The Mahabharata

A showcase for the oldest and longest epic in the world. A resource for the better understanding of all aspects ofSanatana Dharma, Vedanta and Yoga.A place for West to meet and embrace East beyond cliché, presumption and prejudice.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A book far bigger than myself

I first read the Mahabharata in 1973, in India. The version I read was the big fat book by Kamala Subramaniam. I stayed up all night to finish it, and when it was over I decided then and there that this was the Book to end all Books. It was simply amazing. I've been a voracious reader all my life, but never had I been so floored by a story.

I could say this in spite of the less than stellar writing. Subramaniam tends to write in short, jerky sentences, using an abundance of adjectives and adverbs. She spills the melodrama left right and centre, and is not afraid to overdo it in the emotional sector. In a way, the book seems written for children.
But the story she tells in that book is simply magnificent.

The Mahabharata is Hinduism's great epic story. It may be the oldest written story in the world, and certainly the longest. It tells the tale of kings and queens, gods and demons. It goes off on tangents lasting hundreds of pages, yet always comes back to the one main story, the story of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the two great warrior clans, and the men and women whose lives are entangled in the fight between good and evil;. And yet even in such a story the line between good and evil is not clear and it is this moral ambiguity that keeps those pages turning.

Everything you might find in a modern novel you'll find in the Mahabharata. There's love, sex and betrayal; gender-change, gratuitous violence, addiction, humour, superheroes, mind weapons, atomic bombs, magic, blood and gore aplenty. Finally there's the mighty battle of Kurukshetra; and even with victory "good" is not the clear winner.

After reading the Mahabharata at the tender age of 23 I set out on a mission: to find the perfect version. I was living in India at the time, and I found several editions by various authors, but none satisfied me. They all seemed so lame, so trite, and did not seem to "get" the story. Some seemed simply a literal retelling, or a translation into English, with no thought for bringing the actual story to life, no dramatisation, the dialogue heavy and preachy. Some were merely condensations with no feel for the story. Most were boring.
When I came to the West my mission continued. I found William Buck's version, and read it with enjoyment.
What great language skills! What poetry! Yet William Buck's story is quite a different one to Kamala Subramaniam's - and hers is better. His is disjointed, and lacks cohesion. He goes off on too many tangents, and in my eyes leaves out some of the essential scenes, scenes that were full of dramatic and spiritual power. Or he tells them in just a few words, ignoring their power. Or he substitutes major characters arbitrarily, which makes no sense whatsoever. He does not seem to "get" it. It's not a story; it's collection of mythological tales.

What to do? I continued my mission, but always I was disappointed. Finally, at about the age of 27, I decided to write my own version.

So I began to write. At this time I had not even the faintest thought about actually publishing my version. It was for my own satisfaction alone. It was as if the story was surging up within my imagination, alive and new; I saw, I heard, I lived it. I had been nourishing myself on all these versions for years, and I knew the story by heart; so I wrote it as if it were "my" story, even though, of course, It wasn't. It's everyone's.
I finished my version, but I wasn't satisfied. I was still young; I hadn't done this great tale justice. So I put it aside for the time being.

Years later, I pulled it out, and did some work on it, improving it vastly. But I still wasn't satisfied. What right did I have to retell this wondrous story? I felt too small, too inadequate, too presumptuous.

More years passed. By now I had a computer, so I typed the whole thing out again, on to my computer. Made some dramatic changes; put it away. Still not the least thought of publishing.

More years passed. Now I was a published novelist, and had gathered more storytelling skills. I had a great idea for "my" Mahabharata. I would write it as a novel; write it in a way that has not yet been done. Restructure it, make it original, different; elaborate on some scenes, adding new motives to the characters. I even changed its name. The Mahabharata became "Sons of Gods".

Presumptuous? Of course. I have no right. I'm not a Hindu. I don't even speak Hindi. I have not translated it myself, but gathered my knowledge of the story from several sources. By now I had read Van Buitenen's three huge volumes, which as usual had not satisfied me: though I generally love long books, in the case of the Mahabharata I feel that the main story tends to get drowned away in floods of diversions.
I wanted to find the essence of the story. I felt it would be all the better, all the more powerful, in concentration than in the many, many sidestreets and detours.

Moreover, I was in love with one of the characters. Not the traditional favourite hero, Arjuna; instead, a rather shadowy figure who, I felt, held the key to the whole vast epic. He would be my hero, or anti-hero. Not quite centre stage, but the one my readers will root for, even though they see him hurtling on to destruction. I wanted them to love him even as I do.

The style, I felt, had to be in keeping with the rather flowery, rather formal Indian tradition. It's rather like a tropical garden; think of giant bougainvilleas towering above your head, clusters of brilliant blooms weighing down the branches. The Mahabharata must be that way. It's the epitome of abundance. Nothing in small measure. Bhima has indeed the strength of a hundred elephants. When Karna slaps his arms in challenge, the sound thunders through the world. When Bhishma takes his vow of chastity the gods pour blossoms down from heaven. All very un-Western touches; but without them it just wouldn't be the Mahabharata.
So now it was on my hard disc, and on a floppy. Once more, put aside.

More years passed. My son did Religious Studies for his GCSE's, so I printed out my Mahabharata and gave it to him to read. He loved it, and showed it to his teacher, who also loved it. I put it away again; but I began to think that one day, maybe, I would consider publishing it. But no hurry. The Mahabharata has been around for thousands of years; a year or two or five longer for this new retelling wouldn't make a difference.
I did, however, show the first chapter to my agent. She said it was "unsaleable". Western readers didn't want to read ancient Hindu myths. It wasn't commercial. I shrugged, and put it away yet again.

Recently, it went through yet a new revision. I changed the first chapter, replaced it with a later scene that, I hoped would draw the reader into the story. And the thought of publishing it rose again.

After all, who knows? There's a huge Indian population outside of India who are disconnected from their roots. Perhaps they will enjoy this story, understand their own culture better through it. Many have read bits of pieces of it in comics, or have had some of the stories told them by their mothers and grandmothers. Others know the Bhagavad Gita, but not the circumstances of its birth in the very heart of the Mahabharata. Maybe others, too, were not quite satiated with the many versions out there. Perhaps the market would like my version. Maybe my agent was wrong.

Westerners, too, I feel, would profit from knowing this great story. We read the Iliad, we love the Old Testament; why not this? This epic is one of the cornerstones of world mythology. I feel it will make us all richer.

The Mahabharata belongs to everyone, whether they are from West or East.

So here it is again, in new, fresh clothes.

(Edited to add: the above post was originally written in 2006. I write this note in 2011. How times flies!)

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