”
This should read:
“Hence I say—
not because Kunti is your mother,
not blindly obeying commands of family ties,
but for mankind’s welfare.
for mitigating humanity’s sorrows
can you not, today, be pliant,
can you not return to your own blood-line,
can you not forget your ego?”

On p. 116 Krishna’s reply to Karna’s “My war is mine—my personal thing” is not “Your personal war—with whom? and why?” but “With whom? for what? what is the attraction?” Similarly, his reply on p. 117 is not the monosyllabic “Yours” but “Not Arjun’s—Karna’s”, which Bose places in rhythmic opposition to Karna’s “the end...either Arjun’s or Karna’s”, not De’s “the end…Arjun’s or mine”.

As Karna moves towards realizing his self-fulfillment, his tone gets more steady, calm. This is reflected in Bose’s stage directions. De unaccountably omits this, as on p. 118 top where Karna is described as “calmly” answering Krishna. Again, after Krishna’s disclosure of how he will ensure Arjun’s victory, Karna’s calm is shaken, which Bose conveys through the stage direction, “suddenly shuddering”, which De omits. De’s translation of Krishna’s fateful pronouncement is an inadequate rendition and could perhaps be improved thus:

“I am no warrior, Karna, I am but a bringer-about—
I sometimes join, sometimes sever,
but myself remain ever aloof.
In the duel of the two Parthas too
my role shall be a spectator’s.
But as you are both equal in valor and strength,
equally dextrous in use of arms;
as between you
defeat of one by the other cannot be—
hence I
without a touch, very subtly
will have to loosen the knot,
will have to hasten the end ....
And then
when straining to lift the chariot-wheel you
are sweating, anxious, bow-and-arrow-less,
then I will say, “Arjun,
don’t hesitate!
This is your chance! Slay the enemy!”
Swift will be Arjun’s response:
your head, truncated by anjalik the thunder-shaft,
will fade away like a ray
into the high skies, in the sun’s sphere.”

The word “pet” used by De is hardly the appropriate translation of ashrita describing Arjuna’s standing with Krishna. The correct word would be “protégé”. Krishna’s reply to Karna’s bitter denunciation has also not been satisfactorily rendered. The alternative can be:

“Do not judge impatiently, friend,
hear me out to the end.
Arjuna may be my protégé,
but today you are the chosen.
For you have I prepared a gift—
befitting only a hero like you,
and which none other than you deserves—
the acme of glory, the ultimate achievement,
a final and unending “hail”,
a death that lashes all ages into agony,
an immortality more glorious every day.”

Karna’s reply could be translated as follows:

“Krishna, you have told me something precious:
My defeat does not lie in Arjuna’s hands.
And with that
you have honored me beyond hope.
For my sake you too will turn intriguer,
from back-stage step forward
to become my antagonist—you!—in Arjun’s guise.
My life’s supreme moment,
the sating of all my desires,
the fulfillment of all my dreams—
that will be gifted me by—not Arjuna—but you—
you, Krishna, whom some call
the best of men—world-sustainer.
I accept, I am blissful, I am blessed in my defeat.. .
No—if ever I have done a noble deed.
if ever I was though worthy of your affection,
then bless me, grant that I never return.
This once—that suffices for me.”

After the lyricism of Angana Unnamed and the high-seriousness of Pratham Partha shot through with lyrical vignettes, we come finally to the unrelieved gloom of the of the appropriately named Sankranti, “The Ending”. Bose has used the structure of the epic, which is related by Sanjaya to the blind Dhritarashtra, for keeping all the action off-stage in Greek tragedy fashion, bringing home the tragic action through the reactions of the blind royal couple to their charioteer’s running account of the events as they occur on the last evening of the battle, climaxing in the death of their only surviving son, their first-born. Bose daringly seeks to focus the heroism and nobility of Duryodhan against the unfair means adopted by the Pandavas.

The third line from the beginning of the play has been translated by De as “birds sing, beasts come out for food”, while the original has “birds spread wings, insects hum”. De’s translation of dharma as “holy” is questionable, for Bose’s connotation has nothing to do with the sacred, rather “righteous” is nearer the sense. It would have been best to retain the original dharma which is actually untranslatable by a single word. On p. 25 De’s “Neither victory, nor defeat; only friendship is good” does not convey the reiterative rhythm of Dhritarashtra’s message: “Welfare lies not in victory, welfare lies not in defeat, amity alone is auspicious”. On p. 26 Dhritarashtra’s “There! The war drums!” is an incomplete translation of the original, “There sound trumpets, war-drums!” As Dhritarashtra extols his son’s valor, his voice changes which is indicated in the stage direction “his voice grows powerful” [omitted by De], which ought to come on p. 27 after the fifth line of Dhritarashtra’s speech. It is another matter that the blind love of Dhritarashtra is revealed by Bose in the very next line, “whose arrows like Arjuna’s never miss the mark”, for Duryodhan was the first to fail the archery test organized Drona, and was ever the mace-wielder. Nor was he adept with the sword as Bose has his father apostrophize. In the translation De is not consistent for here he uses the original khargha, although on p. 33 he switches to “sword”. He has, similarly, on p. 37 retained the original Airavatvarsha, Mahakal and Agrahayan without providing any gloss, making comprehension difficult for the foreign reader. On p. 29 before Sanjaya’s last speech De has omitted Dhritarashtra’s interjection: “And Duryodhan? What of him’?” The last line of Sanjaya’s description of Shalya’s corpse has been omitted from p. 34 after “only a heap, human-shaped, of five elements”, which reads: “fragments, sieve-like, insensible”.

