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Review: The Mahabharata: Volume 5

books Updated: Jul 20, 2012 19:13 IST
Gautam Chikermane, Hindustan Times
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The Mahabharata: Volume 5

Translated by Bibek Debroy

Penguin  books

Rs. 599 pp 593

How far can an economist keep numbers away from literature? If Bibek Debroy’s translation of the Mahabharata is any indication, not at all and footnotes become more than mere references. Apart from making this greatest story ever told even more accessible to a modern reader, in a language that’s contemporary, it is the mathematician in Debroy that delights. In Bhumi Parva, while describing ‘Svarbhanu’, another name for Rahu, the lines say its diameter is 12,000 yojanas and circumference 42,000 yojanas. The immediate question that came to my mind was: what is the value of pi? The answer came in Debroy's footnote: 3.5 — given the time it was written, not very far from the accurate value of 3.14.

Debroy captures Veda Vysya’s drama with the skill and rigour of an academic underlined by his innate passion for the work — nobody can attempt such a project without it. The dramatic death of Bhishma at the beginning of the Bhagwad Gita Parva shows the mind of Vysya come through Debroy’s. It is not very different from the pioneer Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s 19th century, 12-volume work in spirit. Bhishma’s fall — his death comes much later in uttarayana when the sun is in the North, towards the end of Shanti Parva — with the “These cannot be Shikhandi’s arrows” motif moistens the eyes. His death stays with you.

This volume contains the Bhagwad Gita — one of the 16 Gitas in the Mahabharata, 13 of them in the still-to-be-translated Shanti Parva alone. The one problem encountered in reading the Bhagwad Gita in the Mahabharata, compared to a standalone, is that you are not used to the continuum. My favourite ‘nainam chindanti…’ (verse 23) merges into ‘acchedyo yam…’ (verse 24) without a break. Corrupted by verse-by-verse renditions, it was a refreshing change to reread the original.

The subtlety of language, diligently modernised, brings Debroy’s Mahabharata one step closer — using ‘Himalayas’ rather than ‘Himavat’, for instance. But where both Debroy and Ganguli get tiresome is in the use of adjectives while describing protagonists. Expressions like ‘lion among men’ or ‘descendent of the Bharata lineage’ flow freely in Sanskrit — not English. What we need is a Sanskringlish version that Debroy would, some day, oblige to offer us.