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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Mahabharata: A Recollection and Q&A With Max Gladstone (by Mihir Wanchoo)

I call myself a Mahabharatophile, I admit it’s a made-up word but let me explain why I did so. I have been a fan of history and mythology as long as I can remember, plus being born in India led to me being exposed to a whole host of stories based on history and mythology. The history of storytelling in India is rich and varied. In ancient times, epics were told orally and passed down from generation to generation largely by memory. At later times, these stories were written down and that helped in the further spread. For most SFF readers in the subcontinent, their fascination begins when their grandmothers or grandfathers tell them about the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or both. These two epics are the cultural and mythological foundation in India as they deal with magic, heroes, destiny, duty and lots of other things. For me, the Mahabharata always held a special fascination as it had a vast character cast and shades of grey to almost all of them. 

My first exposure to this mega story came via the Amar Chitra Katha comic books, then as I read the C. Rajagopalchari version and finally culminating into the canon version by Kisari Mohan Ganguli. Throughout these versions, the complexity never dimmed but kept on growing and made the story even more enticing. I also was able to read further volumes that explored the story via various characters or different aspects of the tale itself like Yuganta by Iravati Karve, Mrityunjay by Shivaji Sawant, Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray, Yugandhar by Shivaji Sawant, The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering by Ramesh Menon, Parva by S. L. Bhyrappa etc. My fascination with this story has grown exponentially and I’m ever on the lookout for new books that feature/focus on this magnificent story. Imagine to my surprise when Max Gladstone talked about this beloved epic of mine in his guest post on A Dribble Of Ink. I was thrilled to bits on learning that a non-desi knew about it, fallen in love with it and had taken the time to blog about it. Seriously go read Max’s post first if you haven’t done so, go on I’ll wait… 

Now that you are back, welcome and by now you must have read the gist of the story as Max wonderfully sums it up. Also here’s the quote which graces the start of the book: 

What is found herein may also be found in other sources, what is not found herein does not matter.” 

This line is factually true as the Mahabharata not only is about an 18 day internecine war between cousins but is a huge compendium about the history, geography, battle tactics, politics, social codes and behavior and various other subjects in relation to human life, thoughts and Dharma. Notice the last word “Dharma” that one features a lot in this story as well as most subcontinental mythology. There’s no single meaning of this word and most desi folk often find it hard to explain it to their non-desi friends. I’m not going to even attempt to explain it and I want you all to try look it up or ask any of your desi friends, that should be an interesting conversation for you all non-Mahabharatophiles. 

Why do I think this saga is so cool, well think about all the geeking out over Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord Of The Rings, comics, Fantasy books and SF books. I can’t speak for other desi fans but as a desi geek I never had much access to any of the above except for comics which my uncles used to bring every 6-7 years when they used to visit us. Confession time I still haven’t seen the original Star Wars trilogy and frankly after knowing most of its plot points, I’m no longer enthused to watch it. My point being as geeks we often talk about which book/movie is better? Which character is more strong/valiant/talented/etc. Well with epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and the rest of the subcontinental mythology. We used and still have these discussions, ask any desi mythology lover about who was the best archer and you’ll get a variety of answers? Ask them which avatar was more powerful or who did the most good? Lastly for any Mahabharata reader, this is the ultimate ire-raiser; Who is the better warrior, Karna or Arjuna

Such were the questions that have raged throughout my childhood and the various online forums I frequented in my adolescent years. I still don’t have a concrete answer to the Karna-Arjuna conundrum but I have my opinions on them. So go on and get acquainted with this great epic and you can thank me later. Lastly there’s an excellent blog post by Jai Arjun Singh about MBH on his blog (You can read the discussion about various topics in the comments, just to give you an idea about how contested several points are in this epic). And now I would like to present a small interview with Max Gladstone who kindled this post and cheerfully shined a light on this fascinating epic for all the readers who are yet to discover it. Read ahead and enjoy: 

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Three Parts Dead
Read my thoughts on 18 Days by Grant Morrison and Mukesh Singh

Q] You wrote a very fascinating article about the Mahabharata on A Dribble Of Ink, and as a Mahabhratophile I was very pleased to read your thoughts. Please tell us about how you were introduced to this fascinating epic? 

