Book Review – Arjun Without a doubt by Dr. Sweety Shinde

Re-telling of Mahabharata from individual perspectives has been an ever-green favourite of the Indian literary segment. Arjun without a Doubt by the debutante Sweety Shinde stands out of the rest, giving a voice to the ever inspirational Arjuna while admirably balancing the macro narrative. It is not surprising that the author actually chose that perspective which refreshingly does not blame the world for his misfortunes. In a unique approach to balance the male and female (perhaps) narratives, the author chose to retell the epic through the eyes of Draupadi and Arjuna.

Warning, I am going to rave about the book, it finally retells Mahabharata as I loved it since childhood.

This is in contrast to the various other books which retell Mahabharata from many individual points of view like Draupadi, Karna, Bheema, Duryodhana and so on.  While each of these books have a passionate narrative and raise uncomfortable questions, most of them heavily fall short on doing justice to the macro narrative. Bringing out the macro-narrative of this immortal epic is possible only with multiple perspectives (something that the SL Bhyrappa did with scholarly élan in his critically acclaimed Parva which became the reference to most of the new authors and in the recent years, Krishna Udayasankar attempted with a unique macro plot though with a fantasy approach).

Arjun

What stands out in Sweety’s Arjun is his aptitude for intellectual and philosophical discussions and his way of dwelling on each of the challenges he faced, every misery making him stronger and wiser than before. Adhering to the allegory of Nara-Narayana, Arjun comes across as a befitting comparison to Krishna. His valour, obviously is peerless. But Arjun is not someone who flaunts his expertise in archery to prove a point to this world. In fact, the skill of archery is his passion, his love and his solace and the Gandeeva, his ‘bride’ that would always be by his side after he lost Draupadi to the complex marital predicament. That apart, he perpetually strives to be worthy of Draupadi’s acceptance while being sensitive of Subhadra’s love. I liked the way Karna was dealt with the contempt he really deserves. Arjun is shown too busy facing his own intrigues inside and out to care for the wannabe rants of Karna. While Karna’s aim was to better Arjuna in archery, Arjuna’s love for archery was not for fame but an endeavour to discover his own self, something that he achieves without disappointing those who believed in him. This is one book I can thrust on the faces of Karna’s admirers with complete confidence. I would have loved it more if the author had elaborated more on the episode of Kiratarjuniya and the killing of Jayadrata. The numb shock that casts him into a daze during the gambling scene could have been dealt with a bit more detail.

Arjun

Draupadi

“Oh My God! Not again!” was my initial reaction after learning that the book carried a Draupadi centric narrative. But Sweety’s Draupadi is amazingly refreshing. This Draupadi loves Arjun and not Karna (No sane woman would love an eternal cribber in a perpetual battle mode like Karna and even thinking of a strong woman like her falling for the loser is such an insult to her personality!) as some popular literary works speculate. This fits with the narrative of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, keeping in mind, Draupadi’s reaction about Subhadra wedding Arjuna and Yudhishtira’s last words about Draupadi. She is a heroine, a true Kathanaayika blossoming from a bewildered bride braving a complex marital relationship to an empress that held the family together through hopelessly miserable situations. What I loved the most is the author’s portrayal of Draupadi’s facing the ignominious and horrifying episode of dice and disrobing. The Empress of Bharatavarsha is not a distressed helpless woman calling out to Krishna. She is not numbed by the shock of being wagered, lost and branded as a slave. That is the moment she behaves as the true Samragni who realizes that she is the only one to stand between the Kauravas and the women of the Pandava family (who might be put to a greater misery than her as she speculates). She was not the victim, she was the saviour! Could not help tears of sheer admiration reading that episode. Different shades of her character surface during various incidents and Draupadi never fails to intrigue and inspire.

Where I disagreed

Subhadra’s demure personality somehow did not go well with me. Felt that the author could have portrayed a more vivacious and endearing woman in her and still retained Draupadi’s superiority if I may say so. To me, Subhadra is always that sister of Krishna who is a befitting comrade in all his quests and her greatness need not be in clash with that of Draupadi.

