New tales of old

It is difficult to tear oneself away from the covers of Ramesh Menon's two-volume English translation of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. The colours are bright, and the design is strikingly informal and minimalist. The first volume has featureless figures representing the Pandava princes at the game of dice, their humiliated queen Draupadi gambled into slavery, and the lord Krishna standing in the foreground, identifiable mainly by his blue skin. The figures all have short, cropped hair. "I wanted a contemporary look," explains artist Moonis Ijlal, "because this is a great contemporary story." The Mahabharata is a universal epic, he says, not one that belongs only to Hindus. To this end, he convinced the publishers to allow him to write Mahabharata in both Hindi and Urdu scripts on the back cover – the words are entwined, and the effect is of one language reaching out to and almost embracing the other. Ijlal's belief in the fact that the Mahabharata is a human story with a strong contemporary resonance on the one hand, and that it is an epic that belongs to everyone on the other, fit well with former journalist Ramesh Menon's novelistic rendering of the work by Vyasa. In prose that is dramatic (as befits a grand epic) and at the same time accessible to the casual reader, the author brings the story alive. He continues the tradition of writers like the late Kamala Subramaniam, who wrote a beautiful, intimate single-volume rendering of the epic, which Menon acknowledges as a major inspiration. Both Menon and Subramaniam's works are significantly different in tone from the only full-length English translation currently in the public domain – the one by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published in the late 19th century. Ganguli's 12-volume translation* is an invaluable reference work, but it is hard to imagine the non-academic reader bearing with its sheer length, archaic language, detailed listings and descriptions of places, and exhaustive elucidation of character names. Besides, as Subramaniam suggests in the introduction to her book, it is not possible to do full justice to ancient texts in a literal translation. "English is not suited to the elaborate similes that are common in Sanskrit," she writes. "Also, there is a vast difference between the Eastern and the Western ways of description. For instance, [the Pandava prince] Arjuna is called 'Bharatarshabha', which is very pleasing to the ear in Sanskrit. But in English, it translates into 'O Bull of the Bharata Race!' One can see how awkward it sounds." Such awkwardness can be found on nearly every page of Ganguli's otherwise commendable effort. At the other extreme, however, many of the simpler translations give us only the stories of the epics – their bare bones. These often take the sprawling canvases of the original works and reduce them to easily digestible morality tales, without handling the complex characters with the sensitivity and depth they deserve. Works by C Rajagopalachari and R K Narayan (both of whom have translated the Ramayan, the Mahabharata and other autonomous stories from Hindu mythology) are among those that fall short in this respect. What Subramaniam has done is to strike a balance between the two extremes. Her treatment of the Mahabharata as a human tragedy is reflected in the way she fleshes out the conversations between the characters, emphasising their inner conflicts, holding their struggles up to the light; and in the empathy and understanding she brings to nearly all the people in the story. Inevitably, some creative licence is exercised, but none of her extrapolations are inconsistent with the tone of the epic. Mythological relevance Recently, publishing house Canongate began a series of revisionist writings on ancient myths. Leading novelists such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and A S Byatt were asked to retell myths from works including Homer's Odyssey and The Labours of Hercules. In the anchoring book of this series, titled A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong reminds readers that myths were not meant to be taken literally, or to be seen as providing factual information. Their function was to help people cope with spiritual emptiness and make sense of their lives: Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting. We all want to know where we came from, but because our earliest beginnings are lost in the mists of pre-history, we have created myths about our forefathers that are not historical but help to explain current attitudes about ourselves, neighbours and customs. In the Indian context, the work done by Subramaniam and Menon reflects this attitude. They draw out the human aspects of the epics, and make them more relevant for readers who are not as interested in mythology for either its literal truth or religious significance, as they are for what it tells about the human condition, about the everyday bustle of life. Subramaniam's likening of Prince Duryodhana to Shakespeare's tragic heroes – marked by a single fatal flaw but otherwise a noble prince with many fine qualities – may not sit well with purists who choose to see the Mahabharata as a simple tale of good versus evil, and Duryodhana as a straightforward villain, a demon incarnate. But surely one of the world's most sprawling, complex works of literature deserves a more searching treatment. To illustrate the difference between Ganguli's literal rendition of the Mahabharata and the newer translations, here is a simple example from one of the most vivid of the epic's passages. The fierce fighting, often interrupted and resumed, rages between Bheema, the mighty Pandava, and the great warrior Karna, on the 14th day of the Kurukshetra War. The two men are brothers, though only Karna, the elder, knows this, and his affection for his younger sibling has impaired