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Beyond compare

A present-day version of Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which should not be read like the Big Book. Kushalrani Gulab writes.

books Updated: Jun 10, 2011 22:37 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

Leela’s Book
Alice Albinia
Random house
Rs 499 n pp 432

What is not in this book is nowhere, Ved Vyasa announced portentously when he completed the Mahabharata.

Ganesh begs to differ. In fact, Ganesh differs with practically everything Ved Vyasa has to say in and about the Mahabharata, including Vyasa’s own role in the story as a very important person. Deeply annoyed because he’s been relegated to the role of just a scribe — such utter cheek — the elephant-headed god has decided to set things straight. He was not just a scribe. He was a creator too. While Vyasa droned on, dictating the story of the Mahabharata to Ganesh, Ganesh was inserting characters Vyasa hadn’t a clue about.

And these are the characters you meet in Alice Albinia’s first novel, Leela’s Book, a novel that shows that what is not in the Mahabharata can exist elsewhere, thank Ganesh very much.

So meet Leela, back in Delhi after more than 20 years in the US, to see her nephew Ash, son of her dead sister Meera and Meera’s husband Vyasa, marry the daughter of a Hindu fundamentalist, a young woman who happens to be Leela’s husband’s niece. Vyasa is a Sanskrit scholar who Leela would do anything to avoid; she’d rather stay far away from her nephew Ash and his twin Bharati too. But why? What has everyone got to hide?

Meanwhile, members of Leela’s husband’s family lead pretty complicated lives themselves; there’s a journalist who’s in love with Bharati and determined to unravel the mystery of her mother’s life; there’s Ganesh himself, playing the self-created role of an Indian man with a contract to write an exotic book; there’s Linda, a young English girl, Bharati’s best friend, with a mother who once went to India but never talks about it or about Linda’s father; and there’s a young man and woman, both servants, both Muslim, who have their own storyline to take forward. In fact, Leela’s Book appears to have a cast of thousands, just as in the Mahabharata, so for the first few chapters at least, you’re constantly riffling back to the beginning to re-learn who everyone is.

The trouble with any novel that claims to have its roots in the Mahabharata is the fact that half the reader’s attention is then given to seeking allusions to the great book: here’s a reference, that character’s name is significant, is this a modern version of that incident? Leela must be like Ganga because she refuses to talk about her past; Vyasa must be just like Vyasa; Bohemian Bharati must be like Draupadi, she of the five husbands.

But reading Leela’s Book in that way is a mistake. You’ll miss the story for the other story. So eliminate the Mahabharata from your consciousness when you read Leela’s Book (it’s just a distraction — remember, this book is allegedly based on Ganesh’s interpolations, not the Vyasa original), and what you get is a story about families, individuals, their personalities and their dilemmas — little Mahabharatas of India today. Albinia, the author of the excellent non-fiction book, Empires of the Indus, which followed the Indus river to its source, knows her India and writes with a casualness that goes beyond stereotypes.