Yudhishtira is someone I feel is a character who is always dealt a raw deal from the poets and authors. The author, in fact, tried to balance with a redeeming last chapter. But the root problem I feel is that not only her but most other authors including the literary scholars also see Yudhishtira only from a collection of perceptions and not as an individual himself. Any modern author who dares to sympathize with him will have to face the eternal battle with the feminist rage of the world: D (Kidding, or am I?).

Final word: Arjun is a must read for those aiming to draw inspiration from the epic of Mahabharata. Interested readers can buy the book from Amazon

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Book Review – The legend of Parshu-Raam by Dr. Vineet Aggarwal

क्षत्रिय रुधिर मये जगदपगत पापं
स्नपयसि पयसि शमित भव तापं
केशव धृत भ्र्गुपति रूप जय जगदीश हरे

You bathe the world, whose sins have been destroyed and whose afflictions of existence have been allayed, with the waters mixed with the blood of the Kshatriyas. O Keshava, You who have assumed the form of Bhrigupati, O Lord of the world, victory be unto You.

– Jayadeva’s composition

Vineet Aggarwal’s Legend of Parshu-Raam chronicles the genesis of the warrior-Rishi Raam. The book is a sequel to his earlier one, Vishwamitra – The man who defied Gods (I had liked that a lot as well. My review pending). The rise of Vishwamitra to the pedestal of Brahmarshi is one of the early examples of Varna ‘transgression’ that was also blessed by the gods (albeit after continuous testing). The emergence of Rama, the Bhargava as the warrior can be seen as a converse ‘transgression’ which in fact got the world rid of the tyrannical rule of wayward kings. In a way, I see it as a negation of hierarchy (if any) and hailing the action of ‘rising to the occasion’.

legend

Coming to the book, Vineet draws from the Puranic version of the story where the destinies of Vishvamitra and his nephew Jamadagni (consequently passed to Jamadagni’s son Rama) were determined by the magic potion concocted by Maharishi Ruchik. In contrast to a lot of popular retellings, the author sticks to the Puranic plot while successfully chiseling the character sketches, narrating their journeys and visualizing relationships. Being a woman, I liked the way character sketches of Satyavathi and Renuka were conceived and presented.

Another noteworthy aspect of the story is the rise (and subsequent fall) of Arjun Kartavirya. Most of the existing legends start with an arrogant, tyrannical figure when they start the tale. Vineet however, has taken care to bring out the hero out of Arjun before charting the imminent fall. Readers can’t help feeling bad for him while realizing how the loss of discretion can result in a rapid fall, bringing all the hard earned achievements to a zilch. If not for the protagonist Raam (who by all means is endearing), the book should be read to understand this enigmatic anti-hero (or so I am forced to call him) Arjun.

The legend is too well known and I am not attempting to summarize the plot of Parshuraam because it is the approach and execution (or call it narration) that stands out. The social commentary about the Chaturvarna system and Vishwamitra’s reformist steps about the ritual of animal killing make for a contemplative reading. We need more honest story-tellers like Dr. Vineet Aggarwal and more stories from Vineet himself.

Interested readers can buy the book from Amazon

Those with a passion for the tales and legends of Puranic lore should also check out the book Bhagavan Parashurama by KM Munshi published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. At many places, I could not help comparing both the narratives though the stories were too far apart. KM Munshi identified the tussle between Vishvaratha and Vashishta, which was more ideological in nature as a prelude to the battle of ten kings.

Book Review – Kaal Trilogy by Sangeeta Bahadur

I had picked up the Book One (Jaal) of the Kaal Trilogy in a serendipitous moment in a Bangalore based book store. As I read through I realized that it was more than a novel (in present day fiction standards). Reading Jaal was a total experience in itself. The totally new universe created by the author with its own Pantheon of divinity, super natural beings, mystics and the ever lively characters make for an intriguing and yet a pleasing read. I should mention that this series is definitely not for a racy reader and it demands a greater attention span from the reader while returning a unique experience.