MG: I’m glad you liked my article! I love the Mahabharata, and it’s a constant surprise to me that it’s not part of more fantasy lovers’ vocabulary. I came to it as a kid, maybe thirteen—my parents (who also introduced me to Journey to the West; I owe them a lot!) got me a copy of William Buck’s abridged prose retelling. I devoured that book. Every page had some new and amazing adventure. I was the kid who always wished Arthurian legends had more fireballs—the Mahabharata’s gods, demons, over-the-top magical battles and flying chariots rocked my world. 

Q] The main story basically is about a war between the two groups of cousins. As you described in your piece, it is definitely much more than that. You mentioned: 
So in addition to the adventure story you’ll find philosophy, economics, treatises on warfare, religion, mysticism, politics, proper gambling—as discursive and in depth a text as you’ll find just about anywhere.” 

It encompasses all that and much more. What would you think be the best way to explore this series and introduce it to a western audience? 

MG: I’d recommend that people who don’t know the book at all try out one of the many abridgements, or maybe a shorter dramatic presentation. Once a Mahabharata newbie knows the outlines of the central plot, then he or she will feel more comfortable exploring further. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Buck, of course, but there are others—people on the internet have recommended I check out Ramesh Menon’s retelling, for example. Peter Brook’s 6-hour Mahabharata miniseries is another great introduction—it covers the highlights & isn’t that much of a time investment, considering the length of the book! 

Q] Chief among the conflicts in the book is the eternal question, who is better archer/warrior between Arjuna and Karna and this question has perhaps rankled and been discussed since many millennia. Care to wade in? 

MG: Ooooh, this is a rough one. These guys fill a similar role to Achilles / Hector in the Trojan war myth, only even more tragic. Karna is secretly the half-brother of Arjuna and the Pandavas (same mother, only with a different god, and before she married Pandu), but he’s also a loyal friend and supporter of their devoted enemy Duryodhana. Brilliant warrior from a humble upbringing, scorned at every turn by those who question his parentage and his nobility—it’s hard not to be on Karna’s side. 

Arjuna, on the other hand, has a lot handed to him. Not that he doesn’t work hard for his skills! But he doesn’t have anywhere near as difficult a path to walk. In the end, Karna defeats all the Pandavas (though he leaves them alive due to a promise to their mutual mother), and draws a bead on Arjuna—only for Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, to save Arjuna’s live by driving their chariot into the ground. Based on that, it sounds like Karna’s the better archer, but Arjuna has the better charioteer. It doesn’t seem right to say that anyone’s a better archer than Arjuna, though, and I’m open to be convinced. What do you think? 

Q] This saga is defined as mythology/history/fantasy depending on whom you ask. It also has quite a few SF-nal elements, which basically correspond to current nuclear technology and atomic bombs. This has been an aspect that has stumped various Indian and non-Indian scholars who have wondered what has been lost to time. What are your thoughts? 

MG:I think it’s a testament to the power of Indian imagination and mathematics that an epic like the Mahabharata can describe powers and events that still awe moderns. With all respect to the Trojan War, it’s hard for a modern person to feel the same level of gut-terror an ancient Greek would have at the thought of a thousand ships. Millions of soldiers, though, still give us pause—let alone a weapon like the Brahma-astra, which, as you say, can best be compared to modern nuclear missiles, if not to Death Star-style science fictional super weapons. I don’t think it’s terribly likely that there was a technological age on Earth prior to this one, but it’s cool to think about, especially given the way Hindu cosmology allows for ‘ages’ (Yugas) of the world—the Mahabharata having taken place at the end of the age prior to this one, some 432,000 years ago or so. 

Q] In our email correspondence, you mentioned you are writing a short story based on a pivotal event in the Mahabharata. Please tell us about it? 

MG: My short story, Drona’s Death, will be coming out in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology xo Orpheus this September. It’s an adaptation of one of my favorite moments from the Mahabharata. In the war at the end of the Mahabharata, the Pandavas, our heroes, are on one side, fighting against their cousins the Kauravas. Thing is, the Pandavas and Kauravas grew up together, so a lot of the Pandavas’ friends and teachers are fighting on the Kaurava side. 

This is especially a problem because their teachers were the best in the business—one in particular, Drona, is invincible in battle so long as he does not set down his weapons. So, of course, the Pandavas need to figure out how to convince him to set down his weapons—that is, trick him into letting them kill him. 

Q] What made you focus on Drona, the events of his death and what do you think about him as a character? 

MG: Drona, like Karna, is a tragic figure. He’s forced to help these boys he’s raised and trained play out a bloody war on the great stage of history—forced to help student fight student, friend fight friend. I can’t imagine a more painful position for fate to force a teacher into. And the events of his death are also a crisis moment for Yudhisthira, the noblest and wisest of Pandu’s sons—this incredibly kind and upstanding man is implicated in, basically, an assassination plot. It’s a heartbreaking moment at the core of an apocalyptic magical war. 

Q] Who are your favorite characters in the Mahabharata or let me put it this way, who are the ones that fascinate you the most? 

MG: All the characters are fascinating, but I’ve always loved the older generation: Bhishma, Drona, Kunti, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari. We meet them, for the most part, as young, idealistic, eager, loving people, watch them develop over time, and see the sometimes amazing, sometimes tragic fruits of their actions. 

Q] For me as a kid I loved the sections about the 18-day war. However as I grew up, I came to love what happened before as well including the politics as well as the character stories and origins. Which sections would you say fascinate you? 

MG: Everything! I love how the smallest events early in the story grow to have grand consequences in the final war. Many books promise you a grand conflict and don’t deliver. No one could possibly accuse the Mahabharata of that. 

One particular sequence does stand out, though: the Thirteenth Year of Exile. Our Heroes have been sentenced to remain outside their homeland for thirteen years—with the catch that they have to spend the thirteenth year incognito, and if someone discovers their true identities, they need to spend thirteen more years wandering. So, these superheroic folks disguise themselves as servants in the house of the king of Virata—Bhima, strongest man in the world, pretends to be a cook, while the great warrior Arjuna (due to a curse that’s rendered him a eunuch for a year, touchy subject) pretends to be a eunuch dancing-master, Yudhisthira sets himself up as a wandering Brahmin, etc. etc. It’s a minor episode in the whole story, almost insignificant, but I love the con artist / heroes in disguise element. (One of my favorite episodes of Leverage, The Wedding Job, uses the same conceit, right down to the warrior becoming the cook. I wonder if that’s coincidence. Probably, but still.) 

Q] In your piece, you mentioned Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva which is the first graphic novel of a trilogy based on the Mahabharata. After reading about it, I’ve ordered a copy. Please tell us about it and what fascinated you about it? 

MG: I didn’t know it was a trilogy, and I’m so glad to hear that! I was hoping she’d continue and complete the story, because I love her approach. Patil’s a graphic novelist, and her Adi Parva tells the beginning of the Mahabharata story in this beautiful, interlocked way, as a storyteller would, answering questions from listeners who are supposed, I think, to stand in for readers and for historical commentators throughout time. 

She uses beautiful, expressive (almost impressionist) art and language to impress on the reader the power of the stories she tells. So. Cool. I really hope someone brings her work out in a US edition soon. I want to force all my friends to buy it, and that takes more forcing for a $65 hardcover import (currently available from $15 as well)

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, any other thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers? 

MG: Don’t be afraid of exploring myths and legends beyond your native tradition. I’m always looking for more to discover, and I hope readers will share their favorites with me!

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author himself. All other pictures besides the Adi Parva and xo Orpheus cover art courtesy of Mukesh Singh. Parts of this article have previously appeared in a blog post of mine. The word "Desi" refers to all people from the Indian Subcontinent irrespective of nationality.


Unknown said...

I love this blog.Have loved the Mahabharata since reading a version in my early twenties.


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