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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era