Unlike most Indians, I’m unfamiliar with the Mahabharata. (There! I said it.)
Maybe this is because as a Christian child, knowing the stories of other faiths was not actively encouraged. Going to a convent school and a Christian college didn’t help. Maybe it’s because my Hindi was so bad the televised version passed me by. I watched Ramayana avidly as a child but that story is relatively simple to follow (and a lot of time was taken up by the fantastic arrows meeting each other which didn’t require much linguistic skill). Mahabharata was infinitely more complex and my Hindi could just not keep up with its twists and turns, side stories and allusions.
Nevertheless my first encounter with the epic was the televised serial. I remember the blind king and his blindfolded wife and the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Because I like to support the underdog and the Pandavas were clearly who we were expected to support, I tried to pick a Kaurava to champion. Unfortunately, and maybe this was the intention when it was written, there were so many Kauravas that they pretty much merged into one and didn’t have personalities of their own except Duryodhan who even I didn’t want to support. I remember, like everyone else probably, plumping for Arjun. There were scenes with the five brothers and Draupadi in the forest – the five husband bit scandalised my young self – and later Draupadi and the heroine of this other serial Mriganaini merged into one in my mind (still not sure if it was meant to be that way or just me).
Then I stopped watching the serial and forgot all about the story/ies till Std X when I got my hands on someone’s Bhagvadgita and started reading it under by desk in class. Unfortunately, that lasted only one lesson.
My third encounter with the epic was when I watched a theatrical production staged in Bandra fort. It was then that I got really fascinated and I realised I had missed out on a lot because there were references in the play that I couldn’t get. And it was my first encounter with Karna. I had never heard of him before this. I’m still confused about whether Karna is to be pronounced Kar-na or Kar-an. Either way, I was slightly in love with him. I’m not sure if that was because the actor that played Karna was the best or whether that production focussed on Karna and Kunti more (I think it did). But does anyone else who has read the Mahabharata have this Karna fixation? Or is it very clear that he got his just desserts?
At the play, I became confused by Hindu morality and realised how different it was from Christian morality. I thought it was unfair that Krishna helped the Pandavas in the war. I didn’t understand this talk about dharma. What if your dharma was to be evil? The logic seemed at odds with the Christian one I had grown up on where the line between black and white, good and evil was very clear. None of this grey business. Of course, the grey business is what’s real and what’s interesting.
And recently, I read about The Palace of Illusions here and got a copy when I went to India. From the first line I was hooked. I don’t know whether it’s the female perspective that makes it so unputdownable. But it came home to me that I needed to read this epic pronto. This was one of the best stories ever told. It was like the mother of all soap operas with some hardcore philosophy thrown in.
So, probably 10 (15?) years too late, I’ve decided to read the Mahabharata. Dipali has suggested some options and I’ve already reserved a copy in the public library. Failing that, I’ve identified someone who is going to India and will pick up a copy for me. I’ve reserved the RK Narayan one (no choice) and I’m leaning towards buying the Ramesh Menon but here are the other choices and if anyone has a vote of a version that love, speak now or else:
Should I choose:
Mahabharata by Badrinath Chaturvedi,
Cloth bound condensed version by P.Lal of the Writers’ Workshop
Mahabharata by William Buck.
Since Blogyssey, I realised that I’m probably going to do one big book a year. My choices this year were Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of my Experiments with Truth or the Mahabharata. Since I’m a roll with the Mahabharata I’m going with that. I’m going to read a novelised version and maybe read the poetic text online as an accompaniment. Who knows, I might make it an India year and read the Gandhi too.