Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pandavas in the sky with diamonds (on Sandipan Deb’s modern Mahabharata)

[Did a version of this review for Biblio. And here I had thought this piece was the last thing I would ever write about the great epic. To quote Michael Corleone, or is it Bheeshma, “Just when I thought I was out, they PULL me back again”]


Even if you don’t know beforehand that Sandipan Deb’s bulky underworld thriller The Last War is a modern version of the Mahabharata, the dots will begin connecting within the first couple of pages. In the opening chapter, set in July 2007, a conflicted gunman named Jeet and his family friend and advisor Kishenbhai discuss a great war that lies ahead. Over glasses of Glenmorangie, they speak indolently of “dharma”, mull the ethics of taking up arms against friends and family. The conversation is full of high-sounding hokum. “Now listen, brother, and I will explain the fucking philosophy of action,” Kishenbhai says (as he pours himself a stiff drink and plumbs the ice bucket), “If we allow the mind to stray, it can take you into all sorts of unrelated detours.”

You were born and you are going to die. That’s the writing on the wall. Then you are reborn and take a look at the wall, and it’s still the same message out there. Who knows where’s the beginning, where’s the end? What we see are the intervening formations. Do your stuff, get the fuck out. Your duty.
Mumbo-jumbo aside, this prelude – which is, as should be clear, a tongue-in-cheek variation on the Bhagwad Gita – puts some of the story’s blocks in place. The men are interrupted by Jeet’s lover Jahn – this narrative’s Draupadi – who fierily demands vengeance for what was done to her years earlier (we are also told she “shares a bond” with Kishenbhai, who “instinctively sensed her slightest desire and fulfilled it even before she had articulated it properly in her own mind”). There are allusions to a period of banishment, to a young son named Abhi (Abhimanyu), to Jeet’s nemesis Karl (Karna), and to family elders named Yash Bauji (Bheeshma) and BK Acharya (Drona) whom Jeet is reluctant to kill.

Having served this aperitif, the book flashbacks to 1955, when the saga of the “Kuru clan” begins with the gifted archer Yash Kuru practising his skills near the Gateway of India (much as the young Bheeshma did on the banks of the Ganga). Yash happens to catch the eye of an elderly Parsi smuggler and goes on to become a hitman and eventual caretaker for the latter’s crime empire; over the decades, he tutors generations of businessmen, beginning with his own nephews and their children, who grow up to be versions of the Pandavas and Kauravas. Then things get ugly, as they will do if you're living and working in the underworld.

There have been many Mahabharata retellings in recent years, including point-of-view ones that filter the story through this or that character, and creative treatments like Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, which used tropes from the epic to examine modern India’s political history. The Last War is an addition to that large corpus, and it is a promising idea to shift the tale to the organised-crime world of the last 60 years, letting the familiar dramatic episodes play out against the backdrop of a fast-changing city, with occasional references to real-life events. There is a certain irreverence built into the book’s fabric too: the very first chapter, after all, give us a Krishna and Arjuna faux-philosophising over Scotch, and we know that all the characters, including Kishenbhai, are basically gangsters.

Yet, as this narrative lumbers on, it turns out to be less imaginative than many of the seemingly more conventional Mahabharata tellings – the one that retain the original setting. There are a few good twists – Yudhisthira goes to jail when he is tricked and implicated in a cricket-betting controversy – and I liked witty little touches such as the transformation of the original story’s Jarasandha (born as two halves and eventually returned to this state after a wrestling bout with Bheema) into twin brothers Jara and Sandha, small-time players challenging the Kurus for control of
the underworld, who sometimes complete each other’s sentences. But in a nearly 600-page book, these touches are too few and far between, and too much of the other invention occurs at a sniggering, schoolboy level (Arjuna’s famous bow Gandiva becomes Jeet’s pet gun Gandu).

