Epic tome revisited

Writer Shashi Tharoor celebrates 21 years of The Great Indian Novel

ONE of the best contemporary retelling of an Indian classical epic, The Great Indian Novel, a transcreation of Ved Vyasa's Mahabharata by writer-politician Shashi Tharoor, has completed 21 years since it was published.

The writer celebrated the 21st birthday of his book by reading from it at the Arclight Literature Festival at the Alliance Francaise in the Capital last weekend.

The seminal book, which was first published by Viking, has been subsequently reprinted by Penguin, Arcade and Picador in six editions. It has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Malayalam.

Set in the context of the nationalist struggle for independence and the first three decades of post-Independence, the book narrates the story of an India in the making since the last days of the British Raj through a 21st century Ved Vyasa, whom the writer describes as a "cantankerous South Indian politician".

The narrator tells the story to his assistant Ganesha, "the man who came with a trunk full of clothes". The locale is Hastinapur where the epic was based as well and the action takes place in a spirit of wry humour and modernity.

The Mahabharata, as the legends cite, was a narrative literary text that Vyasa dictated to Lord Ganesha, who transcribed it.

Tharoor, the former minister of state of external affairs, said the relevance of the epic Mahabharata was encapsulated in the "first three epigraphs" that serve as prelude to the novel.

The epigraphs by C.R. Deshpande, the author of Transmission of the Mahabharata Tradition, P. Lal, writer of The Mahabharata of Vyasa and German Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass sum up that "the essential Mahabharata is whatever is relevant to us in the second half of the century."

Tharoor said that the "21 years since the book was published, there were more readings abroad than here".

"I read from it at the India International Centre in November, 1989. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to remember the book again. It is an attempt to recast characters and episodes from the Mahabharata as a political retelling of the history of India...I was trying to come up with something new," he said.

Elaborating on the style of the book and the thoughts that promoted the retelling, Tharoor said: "It had to capture a certain idea of Indianism and had the strong influence of the Indian English novel."

"Mahabharata is the longest poem in the world and most translators have been defeated. However, some of the clever ones translated it into prose but occasionally broke into verse. I needed light verse specially when dealing with matters of great seriousness," he said.

The light verse used by Tharoor in the book to convey the anguish of King Pandu, the father of the five Pandava brothers, when he was advised to give pleasures of the flesh.

The verses come across as "limerick" in colloquial English that writer recited with poetic inflections.

"It was a time of great grief and much sorrow/When Pandu rose up from the dead/For starting today (not tomorrow)/He must renounce the joys of the bed..."

A conversation between the British resident of Hastinapur Sir Richard and Ganga Datta, referred to as Ganga Din by the former and Ganga's escort, a "British renegade" Sarah ben, who carries his goat milk, is an irreverent take on the Mahatma Gandhi - and by which the novel ruffled a few feathers as well.

"I think I have been able to give flesh and blood to the characters to become walking metaphors. Krishna in my book becomes an essentially symbolic figure standing for ancient India and its traditions. Draupadi is Indian Independence - everything that happens to independent India happens to Draupadi. The five brothers are the five husbands of Indian democracy," he said.

Commenting on the reactions that the book evoked in the country after writer-columnist Khushwant Singh had warned that it would be "banned in a week because of its tongue-in-cheek style", Tharoor said: "When I wrote the book, I was not sure whether politics could a have a sense of humour".

The writer was worried, but an election took the spotlight away from the book.

He said the country had now reached a sense of saturation "when the society could laugh at itself when you laugh at your father, mother...you are a more mature society".

"It was not a big issue because by and large, politicians did not read fiction," Tharoor said. IANS