“This is Kurukshetra, Son.
This is where our kings seek
Thus begins Karthika Nair’s book ‘Until The Lions’. This is the first time I’ve come across a version of the Mahabharata in verse. The irony is that this epic was originally written in verse and apparently the longest version has over 200,000 lines. So it’s quite baffling how very few authors have ventured into this space. I admit that initially I was a bit hesitant to start, since I felt that the grandeur and complexity of this massive work would be greatly diminished by confining it to the form of verse. However, once I started reading, it was an amazing experience. This form certainly takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fascinating. Rather than detracting from the beauty of the epic, the framework of poetry gives the tale an intensity and crispness that is not found in the usual retellings of the Mahabharata. There aren’t any detailed descriptions to distract the reader. Karthika Nair’s words are incisive and strikes blood wherever it touches.
In this book, Karthika takes the reader through the important events of the Mahabharata as seen through the eyes of marginalized characters, mainly women. There are 18 voices that weave stories of their own and reveal different layers of this great epic. The prominent characters of the Mahabharata like Bhishma, Arjuna and Duryodhana are completely sidelined and they make an entry only to bolster the narratives of the different characters here. Satyavati’s voice is the thread that binds the whole story together. A few of the others are Amba whose hatred for Bhishma went so deep that she came back as Shikhandi in her next birth with the sole purpose of destroying him; Draupadi’s mother, who is forced to see her children being shaped as instruments of hatred by their father; Sauvali, a dasi/maid who is the victim of King Dhritarashtra’s desperate desire for progeny; Hidimbi and Ulupi who loved two Pandava brothers, and Dusshala the lone sister to a hundred Kauravas. These women have been treated as mere footnotes in popular retellings of the epic. The only character not seen in the original is the dog Shunaka. The book is almost like a collection of monologues that carry the narrative forward. Varied poetic forms like the Provençal Sestina or Canzone, the Malay Pantoum, the Pashtun Landay, the Spanish Glosa and the Japanese Haibun have been used to highlight the individual voices of the characters. This gives a distinct style to the different characters and nowhere is this more effective than in the case of Dusshala, the Kaurava princess. The author has used the Pashtun Landay as her style and it is brilliantly apt. The Landay is a folk couplet created and sung by the Pashtun women in Afghanistan where the recurring themes are war, separation, grief or love. In this context, the landay brings forth the inherent grief felt by Dusshala when her brothers are clubbed as a single evil entity, doomed to be forever in the shadow of their eldest siblings Duryodhana and Dushasana, whereas she knows how kind and gentle most of them were. She laments about her hundred siblings who have been killed in battle. This is one of the very few versions of the Mahabharata that carries all the names of the hundred Kaurava siblings. Dusshala not only mourns them by invoking their names but she also briefly describes their characters. This is a line which has remained with me even after I’ve left the book far behind.
“No pall, no pyre, no funeral song.
They deserve more : once dead, even sinners should belong.”
The Mahabharata, when seen through the eyes of characters who are not the main protagonists, is very different. Certain actions by the Pandavas which seemed fair and just acquires a different hue of selfishness, ambition, and blind love when seen from a different viewpoint. The effects of the decisions taken by men and women to further their individual or dynastic interests, are far-reaching and ultimately leads to destruction and bloodshed. Blind ambition leads only to annihilation of everybody around. The issues that all these characters are grappling with are more or less mirrored in today’s society too. Power tussles, trauma of rape, blind parental love and the greed for the throne on the parts of the rulers are some of the common themes. The common man in those times and even today are the ones who pay the price for the machinations of the rulers.
Most of the characters whom the author has chosen are victims of the decisions taken by the main protagonists of the epic. Shikhandi and Queen Gandhari are cases in point. Both suffered enormous loss due to Bhishma’s uncompromising devotion to the Kuru dynasty. The women hovering in the margins of the events have their own stories to tell which might give a whole new version to popular incidents. As the author has said in an interview,“The landscape shifts depending on where you are positioned.” We are also given a view of popular heroes whose actions may not be as golden when seen from the other side.
The title, ‘Until The Lions’, is a part of the African proverb which goes ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Here Karthika Nair has come forward to sift through the cacophony and turn the spotlight on those characters whose voices have to be heard in order to get a holistic view of the events of the Mahabharata.
I loved ‘Until The Lions’ and I keep going back to it, to read and ponder on the verses which tells me something new each time I read it.