Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pattanaika Uvaca

Jaya, Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin India: 2010, pp 350, Rs. 499.

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express this morning.


The Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, Wendy Doniger, called the Mahabharata a sort of ‘ancient Wikipedia, to which anyone … could add a bit here, a bit there’.* Though no single text exists that can be called definitive, the epic is generally believed to be about seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey put together; in fact, it also contains the Ramayana, as told by the sage Markandeya. The Mahabharata itself narrates the origins of the epic: how it was thought of by Vyasa, to whom he told it, under what circumstances and how they in turn narrated it to someone else, thus confirming the multiple validities of the recitation and their individual contingencies.

In this sense, Devdutt Pattanaik’s retelling is another tributary joining the river – though by calling it Jaya – the name given to the earliest version of the Mahabharata – he appears to be attempting to touch the source.

Pattanaik begins with a prefatory chapter that outlines the circumstances under which Vyasa began to compose the epic. The story of the Kuru clan and its decimation is bracketed by the story of Parikshit’s death; Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice; its interruption by Astika; and Janamejaya coming to his senses, stopping the sacrifice and pronouncing peace upon the world. The Mahabharata is a tale told to offer succour to dying kings or to teach their offspring their duty. Its function is moral and corrective.

Though six of the eighteen Parvas, or books, of the Mahabharata are about the Kurukshetra war, here it occupies only two ‘books’. The first two Parvas – Adi and Sabha – make up the first half of Jaya. The game of dice that ends Sabha Parva is at the centre of this text.

This is a curious but revealing choice: in making it, Pattanaik makes clear his preference for origins and back-stories. Like a psychoanalyst who attempts to delve into the subconscious by unravelling the past, Pattanaik goes as far back as he can – beyond even the story of Ganga and Santanu, where most popular versions such as Rajaji’s, begin. Pattanaik goes back to the conception and birth of Budh. From here, in easy chapters, he narrates the story of every character that might conceivably have a role to play in the epic. By the time the story of the Pandavas occupies centre-stage, the reader can take on any digression without becoming confused.

Pattanaik’s version is lucid without sacrificing complexity. He pulls off this difficult task by separating commentary from narrative. Each chapter has a box at the end, somewhat in the manner of management books that provide a précis of what has gone before. Here, however, Pattanaik uses this space to talk about versions of the same story, provides facts and asides that are illuminating, useful and sometimes just funny.

More than 250 illustrations, drawn by Pattanaik himself, accompany the text. The drawings are lovely and remind one of the illustrations to be found in popular Tamil magazines.

Inevitably, much has to be sacrificed to achieve a fast-flowing story. The Mahabharata contains poetry, philosophical argument, treatises on statecraft, description of places, ritual and so on. Above all, it talks at length about the elusive concept of Dharma. While Jaya attempts to retain the complexity of the word, it sometimes falters because of excessive compression.

One such episode where something is lost is the Yaksha Prashna, where Yudishtira answers several questions posed to him by a Yaksha (who is really his father, Dharma, in disguise) before he is allowed to drink water from a lake. A series of rapid-fire questions and answers explicate the concept of dharma and its place in the lives of kings and other men, but in this version the episode ends up sounding rather trite.

All of the key explications of Dharma – asked by Dharma/Yama himself of his son; both personifications of the central concept of the epic – are made trivial or are at times just inaccurate. When the Yaksha asks, ‘What is the true path’, Pattanaik has Yudhishtira say, ‘Not through arguments – they never reach a conclusion; not from teachers – they can only give their opinions; to know the true path, one must, in silence and solitude, reflect on one’s own life.[emphasis mine]’ I checked this against the Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translation, and found the relevant lines thus: ‘Argument leads to no certain conclusion, the Srutis are different from one another; there is not even one Rishi whose opinion can be accepted by all; the truth about religion and duty is hid in caves: therefore, that alone is the path along which the great have trod [emphasis mine]’.

Pattanaik has said, in a prefatory note, that he has placed his retelling squarely in the Puranic world, but this is, strictly speaking, not true. Though he has elided over much of the discourse to be found in the Mahabharata – the most notable compressions being in the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas – he compensates in his commentary-boxes by critiquing the troublesome concept of dharma that purports to be universal but was born of a very specific – though fluid – historical and social context.

Pattanaik does this by indicating the existence of Dalit, feminist and other marginalised perspectives. Thus, the Draupadi Amman festivals of Tamil Nadu, the Aravanis, the story of Barbareek and other such get more than a passing mention in this book. Jaya also incorporates stories from the Jaimini version, and the lesser-known Oriya Sarala Das version.

For a book that is only 350 pages long, what Pattanaik aims for, rightly, is rasa – the flavour of the variety and depth of the narrative; sometimes epic similes occupy half a page or more, sometimes – such as with the Gita – there is discourse and, sometimes the story-within-story structure of the epic. All things considered, it’s a miracle that Pattanaik has managed so much with clarity and brevity.

*My thanks to Feanor for providing me with the whole text of that article.

I loved doing this review: I got to read all kinds of fantastic, interesting essays on the Mahabharata, not excluding The Book of Yudhistir by Buddhadev Bose and Reflections and Variations on The Mahabharata ed. TRS Sharma.


km said...

Enjoyed your review, SB, but jeez, the author's website actually has 7 bullet points on why to buy the book.

Space Bar said...

km: no kidding. seriously?