Friday, December 01, 2006

Old tales, new renderings

[Did this piece for Himal magazine; it’s about modern translations that make mythological works more accessible to the casual reader. In writing it, I drew on some material covered in my earlier blog posts – such as this, this and this – but there is fresh stuff in here too! Needless to say, it’s more formal than the blog writing, perhaps even a bit didactic. But on the whole I enjoyed doing it – wish I had twice the word-length to work with though.]

It's difficult to tear one's eyes away from the bright colours and the strikingly minimalist design on the cover of Ramesh Menon's two-volume English translation of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. The first volume has featureless figures representing the Pandava princes at the game of dice, their humiliated Queen Draupadi, gambled into slavery, and Lord Krishna standing in the foreground, identifiable mainly by his blue skin. The characters all have short, cropped hair. "I wanted a contemporary look," explains Moonis Ijlal, who did the artwork "because this is a great contemporary story." The Mahabharata is a universal epic, he points out, not just something that belongs to Hindus. To this end, he convinced the publishers to allow him to write "Mahabharata" in both the Hindi and the Urdu scripts on the back cover – the words are entwined and the effect is that of one language reaching out to, almost embracing the other.

This vision of the Mahabharata as 1) a human story with strong contemporary resonance and 2) an epic that belongs to everyone, even though it is one of the sacred Hindu texts, fits well with Menon's novelistic rendering of the Vyasa poem. In prose that is dramatic (as befits a grand epic) but also accessible to the casual reader, the author brings the story alive –
continuing the tradition of writers like the late Kamala Subramaniam, whose beautiful, intimate single-volume rendering of the epic Menon acknowledges as a major inspiration.

Menon and Subramaniam's books 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 (available online here) is an invaluable reference work, but it's hard to imagine the non-academic reader coping with its archaic language, the detailed listings and descriptions of places and elucidation of character names (some of this material runs into pages, interrupting the flow of the story), and of course its sheer length. Besides, as Subramaniam suggests in the introduction to her own book, it isn’t 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. 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 it English, it translates into “O Bull of the Bharata Race!” One can see how awkward it sounds. Again, when a woman is addressed as “Madagajagaamini” in Sanskrit, in English is reads “O woman with the gait of an elephant in rut!
Such awkwardness can be found on nearly every page of Ganguli's otherwise commendable enterprise. But at the other extreme, many of the simpler translations give us just the story of the epics – their bare bones. These often take the sprawling canvas of the original works and reduce them to easy-to-digest morality tales, without handling the characters with the depth and complexity they deserve. R K Narayan and C Rajagopalachari (both of whom have translated the Ramayan, the Mahabharata and other autonomous stories from Hindu mythology) are among the highly regarded authors whose translations fall short in this respect.

What Subramaniam did was to strike a balance between the two extremes. Her treatment of the Mahabharata as a human tragedy is reflected in the way she stretches 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 basic tone of the epic.

Mythological relevance

Recently, publishing house Canongate began a new series of revisionist writings on ancient myths; leading novelists like Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and A S Byatt were asked to retell myths from works such as The Odyssey and The Labours of Hercules. In the anchoring book of this series, titled A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong tells us 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 Subramanian and Menon reflects this attitude: they flesh out the human aspects of the epics and made them more relevant for readers who aren't so interested in mythology as literal truth (or for its religious significance) as for what it tells us 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 Good-vs-Evil tale and Duryodhana as a straightforward villain, a Demon incarnate. But then, 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 modern translations, here's a simple example from one of the most vivid passages: the many fierce battles (often interrupted and resumed) that take place between the mighty Pandava Bheema 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; the secret affection he feels for his younger sibling has impaired his ability to fight with full vigour. Besides, Karna has promised his mother Kunti before the war began that he would not kill any of his brothers (except Arjuna) if he got the opportunity.

These are the psychological subtexts to this great passage, but they are all but concealed in the Ganguli text, which devotes paragraph after lengthy paragraph to the actual fighting, the details of weaponry and chariot manouevres, the description of the resplendent warriors as they cast arrows and spears at each other (see this link for a few examples). Menon, on the other hand, finds time for the profound human element of this scene: for the hidden tears in Karna's eyes, for the subtlety with which he keeps the rampaging Bheema at bay while taking care not to strike him a fatal blow; and the way he masks his own feelings by addressing Bheema with cruel words when he has him at his mercy.