Instead of using the Mahabharata template discerningly, Deb lifts entire episodes, plot details and even dialogues wholesale, and clumsily sticks them into situations where
they are laughably anachronistic. Thus, the episode of Arjuna seeing only the eye of the wooden bird he has to shoot at is presented exactly as it is in the original, except that of course Jeet is using a rifle. After Jahn/Draupadi is nearly raped by Ranjit/Duhshasana, she swears that she won't tie or oil her hair until she has soaked it in his blood. In one mind-boggling passage that shows how mundane these episodes can be if unthinkingly replicated, Preeti maaji (Kunti) recognises that the adult Karl was the baby she had abandoned because of – wait for it – the azure colour of his eyes. (In the original, it was the divine, unmistakable, Sun-gifted armour and earrings glued to Karna’s body. Presumably there weren't a lot of other young men running around with those accessories.) As if to acknowledge the existence of the many Mahabharata perspective tellings, a few random chapters are narrated in the first person by a different character (Jahn, Karl), but there is no pattern to this – it is a device indulged in for its own sake. And because the author is so keen to stick to the basics of the story, while also getting on with the action, there are passages like the one where we are hurriedly informed of the exact months and years of birth of the three “Pandavas” and the two “Kauravas”.
Preeti gave birth to Rishabh in December 1962, followed shortly afterwards by Shankar’s son Rahul, in April 1963. Preeti’s second son Vikram arrived in the world in April 1964 and then Jeet in March 1965. Aditi’s second son Ranjit was born in July 1964...
And so on, but you get the idea. (Apart from the laziness of this writing, that first sentence is grammatically problematic, appearing to suggest that Rahul is also Preeti’s son.) This is compounded by trite character summaries – Rishabh (Yudhisthira) is virtuous and introverted and fond of playing cards, Vikram (Bheema) is strong and naughty but also a protector of the weak – and by bombastic language. The characters say things like “This is my word to you as Rahul, son of Shankar” and “I curse you, Rahul, that if you are lying to me, then at the most important moment of your life, when you will require your physical and mental strength the most, that strength will desert you, and you will be left a weak man. This is a mother’s curse. It will be true.” Jeet and Karl make pronouncements about how each has to prove he is the greatest gunman of the age. “I have not come here with hope that I will be able to secure a peaceful settlement,” says Kishenbhai affectedly, “but only in order that the world will not hold me to blame.”

All of which may prompt the reader to ask, “Who cares about your silly ego games, you nobodies?”

This is not a minor point. To read the original Mahabharata is to buy into the conceit that the very public actions and interrelationships of these royals affect the whole of Bharatvarsh. There is the inbuilt assumption that every last family in the land is invested in the saga of the Pandavas and Kauravas; that their exploits amount to a Dwapara Yuga version of front-page news (or in some cases, page-three news); that bards are roaming every corner of the kingdom, regularly updating the “common people” with the stories; that the great war will alter all lives for good and for ill.

For such a conceit to work in a contemporary scenario, one would probably have to hypothesise a situation where, say, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi and their supporters were facing off in a dharma-yudh being breathlessly covered by every TV channel in the land, with the future of India and the world on the line. Or a subtler thriller where battlefield action was substituted by the twists and turns of electoral politics. But the scale of the action in The Last War is very modest - even given what we know of the Mumbai underworld's reach - and the narrative itself inadvertently reveals this in places. (At one point the cricket betting subplot includes a needlessly prolonged account of the 1996 World Cup final between Sri Lanka and Australia, complete with mentions of real-life participants – Arjuna Ranatunga, Glenn McGrath etc. But this, like a later allusion to the September 11 attacks, becomes a reminder that a much larger world exists outside the one inhabited by these self-absorbed characters, and that they are fairly inconsequential in the overall scheme of things.)

Given this, Deb’s decision to use the archaic, self-aggrandising prose of an ancient epic seems ridiculous. In the context of underworld skirmishes, what does it mean to say that it has to be “decided” whether Jeet or Karl is the "greatest warrior"? It is not as if they are even going to face off in an old-style gun duel. The Arjuna-Karna battle was governed by certain rules of warfare; their final duel, even if it was settled unjustly, was a one-on-one confrontation involving individual skill that would be gaped at by others on the battlefield. The situations are not remotely comparable, it amounts to a lazy transposition, and after a while one begins to wish for Quick Gun Murugun or Chulbul Pandey to turn up and show these boys what is what.

The prose also includes multiple esoteric references to “dharma” or duty. Deeply ambiguous as this concept already is in the original Mahabharata, it becomes meaningless in a situation where everyone is operating outside the law to begin with. To his credit, Deb does show awareness of this in an early character sketch of Yash bauji that captures something of Bheeshma’s relentless self-righteousness, as well as the self-deception of anyone rationalising a position of power and privilege.
There was a tight framework of logic within which Yash’s mind functioned, and almost any problem was attacked from the first principles of that logic or the carefully worked out corollaries. It was a system complete in itself [...] its building blocks would effortlessly rearrange themselves to adapt and respond to every situation.
And yet, the characters go on saying things about “the malleability of dharma”, and doing it in a languid, theoretical way that seems to have no real relevance to their own lives and actions. (Incidentally, it is indicated that English is their primary language of communication, which makes some of this dialogue seem even more woodenly incongruous.)

For me, two questions were central to understanding whether this book worked or not. First: does it do anything especially fresh or creative with the Mahabharata? As indicated above, no. Whereupon the second question follows: does it work on its own terms, as a good, fast-paced thriller? This is a little more difficult to answer. Certainly there is a lot of action, there is a sense of a multidimensional saga with people flitting in and out of the frame, and in a few – too few – passages there is interesting use of setting (as in a sequence set in Dharavi) and a glimpse of a shadowy, noirish Mumbai. (“They call this the city full of life, but should life be like this? [...] It was a city of mediocre, obedient zombies. What a place to run your sort of business, Rishabh.”) But it all drags on for too long, and besides it is never possible to read this as a stand-alone story, for the Mahabharata reference points are everywhere, constantly weighing the narrative down.

