Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India. Picture: Simthsonian Freer Sackler Gallery
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Mahabharata unbound: rewriting the world's longest poem

Coming in at three times the length of Paradise Lost, Carole Satyamurti's modern version of the epic is a remarkable achievement.

Mahabharata: a Modern Retelling
Carole Satyamurti
W W Norton, 889pp, £25

Though it has been around for more than 2,000 years, the Mahabharata unfailingly surprises, with its imaginative density and narrative complexity. First of all, there is the coherent framing device, sustained for the entirety of the poem: a series of recessed narrators tell the story and signal its telling. The longest epic poem in the world even contains a meta-narrative of its own transmission. The sage Vyasa not only composes the poem and passes it on to one of the narrators but is also a major player in the story – he is the grandfather of the 100 Kaurava and the five Pandava brothers, the cousins who engage in a war that is at the heart of the epic and destroys almost the entire cast of characters.

The spine of that central story, however, is just the bare bones. The rest, a profusion of stories, is cornucopian. There are inset narratives, which can be self-contained or related organically to the main story, such as the parables and fables in books 12 and 13, designed to deliver or illustrate a particular point of wisdom. There are the astonishing genealogies, which are about as far as one can get from the dry roll-call of proper nouns in the “begats” of Genesis and Numbers. No birth in the book is straightforward or undramatic. The Pandavas, for example, are the sons of gods and Kunti and Madri, the two wives of Pandu, but behind this story lies an older one of how the gods had to be born as human beings in order to redeem a fallen world. Karna, a vital character in the action, is the brother of the Pandavas; he was born to Kunti after she was impregnated by Surya, the sun god, well before she married Pandu. In a prolonged deployment of dramatic irony, it’s a piece of information that is kept secret from the actors in the drama, with devastating consequences.

The narrative fertility and proliferation are reflected in the size of the poem: three million words, about 15 times the combined length of the Old and New Testaments. You would be hard-pushed to find a narrative so long yet so gripping. Mahabharata readers divide into two categories – those who read it purely for the story and those who read it for its moral and spiritual content, for the epic is also a central text of the Hindu religion. The latter aspect resides mostly in the Bhagavadgita, or “The Song of God”, comprising the sermon that Krishna gives Arjuna on the battlefield when he becomes overcome with slackness and grief at the thought of attacking his cousins.

A pervasive theme is that of dharma – it is a difficult word to translate but “right conduct”, or “the right way of living one’s life”, gives an approximate idea. It is the slipperiest of concepts, contradictory, inconsistent, evasive, forever changing according to context or contingency. “Dharma is sukshma [subtle],” we hear time and again, an acknowledgement that human beings can only ever do the wrong thing within the matrix of life ordained for them by the gods. This is the other philosophical underpinning of the epic, the tension between predestination and free will and how, ultimately, the preordained order trumps human agency. Nowhere is this illustrated more vividly than in the crucial dice game at which Yudhishthira gambles away everything – his kingdom, his brothers and Draupadi, the wife of the five brothers – despite repeated warnings from several quarters to stop while there is still something salvageable. Yudhishthira is powerless. He says, “What happens to us, good and bad, depends/on what’s ordained. Whether I accept/or refuse, in the end it makes no difference.”

The last English translation of the Maha­bharata, John D Smith’s 2009 Penguin Classics edition, was a happy midway mark between a proper scholarly or academic translated edition and a text for the general reader. Carole Satyamurti’s Mahabharata, crucially not a translation, uses previous English versions as a springboard for her blank-verse “modern retelling”. Her aim has been to produce a readable and gripping narrative, focusing on the story, for the reader who may have little or no previous knowledge of the epic, and in this she has been resoundingly successful. Her lines of iambic pentameter, with their rhythms, stresses and flow of ordinary English speech, give the narrative an easy, elegant momentum. Scenes of action are vivid and charged with a fast, drumming beat, quickening the reader’s answering pulse. The very rare infelicity – Bhishma’s name, for example, is glossed as “awesome”, a word for ever tainted by the Friends generation – only accentuates how her remaking, a monumental task that has resulted in a narrative poem nearly three times as long as Paradise Lost, is a remarkable achievement. 

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times