On p. 38 top Sanjaya’s speech has not been translated in full. Instead of “Those who were living are dying fast. Who will be left to live after this? To whom will the children turn?” it should read: “Even the remnants are ending. After this who will live here, which father will shelter the children?” On p. 42 De has translated Sanjaya’s narration as though he were reproducing Yudhishthira s speech. That is not so. Bose only refers to many voices shouting. Hence, instead of “Come, choose armor and arms. Choose any one from the five of us. We demand a duel”, it should read: “Come out! Put on armor. Choose arms./Choose any one of the five Pandavas./We want battle.” Accordingly, Dhritarashtra’s response is not, “Fools! Do they all want to die?” but: “What idiotic talk! Do they want all five brothers to be destroyed?” On the same page De has omitted the last line with which Dhritarashtra caps his lauding of his son, “Bhimsena, you are slain!” He translates dheer, describing Duryodhan’s speech, as “gentle”, which does not go with the speaker’s character. “Calm” or “steady” would have been more appropriate. Dhritarashtra praises the speech as subhadra, which De also renders as “gentle” whereas it ought to be “noble” or “courteous”.

Another crucial stage direction omitted by De is on p. 46 where Gandhari rushes in. Bose has provided the note in the text, “in this play Gandhari’s eyes have been imagined as unveiled”. After Duryodhan is struck down, the stage direction “anguished cry” is omitted by De from Dhritarashtra’s speech on p. 57 which is not just “Yudhishthir, you too!” but “Yudhishthir, even you, then broke faith!”

On p. 48 the translation is defective. Instead of “Yudhishthir lost everything/because he played like an addict”, it should read, “Yudhishthir lost everything because of his own fault,/his flaw was dice-addiction.” Again, on p. 49 top instead of “even after the infamy of the lac-palace/or the deceitful dice/stick so eagerly to the ways of your son”, it should be: “even after the murderous lac-palace,/even after the deceitful dice-throw/clutch him with desperate hands?” The lines “Remember, husband, your chaste daughter-in-law’s outcries/and your inaction despite hearing it with your own ears” are missing from De’s translation of Gandhari’s speech on p. 49. On p. 50 Gandhari’s speech is incomplete (missing portions italicized): “whom you, doting, did not save by banishment. . ./pushed away from dharma into ruin’s maw”.

On p, 58 the translation of the anguished speech of Duryodhan fails to bring out the rhetorical force of the original: “Through you, Pandavas, the Kshatriyas are shamed./unblottably (sic), for all time to come./Me too you killed unlawfully!” This should read:

“The shame of Kshatriyas are you. Pandavas,
indelible shame, despicable for all time—
even me you slew in unfair battle!”

Dhritarashtra’s speech is partly incomplete on p. 59 (missing portion italicized): “I don’t believe you today are helpless—cannot believe. Rise, Duryodhan—give proof, prove yourself.” On p. 60 blood does not flow “in a stream” from Duryodhan’s throat, but “in spurts” which fades into the “blood-red” light of the setting sun. On p. 60 Gandhari states “only the new-born babe is sinless” (italicized portion not translated) and Dhritarashtra does not reply “even the child isn’t immune” but “even children are not sinless, Gandhari”. Gandhari does not enquire of Sanjaya on p. 61 “Anyone attending to his wounds?” but “Sanjaya, is anyone applying sandal-paste to his wounds?” In Sanjaya’s reply, the third line is not “straining once more to rise” but “straining, half-risen once more”. That is, indeed, a splendid passage describing the departure of the hero: 

“Washed with the fresh drops of dew
anointed with the sandal dusk,
straining, half-risen once more,
his eyes scattering sparks,
hands stretched towards his mace,
he roars—but no words form,
only some primal voice fades into the void.”

On p. 62 in Gandhari’s last speech, instead of “Son, you are tired . . ./Only the living are threatened by death”, it should be”,Son, you have fought much…/Fear of death ever plagues the living.” 

In the closing lines of the play De coins a new word, “franticity”, for the original unmadana. If the attempt is to convey the sense of being frantic, this fails as the formation is awkward. Addressing Time, Sanjaya is saying that it does not carry out destruction itself, but “You only spirit away reason, sow insanity.” De has also rendered krantikal as “eclipse” where the sense is that of “revolution”.

In this play, Gandhari and Sanjaya function as the Greek Chorus, particularly at the very end lifting the tone above the anguish of death to a spirit fostering reconciliation and acceptance, with the Dhritarashtra evoking echoes of blind Oedipus and Samson Agonistes, parallels which De could have profitably investigated in his Introduction. He makes a mis-statement on p. 8 of the Introduction, claiming that in the Mahabharata Krishna had advised Bhima before the duel to smash Duryodhan’s thigh. No such advance advice was given. Krishna advised Arjuna to signal Bhima when he was having the worst of the fight. De has rightly noted that Bose shifts the onus of the final signal to Yudhishthira, but he fails to note that Bose has also transferred Duryodhan’s nostalgic musing on past camaraderie from the encounter with Satyaki to that with Bhima, which is wholly out of character as Bhima and Duryodhan were never friends, even as children.

Besides the fourth play on Mahabharata material, Kalsandhya, which needs to be translated as a perfect supplement to Sankranti, Bose wrote two plays using Ramayana material: The Ascetic and the Courtesan [Tapasvi-O-Tarangini] and Ravana. The former, written in 1967, remains a watershed in Bengali literature. One hopes that Kanak Kanti De will make these available to the English reading public also in the not too distant future.   


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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