Book Of A Lifetime: The Mahabharata
Friday 10 June 2011
One of the longest books in the world, the 'Mahabharata' tells the story of a country, a culture, and a family tearing itself apart. In ancient India, it was said that nothing exists which is not within its pages.
This hubristic claim hints at the fatigue which sets in if you try to absorb it in one go. The epic is best read piecemeal, over several years, even a lifetime. The Kolkata publisher, P Lal, spent his entire career "transcreating" the epic. The University of Chicago translator, JAB van Buitenen, died on the job. RK Narayan took a more relaxed approach, abridging it into one volume, as did the Cambridge Sanskritist, John D Smith. These short English versions are recommended for anyone who wishes to read the 'Mahabharata' without succumbing to exhaustion.
Part of the richness of the epic lies in its retellings. At first, some three millennia ago, the text was memorised and recited by schools of Sanskrit-speaking priests. Then, in the late centuries BC, somebody wrote it down, and after that the text went wild: translating itself out of the elite Brahminical language and into India's demotic tongues. It was also distilled into dance and drama, which is how most Indians first come across its stories.
In the 1980s, BR Chopra made a bombastic Bollywood version for Indian television; while at the same time British audiences were shown Peter Brook's pared-down Parisian rendering. Nobody has yet dramatised the 'Mahabharata' for the 21st century, though I recently met a software designer in Bangalore, who claimed to be working on a 'Mahabharata' iPhone app.
Time is a stretchy concept in the epic. The main story covers several decades; but it begins long afterwards – as the story is being recited – and also explores earlier mythic eras. Some characters are traced over several lifetimes; the king, Yudhisthira, is followed up to heaven; the life of the author, Vyasa, is explored from the fishy encounter that spawned his mother to the fumbling night on which he, in turn, fathered his cast.
The epic's women wield great power. There are plenty of amorous demons and stubborn river goddesses who live in freedom on its fringes; but it is the mortal women, trapped within the pivotal family structure, whose predicaments are most striking. At the centre are Kunti, a mother who lives with a devastating secret, and Draupadi, who marries five of Kunti's martial sons. (This unusual marriage is probably vestigial: a cultural memory of an ancient polyandrous system.)
One of the most surprising characters is Amba, who defies the epic's author and his family. First, she spurns marriage with Vyasa's brother; then avenges herself on the patriarch who has marred her life, bringing the war to an end. Amba's rebellion – and her subversion of Vyasa's plot – exemplifies the epic's strength. It is a generous text, large enough for diversity and robust enough for dissent. Thus it lives on, through the riffs and retellings of each new generation.
'Leela's Book' by Alice Albinia is published by Harvill Secker
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 3 The 'sex selfie stick' lets you FaceTime the inside of a vagina
- 4 Why you're almost certainly more like your father than your mother
- 5 Westboro Baptist Church couldn't picket Leonard Nimoy's funeral because they didn't know where it was
Fifty Shades of Grey banned by Indian censors despite sex scenes being edited out
The 9 rules every Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon had to follow are wonderfully pedantic
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Seth Rogan's pot fumes delay hacked Sony boss’s office move
India's Daughter: BBC Four documentary provokes outrage on Twitter
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Nigel Farage promises Ukip will not 'stigmatise' would-be migrants – and says he wants 'everyone to speak the same language'
Ex-head of MI6: 'We shouldn't kid ourselves that Russia is on a path to democracy'
Most people think legal tax avoidance is just as wrong as illegal tax evasion, poll suggests