Jaal starts with a cosmic situation where the pantheon of the universe is faced with the peril of facing the wrath of Aushij, the wayward God of Maya. Arihant, the protagonist is the nemesis to Aushij chosen by the Gods. But his destiny comes along with a mixed path of obstacles, assassins , devoted friends, enigmatic mentors and breathtaking confrontations. Jaal is about the journey of Arihant as he begins to discover that the idyllic life of his cosy village was not what he was meant for and leaves everything dear to him behind to find the answer to his questions.

The reader is also presented with the political dynamics of the continent of Hastipeeth where righteous and the wicked are on a constant strife. The exiled Queen Vagdatta, the devoted friend Brihadrath and the enigmatic Vakrini stand out of the rest. There are the sages who work in tandem with the pantheon for the good of the universe. There are intriguing mythical beings, each of them adding his or her own bit to the greater cause. And the spectacular highlight of Jaal is the revelation of the Supreme Goddess. Without spoilers, I can say that I was reminded of the Saundarya Lahari and Mahishasuramardini hymns where contrasting aspects of Adi Shakti reveal themselves

Jaal
Jaal left me waiting for Vikraal, the second of the series which finally came out in March. The Author Sangeeta Bahadur has made the wait worth it. I could feel the characters growing as the story plot evolved. Arihant grows honing his acquired mystic skills. We find him experiencing new phases of life as he finds the love of his heart. With Jaal, the first book giving sufficient clue for the romantic story that would ensue, I was waiting for it to happen in Vikraal. I expect the reader to be pleasantly surprised as here, the woman is the first to profess her love. Aagneyi’s character comes of as something worth admiration on multiple fronts. Revealing anything more might just spoil the fun.

The plot of Vikraal sees the various kingdoms of the continent Hastipeeth becoming aware of the impending conflict between Arihant and Aushij. Adventures and surprises (some pleasant and some not so pleasant) are a part and parcel of Arihant’s journey. We also get to see more of Raudra, the high priestess and warrior on the side of Aushij with her side of the story, intriguing, touching and yet something which stokes fear.

Two parts of the book that can awe the reader from a philosophical point of view are the commentary about Vikaaras or what we know as the six internal enemies and the conversation that Arihant has with another mystic entity about discovering his own self. Philosophically, this is a treat to the reader. The name Arihant started to make more sense as I read more about these internal enemies. The physical journey of Arihant would then seem to each of us like our own virtual journey combating our weaknesses in search of the ‘self’ each of us is.

Vikraal1The greatest aspect that sets the series apart from the rest is the rich descriptive language. It is something which transports the reader into that universe and experience the story. At the same time I fear the description could hamper the pace of the story, especially in nail biting situations of combat and battle. I found it a bit challenging to stay focused when the story shifted to multiple perspectives of each of the many kingdoms. But I think multiple perspectives are key to what become epics. At places I also found the language a bit too modern for the look and feel of the universe of Kaal. (Might be just my perspective)

Vikraal ends on an almost tragic note while leaving a faint hope for something miraculous to happen in the third book Mahakaal. As a reader I found myself praying for that ‘moment’ and am waiting for Mahakaal to come out soon! Buck up Sangeeta, you have loads of readers waiting I am sure!

You can buy Jaal and Vikraal from Amazon.

Did Rama doubt Sita? – The episode of Agni Pravesham (and not Pariksha)

I had written this post for my blog on Speaking Tree (published in December 2013. Sounds like long back. But the topic is not dated at all :-))

Ramayana had caught my fantasy even as a toddler. The anecdote that introduced me to the epic was about the infant Rama crying for the moon. When nothing else could appease or divert him, his doting step mother, Kaikeyi calmed him by showing him the image of the moon in a mirror. As a child of three or four, I could connect to the cuddly toddler Rama who cried for unattainable things.