Searching for a key to the tonal incongruities, I returned to one of the Gita conversations. (Turning to the Gita for “answers” does seem like a reasonable thing to do.) At one point, cutting through Jeet and Kishenbhai’s psychobabble, Jahn asks Jeet to sing to her, whereupon he begins droning the lyrics to the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (and she joins in by screaming the line “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes”). The moment made strange sense. Perhaps this whole story is a drug-induced fever dream, with these bored people amusing themselves by using the ancient epic as a palimpsest for their own lives. In which case, I wish Deb had been much more over the top and thrown in a few more flourishes as well as an extended Epilogue set in heaven as an opium den where all the assassinated Kurus would carry on as if nothing had happened. After all, as Kishenbhai sagely puts it, “Why grieve? Either for the dead or the living? No point at all. We are here today, we were here yesterday, we will be here tomorrow. There was never a time when we were not around.”


[A selection of Mahabharata-related posts from the archives: Ekta Kapoor's Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; flash fiction on the fall of Bheeshma; astonishing births in the Mahabharata; Karna and the Madraka women; how Rukmi learnt to stop worrying; on Prem Panicker's Bhimsen; The Palace of Illusions; Groucho Marx as Krishna; Irawati Karve's Yuganta; a long piece for Caravan about perspective tellings; Devdutt Pattanaik's The Pregnant King]


  1. Well, umm, thanks to this post and the links you've helpfully provided at the bottom, I re-read the ekta ki mahabharata posts you'd written - had a good laugh I did!

  2. lol, i think this review is a better read than the book. I was pleasantly surprised to see you mentioning the word "ridiculous" in the review :)Btw, what do you think of The Great Indian Novel. I quite liked it.

  3. Smita: yes, I suppose I should be glad that show got cancelled - otherwise it would be 300 episodes old by now and I would be writing about nothing else!

    Pessimist Fool: liked it well enough when I read it more than a decade ago, but there was a lot of novelty value then since I was reading hardly any contemporary Indian fiction - don't know what I would think of it today.

  4. Amongst the links to other works you have provided, I am a big fan of Yuganta. It resonanted strongly with some of the opinions I had about some of the characters in Mahabharat, specifically about Bhishma.

    Haven't read this one yet. As long as we are on the topic of adapting old stories, have you read Osamu Tezukas Buddha series? I highly recommend it.

  5. Sid: yes, I wrote about Tezuka's Buddha series here. Only read it that once though - haven't gone back to it yet.

  6. What a shame. Sounded like it had so much potential


    That is a bit final, don't you think?

  8. Marvin: well, I specified "about the great epic". But if you pay me obscenely well, I may consider not writing about anything else for a few years at least.

  9. What is your take on Amish? Is all this jazzy mythy stuff good for the mental health of Indians at large?

  10. Anon: haven't read Amish's writings, so can't say anything about those specifically, but I have no problem with "jazzy mythy stuff" as a category. It can be done with as much imagination and skill as any other type of writing can be.

  11. Thanks for your response. Jazzy mythy books that catch on like crazy can be either good or bad for India's secular future (feel free to disagree). So, if you allow me, I would like to say I
    look forward to your review/send-up/whatever-you-write of the Shiva Trilogy.

    Being of sound mind and body, you may perhaps be a little reluctant to read all three books (I know, I Know), but Jai, as India's foremost and easily most readable reviewer of fiction, you owe your readers as much: think of it as your dharma--your fucking duty!!

  12. Anon: thanks for the kind words, but no, I don't feel like I owe my readers any such thing. In any case, if I were the sort of reviewer who was hung up on my "responsibilities" or "duties", I'd probably spend most of my time concentrating on literary fiction.

    (Just curious: what if I read the Shiva trilogy and really liked it, and wrote a laudatory post about it? Would you still reckon I had honoured my f***ing dharma then?)

  13. Okay, Jai, so you stay free of reader expectations, which is both fine and admirable. Don't let the burden bother you.

    I have not made up my mind about jazzy-mythy fiction. From what you say of Mr Deb's 'The Last War', I reckon it is good for India by and large. On the Shiva Trilogy, am waiting for faith-neutral responses. No reviewer has yet written any review that allows me to draw any conclusion either way. To answer your question: if you are laudatory in your appraisal of the trilogy, that would be your prerogative. Your f-dharma would be to exercise your judgment and craft the way you usually do, with intellectual honesty, and thus helping us make up our minds (to the extent possible). Thanks. Give it a thought