Thursday, February 24, 2011

On a Great Indian Novel

This is on the book,"The Great Indian Novel" by Dr Shashi Tharoor. There are many adaptations and re-tellings of our twin epics.The Ramayana that commands more knowledge of Indian geography than The Mahabharatha has various varieties and flavours with variations in the story line and is widely known through out south east asia.It is also probably retold in many Indian languages than is the case with the latter.The Mahabharatha,the longest of the two is not as much globalised(asianized to be more precise) as its epic cousin.

In this book the plot is the story of Indian history roughly from the begining of the 20th century till the time India Gandhi declares emergency in 1977 and losts the subsequent general elections.The story is narrated with the characters of the Mahabharata,the deftness and creativity of the auther shines in choosing the appropriate characters from the Great epic and mapping them with the historical personalities who shaped India during freedom struggle and the aftermath.During the course of the book both the stories proceed parellerly without compromising on the originality and chrnological order of either of them.It is a wonderful experience reading the story as it is narrated, picking up the parellers,disentangling the pun,unmasking the historical personality out of the character enacting the familiar scenes of the national story but donning epic robes.

In a country where the dividing line between mythology and history is very thin and where very often the former is misunderstood to be the latter,the latter metamorphoses into the former as it gets older,an attempt to narrate the former in the light of the latter is an interesting experiment.
But the idea to narrate the history in the light of The Mahabharatha itself has a long history.Attempts to compare the political situation of the the existing times with the story of this epic is not new.Probably Indian writers never missed any chance to tweak and retell it when ever possible, to suit the social milieu of their times.

The work of the Kannada poet Pampa vikramarjuna vijaya,an adaptation of this epic, is narrated with Arjuna(who also serves as a metaphor for the king with the same name who patronized this poet) being the centre of the story whom he consecrated on the throne after the great war instead of Yudhishtira.A millenium ago in the present day Andhra Pradesh the story of a ruling family where the feud among the cousins that runs for two generations curiosly takes the same shape and the substance of The Mahabharata.This story is famous till today,the main reason for its immortality being its similarity with the great epic.Balladeers sang the paeans of its heroes,Poet Srinadha chiselled it in immortal ink in his work Palanati Veera Charitra.In Hindi,Ramdhari Singh Dinakar's 'Kurukshetra' is written keeping in mind the destructive memories of the second world war.

Returning to our current story,It has 18 chapters same as in the original.It begins with the birth of Ved Vyasa,(the writer of original Mahabharata) in British India and later becomes associated with the royal family of Hastinapur,a princely state in north India.The main hero of this story Gangaji, is Bhishma of The Mahabharata, who is a euphemism for Mahatma Gandhi himself.This role is properly narrated as the comparison is deftly carved out.Dhritarashtra is Nehru, Pandu is Subhash Bose,Drona is Jayaprakash Narayana etc.

If you are interested to untangle the skeins of the comparisons yourself,read it without any aid and enjoy the happiness as when the character is identified,but if you want to test your findings and to find out more about the significance of the nomenclature of each of the eighteen chapters, go through the wikipedia entry on this book.

Surely Patel is more than the Vidura of TGIN. His role is abridged in both size and stature.Vidura appears more like the secratary to Patel's minstry
V.P Menon.The Actual heroes of the story,the Pandavas are represented as the personifications of the institutions of democratic India such as the judiciary,the armed forces,the press,the buerocracy and the diplomacy.Draupadi,personification of the Indian Constitution marries the five Pandavas. Except for very few characters, there is no direct mapping from the epic characters to their twentieth century counter parts.Some times one character at times represents a real person and at times becomes personification of an institution.Like that of Yudhistir, it represents Morarji Desai in personand at times figuratively stands as an epitome of the judiciary, righteouness, rule of law etc.

This version of the story where Pandu lives longer and plays a heroic role (worthy of his counter part Subhash Chandra Bose)than dying a premature death as in the beginning (of the of the original story),where Karna(Mohammad Ali Jinnah) and the Kauravas (The Congress party) take opposite sides,where the earlier generations play a significant role, which their less illustrious successors struggle to emulate is a feast for the mind.

Read this book to understand the mind and methods of Gangaji.As Ved Vyas explains to Ganapati during the Great Mango March that 'they were not led by a saint with his head in the clouds,but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground'.Roles of Mohammed Ali Karna and Jayaprakash Drona illustrate the important roles they played in the history.

But some important characters are conspicuous by their absence,Like Ambedkar.
some stories are unnecessarily added only to keep the connection with the original alive, as the story of Bhim killing a bully and marrying his sister.Some important incidents like Yakshaprashnas and Bhishma's discussion with Yudhishtira on Dharma on the former's death bed of the epic were completely ignored where there is much room for creativity.Towards the end in the last chapter the reasoning that explains Pandava's falling one after the other in their great ascent and Duryodhani's royal luxuries in the court of history are examples of imagination of the highest order.

peppered through out the book are the pithy aphorisms that Tharoor is famous for,his stunning observations in over simplified yet scintillating similes smeared in alliterative phrases.
One interesting scheme employed by the author is that the narrator of the story Ved Vyas falls in to a dream whenever relating the story with the original looks impossible otherwise.
Not to be missed are his unrelated references to the things very much Indian like cricket,slowness of the judiciary,The Kamasutra and The Taj Mahal(India's best known mascots abroad during the ancient and medieval times respectively) the arresting originality of the caustic remarks showcase the naked reality that is often difficult to discern.

Never skip the poetic renditions where ever they are be it the story of the end of Pandu,or Vidur's saving the Pandavas from the house of lac.Especially significant is the narration of Gita to Arjun.When Priya Durodhani announces elections after lifting the emergency,Arjun vacillates whether to file his nomination for the opposition or to just wield his pen more effectively.Krishna induces him to fight the election.This conversation was in verse that pays' iambic tribute to the tetrameter'.

Though Tharoor gives a disclaimer on the name of this work 'The Great Indian Novel' on the lines of Voltairean appraisal of 'The Holy Roman Empire' and ascribes it to the literal meaning of term 'The Mahabharata',this is aptly named.It is undoubtedly Great,quintessentially Indian,although an allusive imitation of an epic,refreshingly Novel.

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