“Give me the present, Acharya. In return, I will give you the future.” ……
“I don’t care what you write or do not write, or how you wish to record all that has come to pass. I will neither thwart you nor question your wisdom in presenting and interpreting matters to your convenience. You will determine how the story of the Kurus, of this entire realm will be remembered. It will not matter whether there is war, and if there is one, who wins or loses, who rules as Emperor and who dies on the battlefield without honour or dishonour, as the situation may be. Your place in history, the place of your progeny is secure for millennia to come. Is that not power over the future?”
So says Govinda to the Vyasa, on page 93 of Krishna Udayasankar’s Book 3 of the Aryavarta Chronicles – Kurukshetra. These words struck me when I first read them, and then, after I finished the book, they remained with me, as the defining point of not just the book, but most of history and mythology as we know them.
That history is written by the victors, is well known. What then, about Mythology? Whether written or oral, both are the work of storytellers, and all of them are humans, with the common failings of emotion, ambition, and bias. It is the storyteller’s version we eventually know, which is why, when it comes to either, the more the merrier!
Our mythology is interesting, and survives constant retelling, simply because there are so many versions of them, in different languages, in different regions, and in different formats. They have changed over the centuries thanks to all the different renditions, and they continue to do so, thanks to authors like Krishna, who have kept the tradition alive, continuing to write about them, albeit in a contemporary manner, with a completely different take on a story we already know so well.
Coming back to the point, the passage illustrates the importance of the storyteller, in this case, Vyasa, whose version of events we know as the Mahabharata. We always think of Vyasa as this aged sage (I know at least I have!), who pens down the story of his time, with some help from Ganesha as his scribe. It is easy to forget, that he, over anyone else, has the most to gain from the story. After all, whether it is the Pandavas or Kauravas who rule, it is his descendant who sits on the throne! Krishna constantly reminds us of this in her story, a fact which I appreciated a lot. More importantly, right from the first book in the series, she has portrayed Vyasa as the one directing the events, from behind the scenes – the ultimate puppet master, who not just writes the story, but actually makes it happen. That he wasn’t infallible was evident from Book 2, but in Book 3, Krishna takes the story to its inevitable conclusion, in a way which makes us wonder if indeed this is really how the events unfolded! The relation between the author and characters has rarely been so well described.
But then again, as Krishna makes Suka say, at the end…
“…truth is what we make of it. Every time a story is told, it changes. That does not matter. Humanity endures. It is not ours to do more than what Time has brought to us, or less…”
And that is something we would do well to remember in these days when tolerance is running low, and fanatical beliefs grow.
Each version of the Mahabharata as we have heard it, includes to a great extent, the personality of the author, and Krishna, whom I know only from her books, comes across as an eminently practical, yet imaginative person, whose biggest talent is looking beyond the obvious. That she weaves magic with her words, and brings the scene and the characters alive, has been obvious from the first two books of the Aryavarta Chronicles. There is no point repeating myself by reiterating just how beautifully the story has been worked out and narrated.
However, to pick out a few key points about the book – Abhimanyu and Uttara’s relationship is the most poignant among all, considering we know just how that works out eventually. Ghatotkacha has been treated beautifully, though he makes but a brief appearance. Shikandin and Aswatthama, as in the first two books, hold their own against a veritable army of heroes, while Drishtadyumn finally shows us why he is chosen as the Commander of the Pandava’s forces. The events leading to the war shows a mastery over political science, and the war itself shows a keen, strategic thinking, both of which illustrate Krishna’s grasp of the subjects.
If I have any complaints, it is that this book hasn’t been proofread as well as the other two. The first book, Govinda, had no proofing errors at all, while Kaurava had just one or two. This one, unfortunately, has about 5, scattered across the text. That, however, is a matter for Hachette India, more than Krishna herself.
There is just one more thing for me to mention, and that is the difference between the three books, at least, as they appeared to me. I re-read the first two before beginning the third, and realized that each of them have been written in different ways, as if, with the passage of time, the storyteller’s point of view changes too. And isn’t that true? We see things differently as we grow older, and hopefully, wiser. It is the same with the books too.
The first one, Govinda, is all about Govinda, and the relationship between Govinda and Panchali, as well as the relationship Govinda shares with Shikandin, Ashwatthama, Yuyudhana, Pradyumna, and the others, is light, easy, and fun. They are young, and though already bear great responsibilities, their youth is still enjoyable. In Kaurava, their responsibilities change, and events force them to change the way they look at people as well as events. It is the age when they mature, as adults, and see the world for what it really is. This is where Krishna ties mythology to current affairs, and the characters truly emerge from the cocoons wound around them as myth. Kurukshetra, among all the three is the most philosophical, bringing up lots of questions about right and wrong, good and bad, and the motives behind our actions.
In a strange way, the book, and some of the conversations especially reminded me of some of my physics Profs, and some conversations about Physics and Philosophy. Elaborating on that, however, will change this post from a book review to a discussion on metaphysics, so I shall retain them to myself for now. If this review already appears disjointed and tangled, it is because of the many thoughts the book brought up, and the introspection they led to. Few books manage to do that, and Krishna has managed that, with Kurukshetra!