Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India. Picture: Simthsonian Freer Sackler Gallery
Show Hide image

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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
Show Hide image

The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.