The Great Indian (American) Novel

July 8, 2017 § 1 Comment

buckb_The Mahabharata (Buck, William)

I am conscious that my last review was also of a version of the Mahabharata – Purushottama Lal’s. This doesn’t mean I read nothing else – merely, that I had nothing to say about the books I read in between.

Lal’s work was a self-described ‘transcreation’: he was careful to distinguish it from a translation. William Buck’s work calls itself a ‘re-telling’, too. Both are considerably condensed – Buck’s from the 5800 page Pratap Chandra Roy original to a slim 400-page version, while Lal’s is even slimmer, and from an even heavier source.

But a huge chasm yawns between the two men in punditry, in the methods they used, and in the Mahabharatas they have engendered.



Buck’s Mahabharata, with a thousand holes poked in it (but the ways of dharma are subtle) (Pic credit:


Lal was a scholar, poet, and translator of critical acclaim, who devoted his entire life to the translation of the Mahabharata. I lack biographical detail, but I don’t think he was particularly well-off: his Wikipedia entry describes how he served as the publisher, editor, reader, secretary and editorial assistant of his own publishing enterprise.

Buck, on the other hand, was the scion of a wealthy American family, who discovered the Bhagavad Gita as a 22-year old on a vacation, got hooked, and promptly decided to rewrite the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) in English for a modern American audience. I’m not sure he knew or learnt much Sanskrit – his sources seem to have been earlier English translations.

Lal’s translation of every verse is faithful to the original to a fault; he merely selects specific verses from the vast collection to fashion a narrative, as a seasoned Sherpa takes measured, well-considered steps up a steep and slippery slope. He seeks to use what has been put before him, not to change it.

Buck’s translation is anything but faithful to an original. He hews a narrative at will as a machete-wielding pioneer carves a path through dense jungle undergrowth. His loyalty is to those who will follow his path to explore the jungle: his present-day audience. The original story is a template or guideline to build on, that needs to go under the knife before modern man can gaze upon its beauty with approval.

Thus, every illiterate urchin in India can point out dozens of basic errors and omissions in Buck’s Mahabharata. For instance, in Buck’s book, Abhimanyu is entirely missing as a character. That’s a pretty glaring omission, but he makes it worse by tweaking the plotline to tie up the loose ends caused by it. So Arjuna marries King Virata’s daughter Uttaraa, instead of accepting her as a daughter-in-law. And Uttaraa’s brother, Virata’s crown prince, takes on the role of the impetuous youngster who drives his chariot into the Chakravyuha, only to be hacked down by the Kauravas. (Subhadra’s grief at this news is briefly described but goes unexplained)

If this is hard for a purist to stomach, picture this: according to Buck, Duhsasana doesn’t even make it to Kurukshetra: he is slain by Krishna at the court in Hastinapura. Thus, two images of the Kurukshetra war – Bhima drinking Duhsasana’s blood, and Abhimanyu defiantly holding off seven armed opponents with a chariot wheel – simply do not exist. These are not merely two of the defining images of that war, for most Indians: they are archetypes in our mind, for the abstract concepts of revenge, and of heroism against all odds. Buck also condenses the 18-day war into a five-day affair, like a Test match or something.

Mind you, Buck makes no pretensions to scholarly authenticity:

“…I wish to have them considered as stories which they are, rather than as examples of technically accurate scholarship…I wouldn’t want to change anything to conform to the ‘real story’, either in details of the stories, or, more subtle, in some of the places where I have given the people some of the characteristics that we admire today, and which make a story we can read today. One thing however is true. Read the stories and you get the real spirit of the original once you’re done and if they are entertaining that’s all I ask.’

Buck’s story is not without its lyrical parts. His description of Sanjaya walking surreally through the horrors of the battlefield, of the stench of blood, the taste of death, the widows sorting through warriors’ limbs, is powerful. He does a credible rendering of martial pride and moral code. It is entertaining in parts. That is all he asks, but is it sufficient?

Are the changes he has made permissible?

Does Buck, a foreigner, have any right to experiment with our texts, to appropriate them, if you will, for the reading pleasure of the West? This, at least, is a line of criticism I can reject directly: if the Mahabharata is canonical in world literature, and I believe it is, it belongs to every one of us, the way the Shahnameh does, or the Iliad, or the Kalevala.

Is Buck a blasphemer, not in a dreary religious sense, but in the higher sense of willfully desecrating ancient poetry? Is it the literary equivalent of carving one’s initials on the Taj Mahal? Is mythology even modifiable? You bet it is. You bet it has been. Your Mahabharata is not your grand-daddy’s, nor was his the same as his grandfather’s. In the Darwinian free market of ideas, every narrative that ever was, competes for the hearts and minds of every generation. Those stories that do not mutate, do not pick up bits and bobs from the cultures they come in contact with to become more credible and understandable, lose the attention of their market, and die miserable and lonesome deaths. Immensely popular novels go out of print in a decade or two. Mythology endures for millennia because of repeated re-imaginations, repeated re-tellings, and the details that get added and subtracted every time. To stop that would not be desirable, to seek to control it even less so.

But is a man allowed to play hard and fast with the basic facts of the case? What remains the same in the Ship of Theseus, when every part has been altered? Is there a flame, an ineffable spirit or soul of the story, that needs to remain unaltered, even while every single word undergoes change? Where is that soul, in the case of the Mahabharata? And who decides that?

Where does one draw the line? I do not know the answer exactly. But Buck’s Mahabharata, to me, is on the wrong side of it.

Two men, born four years and two universes apart, transcreate the same book into the same language. Apart from identical titles, their books don’t share a single thing in common. Yet are they both the Mahabharata?


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