A Tale of Epic Proportions

August 24, 2013 § 1 Comment


KamalaSubThe Mahabharata (Subramanian, Kamala)

There’s more than one reason for my obsession with the Mahabharata. At a deeply personal level, it brings back memories of my grandfather,  alternately thundering, whispering, roaring with laughter and breaking into song, surrounded by a clutch of his grandchildren, recreating for us the dramatic tension, the poetry, and the sheer magic of mythology in a way that I will never forget. Mythology is inextricably linked to the ancient art of story-telling, an art that has been passed down from the shamans and witchdoctors of the pre-historic world, and one that will never go out of fashion. The Mahabharata is the mother of all stories; there is something raw and elemental about it, something deep and dark that holds the key, somehow, to who I am, or maybe, to who any of us is, as a human. Somewhere in that bewildering labyrinth is the secret of life itself; you can lose yourself in its plots and subplots, but you can find yourself there as well.

And yet, there is a second reason for my fascination, a more scientific one. Ever since I read Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, Joseph Campbell‘s Oriental Mythology and Robert GravesWhite Goddess and Greek Myth, I have been interested in the intersection of mythology and history; in meta-mythology – the back story, that is, the exact process by which the mythological story has taken the shape that it has today. The story as it appears before us is covered with the mud and grime of centuries of re-telling and embellishment. To carefully chisel off this coating and arrive at the gleaming treasure trove below is perhaps not everyone’s idea of a great pastime, but it is certainly mine. It is a kind of armchair archaeological effort, really – without pickaxes and shovels, but as exciting to me as anything Indiana Jones ever did. The simple premise underlying it is that there must have been an historical event buried somewhere in the depths of pre- or proto-history – the fire without which the smoke of the legend would not have reached us. To trace the contours of that long-gone fire from the shape of the twisting wisp of smoke is a deeply stimulating idea for me, akin to detective work, or medical diagnosis.

In a sense the two reasons are contradictory. One is about story-telling, the art of embellishment and effect, the creative impulse of the story-teller in adding detail to an old story in order to present it in the most appealing way possible to his audience. The other is about peeling those layers of creativity away, and searching for the possibly mundane truth. Is it strange that I find both reasons appealing?

Battle between Balarama and Jarasandha, 18th century Mughal-style miniature, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Battle between Balarama and Jarasandha, 18th century Mughal-style miniature, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Mahabharata provides scope for both pursuits in ample measure. The war that is described in the epic took place at some time between 1400-1100 BCE (depending on which historian you believe). This must have been a period of great upheavals in the country. Systems of religion, schools of philosophy, social norms and cultural traditions were merging, coalescing, frothing, bubbling and boiling over in the great Indian cauldron. Ballads must have been composed about the war, pretty soon after it was fought, and possibly commissioned by the winners. The epic that is attributed to Vyasa was not composed until more than half a millennium later, according to researchers cited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Vyasa’s was probably an exercise in consolidating several oral traditions, each handed down twenty generations or more, into a single, mammoth, narrative. And yet the embellishment continued as Vyasa’s Bharata continued to be passed down in oral form for dozens of more generations, until, after 200 AD, during the Gupta Golden Age, it was finally written down. What we have today is a reasonably faithful rendition of that first written version, and the simple tale of the feuding cousins now contained more curses, spells and magical weaponry than all the Harry Potter books put together, and had at least one long passage (the Bhagawad Gita) that has come to form the philosophical  underpinning of what we now call Hinduism. As it stands today the Mahabharata is, in Radhakrishnan’s words, “a miscellaneous encyclopedia of history and mythology, politics, law, theology and philosophy”. Equally, it is fertile ground for an inventive narrator to demonstrate countless lessons of human psychology and keep his audience entranced and emotionally atwitter with tales of deception, betrayal, sacrifice, love, revenge, greed, friendship, shame and lust.

My introduction to the story was, fittingly enough, oral – while being dandled on grandfatherly knee, as I mentioned. I’ve read picture book versions (Amar Chitra Katha), seen television and film versions, and I have something of a small collection of Mahabharata translations in my library. Kamala Subramanian’s is not the first version that I have read, nor is it the last one that I intend to read; it is neither a recent or contemporary attempt, nor the oldest version I own, nor even the best-written or most authentic version (though it is readable enough). But the story about this book is nearly as interesting as the Mahabharata itself.

Kamala Subramaniam had already lived a life full of accomplishments by the time she took up this project in 1960. Daughter of an eminent poet and wife of a renowned surgeon, she had studied literature and philosophy, published a few books, and, for all I know, led a happy family life. Then out of the blue came cancer and the words that nobody likes to hear a doctor say, that she had not more than ten years to live. On an impulse, she dedicated what she thought was the rest of her life to writing this book. It was published in 1965 to critical acclaim, and I believe she lived long enough to prove her doctor’s prediction wrong, and to see this book become her magnum opus, the work that she is known for decades after her eventual death, and one that she may never have gotten around to writing. Like in the case of the Mahabharata, it is the back story that makes Kamala Subramaniam’s book most fascinating.

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