I have been reading a lot of interpretative, imaginative stuff on the Mahabharata recently (don’t ask me why or how) and its once again brought out to me the fascinating nature, not just of the story, but of our own repeated consumption of it.
Like most Indian kids (or maybe, to qualify, Hindu kids, although I think most Indians, Hindu or otherwise, have more than a passing familiarity with Mahabharata, because the story so much permeates our culture and language), I grew up hearing different stories from Mahabharata and reading them through Amar Chitra Katha. Of course the early dalliances of Shantanu, his sons et.al were vague, but of the people of the Pandava/Kaurava generation, and their sons, I was very familiar.
For me, the major limiation of the Amar Chitra Kathas was not that it was a black and white depiction of good vs evil. I have no problems with that, it was telling a story within a good vs evil framework, and it did a damn good job of what it set out to do. Its as valid a retelling as the other ones with all the shades of gray, which we all adore now. The problem was that within its limitations of story lengths etc. it would put all the focus on one person. So I had isolated instances of one character’s chivalry or bravery, and no link with the larger story.
I was so familiar with the stories, that I avidly consumed BR Chopra’s serial every week . Of course, as an adult I now realize that I never understood what the characters were saying in that serial, because, when it was telecast, as a South Indian kid of 7 or 8 living in Bangalore, my acquaintance with Hindi did not stretch beyond a few words like Nahi. But I could still follow the story in the episodes, since I already knew them. But this probably contributed to the fact that for a long time, the Mahabharata remained a collection of largely unrelated tales for me. I didnt know what really put it together.
Recently, I saw for the first time, that with blogs, and online forums, discussion threads etc. these debates continue as heated as ever (and in a much more accessible way than scholarly expositions). And it also gives space for more active consumption. We can hit like, dislike, comment argue etc. Considerably more freedom than B R Chopra or Anant Pai ever gave us. Anyway my favorite tongue in cheek discussion on Mahabharat is on this blog.
And I see now that the debates continue. Who is a better archer : Karna or Arjuna (who cares, one lived, the other didn’t, so archery is immaterial). What kind of wimps were the younger Pandava brothers if they allowed their older brother to gamble them and their wife away? If Karna pays for his fault of siding with the evil Duryodhana and not challenging his actions, didn’t the younger Pandavas also do something equally wrong by supporting their elder brother and not challenging him during the dice game? Ah questions, questions? And none of them will ever have satisfactory answer.
And there are still so many questions which are never explored. For instance, there is one question there after reading the stories of Abhimanyu and Ghatothgaja, which intrigues me even today. Karna had a large role in killing both of them. I know that Karna was actually a long lost uncle to both. So what did he think of killing them. Did he accept it as collateral damage of the war, did he agonize over it. And anyway, while on the subject of Karna, a more pertinent question about Karna’s life itself. He and the Pandavas mutually loathed each other from Day 1. Did the fact that they were brothers cancel out the mutual loathing completely. Could he forget the insults he had faced from them or they forget the insults he hurled back at them or their wife. If in some imaginative recreation of the epic, Karna gets reconciled to his brothers much before the fateful war, how could they have actually gotten along. Is blood really so much thicker than everything else??
I also read about the point of view retellings of Mahabharat, which abound. There are Draupadi retelling, Yagnaseni and Palace of Illusions. Mostly, they center around forbidden love between Draupadi and Karna. Is it there in the original? No idea, but if Vyasa missed it, he lost an opportunity to make the story more intriguing than it already was (Deep love and passion between a man and woman who call each other whore and low caste whatever in public. Surely the stuff of Mills and Boon). I also heard about a book in Malayalam (Translated as ‘And Now let me sleep’) which is about Draupadi and Karna in a much more realistic way (Oh, she is not madly in love with him. In fact she loathes him and the book is of the journey of transformation from loathing to a grudging acceptance. Anyway, it is immaterial to our hero because he is already dead).
There are of course countless Karna retellings. I don’t know how many of these obsess over Draupadi. That says something about gender roles. While women retellings need a man to obsess over, men retellings can simply speak about bows, arrows, wars and other stuff.
Anyway, Karna is everybody’s favorite tragic character, and we all long to know what he really thought of everything. Paradoxically, Karna would not be so lovable if he was not so unfortunate. So in a way, he traded good fortune in his life for immortal fame after his death. But there are some less obvious but quite interesting retellings like that of Bhima (Bhimsen, the English transcreation of the Malayalam novel Randamoozham is damn good. As if celebrating the open access generation, the entire book was serialized in a blog, and absolutely free access. I didnt have the opporunity to read it as a selection of blog posts unfolding, which is a pity. Its far more interesting than any mega serial).
And there are some other recreations/retellings, which are satirical, and more importantly, which take attempt to introduce sexual mores into the story. Of course, these were probably a part of the original story and got lost later. The original mahabharat was not really into kids emerging from a spark of light. Kids emerged the natural way only and most of us who read it eventually figured it out and realized that all the divine births were merely euphemisms. I dont care much for these versions, not because I am a prude, but because I feel so far they are still at the superficial level, celebrating the fact that they are allowed to write about sex in an epic, without really seeing how these linked to the larger story, as they no doubt did.
What do I think of the Mahabharat then ? As a kid I thought it was a damn good story. Of course, as an adult with interest in psychology, I would phrase it as something like, it is immensely complex, study of human motivations,blah, blah. But the fact is , its primarily a damn good story. To this day, if people are identifying with the characters, arguing their motivations, and having learned debates and discourses on it, then Vyasa or whoever wrote it, totally seduced us with this story.
I can only illustrate the deep relationship I have with these epics and my varied consumption of it, by showing how these characters have actually helped me clarify and evolve my understanding of concepts like feminism. Take the case of Draupadi and Sita, the central heroines of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Popular culture reveres both, though why people never name their daughters after Draupadi is a bit of a mystery. Draupadi is of course more suited as the feminist heroine, and in my earliest understanding of feminism, as essentially challenging men openly, she was my ideal feminist heroine. But as I grew in my understanding, I realized the strength of Sita too. A woman who has a strong commitment to her husband, and gives him a couple of chances to overcome his distrust for her. When he finally sends her away for the second time, she has had enough. She does not pine for him or waste away. She learns to live in the forest, raises her kids, and then when her husband wants her to come back, she asks him to go take a hike. Isn’t she one strong woman.
And then when I tried to argue as to who is stronger, I realized that the true essence of feminism is in learning and accepting both, in having this fundamental understanding that all women are individuals, with different characters, in different circumstances. Expecting them to confirm to any role, whether it is of the ideal wife, the red hot rebel or even the ideal slut is impossible.