Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Mythologies retold

Have been reading and thoroughly enjoying Siva: The Siva Purana Retold by Ramesh Menon. It’s full of such great mythological stories as the churning of the ocean by the devas and the asuras; Sati’s self-immolation in her father Daksha’s yagna, and Shiva’s subsequent revenge; the reunion of Shiva and Sati/Parvati; the genesis of Karttikeya and Ganesha; the creation and destruction of the magnificent celestial cities jointly known as Tripura. This is brilliant stuff on its own terms but I really like the quality of Menon’s prose and the way he brings a strong, individual voice to these oft-told tales while retaining their basic flavour. A big challenge for any translator of mythology is to be florid when the stories demand it (and boy, do some of these stories demand it!) without getting ridiculous, and Menon manages this. His descriptions are more precise and intense than any other English translation of these works I’ve come across. 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. Like a pale scorpion, the evil nakshatra Netraka fell from the sky, into which it should never have risen at this time.

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.
There are many great passages in this book and plenty
that’s of interest, including heaps of sex and violence, and a nicely understated sense of humour. This kind of straightforward treatment (done well) is more effective in my view than those over-clever books by Roberto Calasso.

Very high up on my to-read list now is Menon’s two-volume translation of the Mahabharata. Tehelka ran some of the chapters as a series a couple of years ago; I read some of them then and was impressed by the freshness of the writing. (Having read at least eight English versions of the Greatest Story Ever Told, I didn’t think too much more could be done with it in a [relatively] short translation, but Menon’s writing made me feel like a first-time reader again, drawing me back into an epic I thought I knew so well.)

While on this tack: among the Mahabharata translations I’ve fully read, my favourite by far is the one by Kamala Subramaniam. I love the way she draws out the conversations between the characters, stressing their inner conflicts, holding their struggles up to the light; and her likening of Duryodhana to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, marked by a single fatal flaw. Also appreciated some of her personal touches, such as the decision to refer to Karna throughout as “Radheya” – which becomes a simple but powerful reminder of what he considers himself to be: the son of the poor woman who raised him.

(Incidentally, Subramaniam’s version of the Srimad Bhagavatam is also one of the best single-volume translations of that work currently available.)


  1. A novelistic retelling of our myths sounds very interesting. Though it is not clear from your post how successful the author is in giving those mythical characters psychological depth and more life-like and complex motivations, or indeed does he even aim to do that, because generally that's what is missing from those ancient narratives, as opposed to say a classical literary novel.

    but then again it is a fine balance. turning those characters to more life-like creatures might be antithetical to the idea of myth itself. I think a novel like Don Quixote achieves that balance beautifully. It undermines myths and legends and at the same time celebrates them too.

  2. Have you read Samhita Arni's Mahabharata? Written when she was a child, and illustrated (by the author) brilliantly. Very, very impressive and so re-readable

  3. actually on second reading of menon's mahabharata, and i would recommend it highly. like you said, the language he's used and the fact that it's pacy--i've read bits of kamala subramanium's version as well, but i thought this one was much better :)

  4. YES! The subramaniam version is my favorite as well. I got that one the last time I went to India and haven't found a better version since. Other english versions either seem to be too short or too long.

  5. Hi, I read Siva Purana by Ramesh Menon and thoroughly enjoyed it.. Here is a link to my review -

    Did not know about his other books on Mahabharatha. Thanks for the pointer.

  6. lovely review. tho I am not as avid a reader as you but if you liked this one, may I suggest one from a pune-based, married-abroad psychologist called Rachna Amsley Gandhi (like always, I am not sure of the spellings). The book priced around 600 (quite a hole, a decade back) is all about drawing parallel with modern days problems in infatuation, liking, love and love-naking by wedding the psychological aspect with finding solutions thru mythological stories. Lovely book (was passing thru a bad patch and found it such a help that it came fleeting into memories the moment I finished your review; incidentally a lot of such problems were solved thru Shiva-Parvati relationship)

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  8. Hey Jabberwock,

    Have been reading your blog for ages now and really enjoy it :) Am prompted to write at the mention of a personal obession - The Mahabharata.

    The Ramesh Menon transcreation is very good - gives you all the stories, chronologies, geneaologies etc. But for serious fans I would recommend the Van Buitenen translations of the Bhandarkar Critical Edition. And if, like me, you revel in itchy details such as what was Arjun's bow in the war called, the names of all the Kaurava sons, the names of all the places mentioned in the text, troop formations, and oh tons of other tiny delectable details - then I would suggest "The Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata", published by Samsad, by Madhusruba Dasgupta, to accompany you as you read the Van Buitenen.

    Thanks again for this blog. Have picked up many abook on its reccomendation :)



  9. Thanks Aarti. Actually, you'll find the name of Arjuna's bow (the Gandiva) in almost any version of the epic. And the Menon one has the names of the hundred sons too. But yes, I'm sure there are millions of other little details to be dug up. Somehow, despite my own very intense feelings about the epic, I never got around to reading any of the comprehensive multi-volume translations. Maybe in the future (though I can already hear the bookshelves creaking in protest).

  10. I read the book after reading this post--and came back to say thanks :) for pointing the way !!!

    I have read and re-read Menon's Mahabharata many times and enjoyed the one on Shiva too

  11. I read it thanks to your review too, and really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  12. Has anyone rea Irawati karve's take on the mahbharata in Yuganta? WOrth reading.