Economist Bibek Debroy has literally taken on a task of epic proportions in his new avatar as a translator of the Mahabharata, with the first of nine English volumes hitting the bookstores.
The book has been published by Penguin-Books India. The volume, an introduction to the epic, begins with a list of contents and a summary of everything that is in the Mahabharata.
Debroy, who took time out from his busy schedule at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, where he works as an economist, told IANS: "I have been translating from Sanskrit for a long time. I find time on holidays, weekends and evenings."
He decided to translate the Mahabharata "primarily because familiarity with Sanskrit as a language is dying out. If familiarity with the corpus is not to die out, the epic needs to be accessible in English."
"The first decades of the 21st century are quite unlike the first decades of the 20th century. Lamentations over what is inevitable serves no purpose. English is increasingly becoming the global language, courtesy colonies rather than the former coloniser."
The Mahabharata is the story of a fabled struggle for power between two fraternities of royal scions, the Kauravas, sons of King Kuru; and the Pandavas, sons of King Pandu, over territory, with Lord Krishna as the adviser. Part myth, part history, the epic is a tale of India with its numerous kingships, discords and politics.
History cites that Kuru kingdom flourished between 1,200 BC and 800 BC in areas adjoning modern-day Delhi. Written by Vedavyasa, the Mahabharata comprises 100,000 shlokas or couplets.
Debroy's book is divided into 15 sections. The writer says he "had to cut down on socialising to write the book".
"Most people thought I was mad. Among those who believed that it was worthwhile beyond immediate family are Ashok Desai, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Laveesh Bhandari," the economist recounted.
The Mahabharata has few translated English versions. "Contrary to impression, the epic has two complete and unabridged English translations. Both date back to the late 19th century. The others are all abridged translations."
Work on the first volume started "some time in 2007 and took about a year," Debroy said, "but that is because several things had to be sorted out since it was the first volume. Once the template has been decided, each volume should take about six months," he said.
The current volume strives to place the Mahabharata as a story that was recited at Janamejaya's snake sacrifice. Janamejaya was the king of the ancient mythical kingdom of Takshashila, which traces its origin to the Vayu Puranas.
The oral tradition of storytelling led to several digressions like in the early story of the serpents, Takshaka, Poushya, Puloma and Bhrigu lineage.
The translator's attempts to probe the slaughter of snakes leads him to the story of mythical bird Garuda and Astika, who rescued the snakes. The book subsequently traces how gods and demons were incarnated on earth, the genealogy of the Kauravasand Pandavas and the growing animosity between them. It ends with Draupadi's wedding to Pandu's sons and the acquisition of a slice of the kingdom by the Pandava brothers.
Debroy said he stuck to the Critical Edition of the epic "to keep the English as smooth as possible, while retaining the authenticity of the text, including the structure of sentences."
The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata is a compilation of the epic by a group of scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. It was compiled during 1919-1966.
"I also added footnotes to ensure that the translation is clear to the readers. Without footnotes, the translation is sometimes not clear," he said.
Debroy read several unabridged versions of the epic to plan the "sequence of his series".