his ability to fight with full vigour. Besides, before the war began, Karna had promised his mother Kunti that he would not kill any of his brothers, with the exception of Arjuna. These are the psychological subtexts to this great passage, but they are all but concealed in the Ganguli text, which devotes passage after lengthy passage to the actual fighting – the details of weaponry and chariot manoeuvres, descriptions of the resplendent warriors as they cast arrows and spears at each other. Ramesh Menon, on the other hand, finds time for the profound human poignancy of this scene: for the unseen tears in Karna's eyes, for the subtlety with which he keeps Bheema at bay while taking care not to strike him a fatal blow, and the way he masks his feelings by addressing Bheema with cruel words when he has him at his mercy. Menon is among the most rigorous modern re-tellers of these stories. Apart from his voluminous Mahabharata, he has also translated works such as the Skanda Purana and the Shiva Purana. These are full of enthralling mythological stories – the churning of the ocean by the devas and the asuras, Sati's self-immolation in her father Daksha's yagna, Shiva's subsequent revenge, the reunion of Shiva and Sati/Parvati, the genesis of Karttikeya and Ganesh, and the creation and destruction of the magnificent celestial cities jointly known as Tripura. This is captivating stuff in itself, but Menon's prose brings a strong, individual voice to these oft-told tales while retaining their basic flavour. He knows how to be florid when the stories demand it, but his descriptions never become ridiculous or over the top. They remain precise and vivid. A sample: An earthquake shook sacred Gangadvara. As in a dream, Daksha saw a mysterious and malignant cluster of stars at noon. The sun was blotched with black patches; a dark ring glowed balefully around the star. The quarters were squalid and gloomy, strange comets fell out of the dim heavens. Vultures circled low over the yagna, darkening the sacrificial platform; jackals howled at the perimeters of the conclave of rishis and devas. Mounted on Garuda, the Sudarshana humming at his finger, Vishnu faced Virabhadra. Heartened, the devas turned and came back to fight. Bhanukampa sounded Virabhadra's conch, which glowed like moonlight. The devas quailed at the blast; they prepared to flee again. At once, in reply, Vishnu blew a deafening note on the Panchajanya, rallying them. He froze the gana army for a moment on its murderous, rapacious spree: Virabhadra's forces stopped their ears with bloody palms. Even Menon's seemingly throwaway use of words like "humming" (to describe the Sudarshan Chakra) brings the scene an immediacy and intensity that few modern translators have achieved. The reader can almost hear Vishnu's disc spinning fiercely at his finger. Phallus and all Something else that the better retellings do is to present the more controversial aspects of the originals, without making them gratuitous. This is an important function, for generations of Indians have grown up with sanitised versions of these stories – in the Amar Chitra Katha comics, for instance. Such renditions have performed an important role in acquainting young children with the myths, but they offer little to open-minded adult readers who might want something of the tone and complexity of the original tales. Consequently, many people have no idea of the scatological elements in the texts they have been taught to revere. More conservative households find it easy to play ostrich when faced with the sexual explicitness of the Puranas, for instance. This reviewer once had a piquant conversation with a shocked colleague who, having read some of the unexpurgated texts, wondered aloud what the point was in worshipping gods who seemed to have the same frailties as human beings – sexual appetite being one of these 'frailties'. Likewise, millions of devout Indians are probably unaware even that the Shiva linga represents the male phallus. One of the achievements of the modern translations is to present these aspects matter-of-factly, thus paving the way for them to enter the public domain rather than to be treated as something better left unaddressed. The works mentioned thus far have been examples of translations that stick close to the original plots. But revisionist retellings of myths have also been gaining currency of late. A good example is Ashok Banker's bestselling Ramayana series, written and marketed as fantasy novels, complete with the bright covers that evoke the Western fantasy/science-fiction genre. Banker's works have drawn accusations of being 'assembly-line' creations, perhaps because of the speed at which he churns his books out. But to his credit, he has taken an epic that was never considered very exciting (the Ramayana does pale when compared to the richness of the Mahabharata), and effectively repackaged it for a new generation of readers. Authenticity will, of course, continue to be a burning subject when it comes to the retelling of myths. But as Banker rightly asks in his author's note: "Does a grandmother consult Valmiki's original Ramayana before she retells the tale to her grandchildren at night?" He has a point. In a sense, we are continually redefining and reinventing these legends; each generation brings its own wisdom and life-experiences to them, and that is how it should be. At their best, these modern translations revive the sense of wonder that we felt when we first heard these ancient stories from our grandparents, even while showing us how the tales are relevant to our own lives and times. In this sense, it is appropriate to call them novelistic. After all, to quote Karen Armstrong again: "A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see the world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest."

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian