Book Of A Lifetime: The Mahabharata

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

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