A lunchtime conversation with an elderly uncle when I am 10 or 11 years old. We are on the Mahabharata, and this long-retired army-man – all thick white eyebrows and clipped voice and military bearing – asks about my favourite character. His own preference is for the celibate Bheeshma, grand-sire and mentor to generations of kings despite having himself renounced the throne. Today, knowing how revered that self-denying yet controlling patriarch is among a certain demographic of conservative Indians (and how many political leaders we have had who broadly fit this character type), this memory amuses me.
Back then, though, I cowered. When I named Karna, this uncle frowned, wagged his head gently, said he didn’t like Karna because he “was too angry all the time”.
In that situation, and at that age, I couldn’t do more than mumble something incoherent in reply, but I remember the thoughts racing through my head: “So what? Why can’t you be full of anger and noble or good-hearted at the same time?”
This was one of a few instances in my childhood when I had cause to feel sheepish or defensive about my favourite literary figure. I had long felt drawn to Karna at a visceral, hard-to-explain level, and spent a lot of time thinking about his inner life and his responses to the many dramatic situations that came his way. Faced with regular bouts of unrest and depression myself, I could relate with the passages in Mahabharata retellings such as the one by Kamala Subramaniam which described the young Karna as being beset by an unnamable, all-pervading melancholia.
Years later, I would have discussions with a like-minded friend about how Karna’s harsher actions and seemingly insensitive declarations were manifestations of an embittered state of mind rather than springing from genuine malice – how, perhaps because he felt he wasn't getting the respect or consideration he deserved, he wilfully set off on a self-destructive path, as if to say “They demean or undervalue me – so, fine, let me at least live down to their expectations, or sink even further.” (As Shakespeare’s Richard III sardonically says, “Since I cannot prove a lover / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”)
Naturally, such a relationship with a fictional character can get fraught. It was hard to escape the notorious dice-game passage at the centre of the epic, where Karna insults Draupadi and – depending on which version you read – orders the disrobing of her and the Pandavas. Even if you treat this incident as a response to Draupadi’s own verbal barbs in earlier situations, as well as the Pandavas’s relentless mockery of Karna for being “low-born”, it is clear that the moral stakes in the gambling episode are loaded against Karna, who joins in the persecution of a helpless person.
I was unnerved enough by all this to “censor” parts of the episode when I read a Mahabharata translation out to my mother as a child; I left out Karna’s contribution altogether. I also recall shaking my head at a TV interview that showed an aged and harried-looking BR Chopra confronted by Karna devotees who criticized the scene in the 1980s TV show where Karna calls Draupadi a “vaishyaa”. (Chopra’s response, in halting English: “Arre, but he DID say the girl was a prostitute – it is there in the book.” I vividly remember and am still amused by that paternalistic “the girl”, but that’s for another conversation.)
However, it was only much later, on reading the utterly brilliant treatment of the game-of-dice sequence in Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, that I felt an author had really got into the mindscape of this hugely complex character. This occurs over the course of an intense interior monologue that lasts around 20 pages, starting from the moment when Karna enters the sabha to learnt that Draupadi has been put on stake. What follows is a fever-dream of sorts, where the many sides of his personality emerge, argue with, talk past each other.
Mrityunjay is one of the great Mahabharata perspective tellings in any language. (The original is in Marathi; I read the English translation by P Lal and Nandini Nopany.) Though Karna is the book’s clear protagonist – hero, villain and many things in between – this isn’t exclusively his first-person narrative: of the nine “books” that make up this opus, five are narrated by other characters, including Kunti, Duryodhana and Krishna. It adds up to a superb kaleidoscopic view of a long and conflicted life.
The dice-game passage is very much in Karna’s own voice, though, and hinges on an inner conflict: on one side, a high-minded devotee of the Sun – protector of the weak and oppressed, finding strength in the distant light in the sky – and on the other, an uncouth charioteer, eyes downcast, cherishing his inner darkness, yearning for revenge. They wrestle each other for control. And there are other Karnas between these two extremes. “I collected the loose strings of my mind firmly together: Karna the charioteer’s son, Karna the Kaurava warrior, humiliated Karna, shuddering-with-revenge Karna. I tied them tightly together and flung them in a corner of my body.”
The ebbs and flows of this long passage – the shifts in the interior monologues, the movements from merciless self-awareness to self-delusion and back – are breathtaking. He feels horror when Draupadi is dragged into the assembly; then hopes – in the manner of a quixotic romantic hero – that she will turn to HIM for help, vowing to himself that if this happens he will destroy the world for her sake; but then feels wounded when she seems to ignore his presence while appealing to others in the assembly. Dark questions arise: even in this moment of crisis, does she deem him an inferior? And if so, shouldn’t she be reminded that now, reduced to the status of a servant, she is even lower than him in the social hierarchy?
Throughout, there are animal and bird metaphors, as if Karna is transforming into a primeval state of being where he is connected with all other life forms, combining in himself all their emotions and natural impulses. “Countless serpents of questions raised their hoods in the cave of my mind […] A horrible thought-scorpion stung my body […] Like elephants caught in a forest fire, trumpeting and cannoning into each other, herds of thoughts clashed in my mind […] Like a poisonous snake hissing, the charioteer inside me rose in fury.” And later, when he speaks the words he will never be able to recant: “Like the shrieking of a flock of parrots fluttering out of their tree-holes, these words emerged from my mouth – scattering in a flurry of green feathers. I spoke to my heart’s content, like one intoxicated.” Eventually, after coming to his senses, he imagines his own wife Vrishali in Draupadi’s place, realizes the full magnitude of what has occurred, and realizes also that it is too late to go back to a place of peace and reconciliation – this sets the ground for the scene, years later, when Krishna reveals his princely identity to him and offers him the world, and Karna rejects it.
Many of the ideological conversations around literature (and cinema) try to draw a reductive conclusion about this or that character – and often, a simplistic judgement about the artist too. What is this writer’s position or “lens”? Is so-and-so director glorifying the behaviour of this character, or merely depicting it? These are treated as urgent and vital questions, but they rarely have clear-cut “Yes” or “No” answers; sometimes they aren’t answerable at all, but we like to think they are, so that we can affirm our own value systems. At a time when much attention is focused on male aggression and its representation in culture, such conversations are more necessary than ever – and also often more simplistic than ever.
But great books often allow us to recognize ourselves in even the worst behaviour of a protagonist, to see how a person’s “good” side can be inseparable from the “bad” one, and Mrityunjay is one of the most fully realised interior studies I have read. Looked at from a safe distance, the dice-game passage might be viewed as a case of a male author “justifying” the behaviour of a male character, but in the way it unfolds, how it lays bare the many nooks and corners of a tormented mind, it is much more than that. It is about human complexity in all its glory and hideousness, and about the personality disorders that may exist in all of us.
(Other Bookshelves columns are here. And here's an earlier piece about Mahabharata retellings, which touches on my Karna-love)