As I grew up, I wondered about the importance of this anecdote especially when it had no tellable influence on the plot of Ramayana. In my teens, the narratives of Sri Rama failed to impress me. The episodes of Agni Pariksha and the subsequent abandonment of Sita had started to give me a feeling that we as a culture have only inherited a legacy that punished a chaste woman for no mistake of hers. The philosophical explanations did not help much either. All the anger aside, I used to wonder what kind of a hypocrisy could make us extol Sita as well as sing glories of the one who abandoned her for no sin of hers.

It was a later flash which struck me about the symbolism of  Rama yearning for the moon that is unattainable and hence had to be content with the image of moon. It was much like he had to be content with the statue of Sita during the Ashwamedha Yajna which as a climactic end, brings him closer to his sons.

It was then that I started to re-read the agni pariksha episode with more curiosity than anger. A couple of words chosen by Valmiki in the episode intrigued me even more. We all know that the Ramayana was narrated by Lava and Kusha in the court of Rama. In the first chapter, Ramayana is described as the great story of Sita and that of the destruction of Ravana. When Lava and Kusha get ready to narrate the story, Rama is seen as instructing his brothers to listen carefully as the work contains intriguing words.

The first intriguing word I encountered while reading the Agnipariksha episode was the one Rama uses to address Sita before declaring his detachment. ‘Bhadre‘. The meanings of the root word  Bhadra are many. Auspicious, fortunate, fair, beautiful, blessed, happy and similar meanings. If Rama had actually doubted her chastity and was planning to abandon her, the usage of this word with any of the above meanings would only highlight the irony of the context. One can wonder if the irony was intended. As I read further, another metaphor caught my attention.  Rama says to sita, “With a doubt arising on your character, you are as unaccepatable to me as lamp is to the one whose sight is defective.” The metaphor further highlighted the irony as it is clear that the short sight is the inability to appreciate the light from the lamp is of the eye sight and not of the lamp. Rama is seen as referring to himself as the short-sighted one and Sita as the lamp.

There is also the part where he says that the war was fought in a bid to reclaim Rama’s honour and not for Sita. If we read the earlier scenes, there is one (at the beginning of the war) where Rama describes to Lakshmana about how much he misses Sita (while she is in the captivity). He goes ahead to appeal to the wind to pass by Sita and come to him so that he could feel her presence. He agains says that he is content with touching the earth because he knows that his Sita lives on the very same earth. Would the same Rama who at a point of time seems like he lives for Sita be able to utter as harsh a sentence like “I have nothing to do with you”? If the intended irony of Valmiki is not observed, one can very well take Rama as a split personality. It also makes a laughable case when he says that no man with honour would accept a woman who is sullied by another’s company and hence Sita can be free of him and set her mind on Lakshmana, Bharata or Shatrughna or even Sugriva (like they don’t have any honour or he does not care for that?)

The study made me wonder if the conversation really took place. Or if it was scripted by Valmiki deliberately as he knew that it was going to be sung in the presence of the citizens of Ayodhya who had subsequently cast a doubt on Sita’s Chastity. Did Valmiki take an opportunity to portray the ‘short sightedness’ of Ayodhya citizens in being unable to recognize the lamp that was sita? (Even as he used Rama’s character to depict the same). The combination of words, the deviation from Rama’s usual character in this one episode convinces me of such a possibility. The experiences of hearing a slander on one’s chastity is a fire ordeal in itself, much more to a woman like Sita.

The consistency of Rama’s character can be seen when he installs Sita’s statue by his side for the Ashwamedha showing in his own subtle way to every one that it was not he who ever doubted her. One might argue if he loved Sita so much why did he not abdicate the throne and go with her. In my understanding, such an act would not only have disturbed the social balance in the city, but would also have condemned Rama’s children to the same slander. Instead of running away from the city, he stayed on to ultimately give his sons, their much deserved inheritence before giving up the throne to follow Sita. Yes, it now appeals to me that Rama is the true embodiment of Dharma not because he gave up his wife for a ‘larger good’ (else one can question the very truth of the larger good), but because he persisted to not let the slander affect Sita’s children and did not let them fade into obscurity.