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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine