The Book of War

It is a rare pleasure to find a book that takes over your life. You think about it even when you’re not reading it; you spend your day in restless anticipation of going back home to the book. It has been several years since I felt that way about a book; Harry Potter long ago, perhaps! And now — Parva, by S L Bhyrappa, originally in Kannada but which I just finished reading in the English translation.

Parva is, at the heart of it, a retelling of the Mahabharata; but Bhyrappa invested a huge amount of time and energy in primary research before he wrote it. He visited all of the important places where the action in the Mahabharata takes place; he studied the history and anthropology of the early Vedic era when the story is based; and he extensively researched its various recensions to distill the ‘essence’ of it. Bhyrappa’s purpose was to retell the Mahabharata shorn of its mythological and religious aspects, as basically a humanistic story about human beings who are driven by destiny to an extraordinary battle that will change their world irrevocably.

The adventure of reading Parva started, for me, even before acquiring the book. I could not find it online — the first book in ages that I can say that about! It is published by Sahitya Akademi, a Central Government undertaking, and finally I figured the only way to get it would be to take half a day off and visit their office in Chennai on Anna Salai. When I reached there, they told me, with some disappointment, that they did not have a copy there — it had been years since someone had inquired about Parva; but they suggested I visit their godown in Taramani and search for it there. Finding the godown was an adventure in itself; and the whole place was infested with decaying books in haphazard mountains with rats scurrying around, and I was half afraid that I would catch some plague as reward for my persistence. Finally I found the last two copies — anticlimactically cheap, at Rs 160 per book for an 800-page hardcover — and promptly bought both of them.

Parva narrates the Mahabharata as a series of flashbacks. The action takes place over about 6 months, beginning in the midst of war preparations and ending just after the war ends. Each chapter of the book is told from the perspective of one character — some major, like Arjuna, Bhima and Karna, and some minor, like Shalya or Krishna’s friend Yuyudhana. Each chapter combines a little bit of action with a lot of reminiscence, as the character at its centre recalls the past through the prism of the tension of war. In this ‘stream of consciousness’, Bhyrappa’s brilliant research shines in an exploration of the motivations and relationships between different characters, set in the context of their age and their experiences.

Thus, Parva brings an altogether wondrous dimension to each of the characters of the Mahabharata. For example, Shalya, who equivocates between joining the Pandavas and joining the Kauravas, is most concerned about how to improve the status of his Madra kingdom among the Aryas, who regard the kingdom rather disdainfully because of their practice of giving away brides in exchange for wealth. Yuyudhana (Satyaki) and his fellow Yadavas are torn between supporting their king Balarama, who openly favours the Kauravas, and their hero Krishna, who is on the side of the Pandavas.

In the case of the major characters, each of these mini-essays brings a mini-revelation. Case in point is the relationship between Arjuna and Draupadi, which begins as intense romantic attraction; but when Arjuna finds himself frustrated by the brothers’ one-year-each rule, he has a falling-out with her and goes away in a huff, satiating his desire by marrying numerous other princesses, and eventually Subhadra. This leaves Draupadi feeling betrayed and heart-broken, causing a rift between them which never heals; Arjuna always considers Subhadra his primary wife, lavishing attention and pride on Abhimanyu while entirely ignoring his son with Draupadi.

Arjuna is, on the whole, painted with a realistic but gently negative brush in Parva — being prone to fits of pique and possessing a dangerous streak of cowardice and impetuousness that, more than once, has to be exorcised by Bhima or Krishna. One wonderful instance of this is during the dice game, when Bhima makes his terrible vow; and Arjuna makes a rather weak addendum, saying he will kill Karna and his followers if Duryodhana does not give back the kingdom after 13 years. Then Bhima says to him, “Arjuna, do not make a vow like a dog that has been thrashed. Do it like a lion, that whether he returned the kingdom or not, you shall kill them. I swear that I shall smash Duryodhana’s thigh, tear apart Dussasana’s intestines, and drink his blood. Let your vow be equally heroic.” But Arjuna still does not possess the resolve to make that vow.

An unusual relationship that is explored in Parva is that between Vidura and Karna. One would not associate these two characters as having anything to do with each other; and yet, they must have had deep interactions, being the twin beacons of the Suta community, one a magnificent scholar and the other a magnificent warrior. The mutual undercurrent of jealousy and disapproval between these two, alongside grudging mutual respect, is something Bhyrappa brings out.

Parva provides uncannily deep insights not just into individual characters, but also Mahabharata society as a whole. The role of the sutas is one such — originally storytellers and charioteers placed in the caste hierarchy between the vaishyas and kshatriyas, they are continually exploited by the kshatriyas who make use of their girls as servant women (and frequently, as sexual partners). Mixed-caste offspring between the sutas and kshatriyas are gradually ascending the caste ladder, adding a dimension of tension to the social fabric. In some kingdoms, like Virata’s (where the Pandavas spend their 13th year), the queen and her brother Keechaka are sutas but already nobility. In the Kuru kingdom, however, sutas are still not given much respect, and Karna, for all his valour, is still considered by everyone except Duryodhana as lesser than a kshatriya; and thus, Shalya considers it the ultimate insult that he is made charioteer to Karna of the charioteer caste.

Another disturbing undercurrent is the very unequal relationship between the nagas, nishadas, rakshasas and yakshas (portrayed in Parva as the indigenous tribes of the forests) and the Aryan city-builders. Bhima is the only Aryan who has any feeling of sympathy for the rakshasas, perhaps as a result of marrying into their community; the other Aryans treat them the way cowboys treated the Native Americans — as squatters on land that was divinely ordained for Aryan colonisation. The story of Ekalavya is cast in this context, where it is not Drona egged on by Arjuna who compels him to mutilate himself, but Bhishma, representative of Aryan hegemony, having this threat to their kind neutralised by collaborators within Ekalavya’s tribe. The nadir of exploitation of these tribes must surely be the genocide of Khandava vana, the dense forest that Arjuna and Krishna burn down, mercilessly slaughtering every animal and tribal within to create the shining city of Indraprastha.

Geography, too, is explored in rich detail to provide a stunning backdrop for each chapter. My favourite instance is the way in which Krishna’s Dwaraka is painted, on a Western beach. Everywhere in Yuyudhana’s narrative you can hear the waves in Dwaraka, where the Yadavas master the art of seafaring and foreign trade to regain their lost wealth after having been driven away from Mathura by Jarasandha. The dry, dusty plains between Dwaraka on the West Coast and Hastinapura near Delhi, is the backdrop for Arjuna’s abduction of Subhadra. He carries her away on his chariot, a trip that must have been incredibly exhausting given the weather, the geography and the 15-odd days that it must have taken. From the coolness of the Himalayas to the dense forests where the Pandavas spend their various exiles, India’s geography provides the rich tapestry that the Mahabharata deserves as a background.

And then there is the war. The war begins halfway into the book; and what a narrative! The Mahabharata of traditional mythology sanitises the war, which is portrayed as a sequence of heroic duels between great warriors: Karna vs Gatotkacha, Arjuna vs Jayadrata, and so on. The war of Parva, however, is a real war, a massive war in which every king of India is forced to take sides, the armies so big they eat through entire cities for each meal.

The war of Parva has the same scale of numbers as, say, World War 2. And the same scale of brutality. Parva is an uncompromisingly anti-war book, presenting the Mahabharata war in all its unsanitized gore. The distant commanders are out of touch with their rank and file, who on both sides are dispirited, fatalistic, and uninspired by this fraternal battle that will not improve their lot regardless of which side wins. Sexual violence is routine, the only way the soldiers are able to rouse their manly courage before battle. The ever-devouring hunger of the armies that drains every town and village of its food and provisions, leaving even Dhritarashtra’s palace without a drop of oil to light a lamp. The fatalities so numerous that chariots cannot drive unimpeded by dead men and dead horses. And both sides, increasingly desperate, gradually abandoning any semblance of honour, fighting night and day, exhausted, driven by the desperation of the dying.

And in its absolutely climatic ending, written as one powerful 15-page paragraph, it is revealed that all that Arjuna fears have come to pass — of the tens of thousands of warriors, only a few hundred remain; the country is sucked dry of its wealth and food; the mass of the Aryan race decimated and already, many kingdoms fraying at the boundaries attacked by tribal warlords taking advantage of a military vacuum; and hundreds of women, pregnant by dead soldiers, wailing to Yudhishtira to support them. Truly, it has hardly mattered who won and who lost — an era is over.

Parva stands at the pinnacle among the books I have read in the recent past. More than that. In the last few months I have read three amazing books on the Mahabharata — Irawati Karve’s Yuganta (originally in Marathi), M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (originally in Malayalam), and Parva (originally in Kannada). The realisation, almost too late, is what a vast body of modern Indian literature is inaccessible to those of us who restrict ourselves to English. The best works of Rushdie, and even R K Narayan, are minor entries amidst a long list of Indian literature in Indian languages; and even among them, Parva stands very nearly at the top.

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2 thoughts on “The Book of War

  1. Thanks for this review! It’s beautifully written!

    I’d bought Parva (in English – I’ve kinda lost the ability to read Kannada beyond headlines and signboards; and it was surprisingly easily available in this Kannada bookstore in Bangalore) about a year back, read about a hundred pages and somehow given up!

    This review inspires me to pick up that big book (I have the paperback) and continue reading it and finish it!

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