Menon is among the most rigorous modern retellers of these stories. Apart from his voluminous Mahabharata, he has also translated works such as the Skanda Purana and the Siva Purana. These are full of entrancing mythological stories such 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 captivating stuff on its own terms 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 over the top; they are 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 the seemingly throwaway use of words like "humming" (to describe the Sudarshan Chakra) brings the scene an immediacy and intensity (the reader can almost hear Vishnu's disc spinning fiercely at his finger) that few modern translators have reached for.

The shock factor

Another thing 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 the sanitised versions of these stories – the Amar Chitra Katha comics, for instance. These have performed an important role in acquainting young children with ancient myths, but the flip side is that there has been a paucity of literature for the open-minded adult reader who might want a better sense of the tone of the original tales.

Consequently, many people have no idea about the scatological elements in the texts they revere; the more conservative households find it easy to play ostrich when faced with the sexual explicitness of the Puranas, for instance. I once had a piquant conversation with a shocked colleague (a well-educated lady) 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 the "frailties"! Likewise, millions of devout Indians are unaware even that the Shiva linga represents the 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 readers have to be ashamed of.

The works mentioned above are examples of translations that stick quite close to the original plots. But more revisionist retellings have also been gaining currency. Ashok Banker's bestselling Ramayana series, written and marketed as fantasy novels (complete with jackets that evoke the western science-fiction/fantasy genre), is an example. Banker's work has drawn accusations of being assembly-line (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 myth-retelling. But as Banker 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 old stories; 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 feel when we first heard ancient stories from our grandparents, even while showing us how these tales are relevant to our own lives and times.

In that sense, it's appropriate to call them novelistic. For, 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."


  1. Cant agree more with your take on our 'holy' epics and the conservative (also regressive) view on a rational interpretation. just one observation, on a lighter note of course, about the illustration of the lingam which you uploaded to prove your point: it was an excellent choice, showing the lingam in its fullest errect form as well as the lowest limp very subtly... (sorry female folk, but just could not miss the stark replicas)

  2. Firstly, i would like to say that i am a regular reader of your blog.Ur review of pundits from pakistan practically sold the book to me.This is the first time i am commenting here.Once again, very nice post. But my opinion is that myths have their roots in reality. Retelling of these stories over the years have resulted in them acquiring mythical proportions. There is a lot of astronomical evidence in the Rig veda and in the Mahabharata, ramayana etc to actually calculate the historical time frame they correspond do. Some fine historians like subhash kak(who is actually an engineer) have attempted it.

  3. Pankaj: glad you noticed that. I think it's a nice, wry pic.

    Sivaramakrishnan: send me some links if you know of any.

  4. the point at which history becomes decontextualised is the point at which myth is created, i think. it is only when you abstract an idea, an interaction, a character or a situation and try to universalise it by applying it to other contexts in other times that you make something relevant to all times, while making the original richer for the meanings that are retroactively applied to it.

    for instance, your use of the word 'revisionist': though technically accurate, the word is also fraught with pejorative associations. Does one read this as a reclamation of an original, 'true' meaning? Or does the later one overlay this usage with its own connotations? (related to this is the use of the word 'gay'. someone once said to me, you can never use the phrase 'gay abandon' in its original sense again. what a pity.)

    at any rate, it makes one look at words, meanings and stories afresh. which is the point, i suppose.

  5. Nice post and must thank you for the link to the Ganguly transalation - just got done with Siva, read it because of what you wrote.
    Don't know what to make of how elaborate it and most other texts are - I kind of agree with SivaRamakrishna - there's gotta be more to this stuff than just myth. In fact Menon makes the same point in his preface when he talks about the drainage system being the sole achievement of ancient India!
    Thanks again boss - Good Stuff.

  6. I also agree that there is more to this then myth, and that certainly makes it that much more exciting!

  7. nice site

  8. Sir: Hero selling old clothes, have you read in Maha Bharata? If not:

  9. YudhishThira had 88,000 Brahmins in his court. He gave them each 32 women. He fed the Brahmins with pork (varAha) in the inauguration of mayasabha. If mayasabha had pork as one dish, we have to presume that even Pandavas consumed it. If Pandavas consumed pork, how can their beloved brother in law, Lord Krishna lag behind? gist: our heroes have bloated images.

  10. Shivaji Sawant's "Mrityunjaya" in English translation by Nandini Nopany and P.Lal is available from Writers Workshop Calcutta who are online. For "The Second Turn" there is a better translation in English from Sahitya Akademi. You might enjoy Pratibha Ray's "Yajnaseni".

  11. Pradip: I have written about many of these books in several other posts on this blog - including Prem Panicker's excellent transcreation of Randamoozham, which many people have told me is better than the official translation Second Turn.