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An epic without heroes

SL Bhyrappa’s Parva, published in 1979, is probably the most successful attempt made to tell the story of the Mahabharata in the form of a novel. It is a book without gods or heroes; anthropology and psychology shape its events, writes Arvind Adiga.

books Updated: Jan 27, 2012 18:54 IST
Arvind Adiga

“As Sanjaya ate his dinner, Vidura asked him: “When you told us what happened on the battlefield, why did you lie so much?”

Sanjaya stopped eating….

“Then how should I describe things?”

“What happened, as it happened. What was seen, as it was seen.”

Anyone who speaks an Indian language wants to tell you of a gem — something written in his mother tongue that is not as well known in the rest of the country as it ought to be. My hidden gem is a novel written in Kannada over 30 years ago.

SL Bhyrappa’s Parva, published in 1979, is probably the most successful attempt made to tell the story of the Mahabharata in the form of a novel. It is a book without gods or heroes; anthropology and psychology shape its events.

It had a remarkable genesis. In 1967, on a holiday in Garhwal, Bhyrappa, a Mysore resident, came across a village where the women practised polyandry — a custom that had apparently survived from Draupadi’s time. Bhyrappa became curious. What do we truly know about the Pandavas and their era? He studied Vyasa’s epic in the original Sanskrit; read everything he could about the history and culture of early India; travelled to Kurukshetra, Mathura, and the Himalayas. While searching the Gujarat coast for the lost city of Dwaraka, Bhyrappa found a lighthouse. He climbed to its top and had an epiphany: “My mind broke free from the year 1975 and flew into the era of the Yadavas.”

Anthropology displaces mythology in Parva. We are in a specific historical era, the late Vedic period, at a time when north India is a patchwork of kingdoms, urban centres and tribal communities. The absence of political unity results in a multiplicity of ethical systems. Monogamy and polygamy are legal in the cities, but not polyandry — which is, however, Dharma in the forests. Out of this clash of competing Dharmas is born the Kurukshetra war.

Bhyrappa’s Pandavas are not semi-divine heroes, but middle-aged men slowed by regret for their wasted lives. We learn that they take their name from a king — Pandu, celebrated for his valour on the battlefield — who was impotent. After trying to hide behind his wars and a second marriage, Pandu, in his shame, retires to the Himalayas. Here, he finds a tribal people called the Devas, who share husbands and wives, and have elected leaders called Indras.

Pandu invites three tribal leaders to impregnate Kunti, his first wife, so that his heirs, and not his brother’s, might inherit the throne. Kunti’s dilemma is the recurring one of Parva: she has to reconcile her Dharma, her role as a wife, with the instinctual drives for sex, kinship and power that strain against it. When she consents to sleep with the tribal leaders, Madri, the second wife, listens jealously to the love-making from the next room: “Her body became a pair of eyes and her ear a nose.”

Six-hundred and nineteen pages (in the Kannada original text) of such vivid detail: paragraphs that run on for pages without a break. Parva is a psychological epic, darkened by Freudian awareness. The novel moves from one interior monologue to another, getting into the minds of men and women paralysed by subconscious needs. We see Karna — not the youthful hero of tradition, but a 65-year-old man — stepping down into a river to grapple with what he has just learnt: that his entire life has been a lie, and that he must now choose between his mother, Kunti, and Duryodhana, his friend and master. Unable to pick between these conflicting loyalties, he lets himself be killed on the battlefield.

Some portraits are tragic; others are the stuff of black comedy. Drona, the venerable teacher of Vyasa’s story, is too old to fight, and baffled by the fate that has made him the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Purblind, sleep-starved, he hides behind the battle, dozes in his chariot, dreams of a hot bath, and then, Quixote-like, tries to attack his own king before getting his head chopped off. Such moments of bathos only intensify the rest of the fighting. Its climax, when Bhima drinks human blood, strikes the same primal terror in us that it must have in Vyasa’s first listeners.

The Pandavas win, but win nothing: their children are dead, their kingdom is ruined. Parva ends in a rhapsodic, nine-page long block of prose. Fires burn in a forest, it rains in the city, a horde of women raped during the war come to the Pandavas to ask who will look after their illegitimate children; the new king does not know how to answer. The world of the Mahabharata is being destroyed, and if hope for renewal exists, it does so only ambiguously.

Bhyrappa is a polarising figure in Karnataka. In recent years, he has been accused of Hindutva sympathies. His pronouncements on Muslim rulers and Christian missionaries have alienated many of his admirers and contributed to his obscurity outside his home state. (Little of his work has been translated into English.) Back in 1979, however, this gifted novelist’s reverence for his cultural inheritance was balanced by his ambition to modernise it. Thirty-three years after its publication, Parva dazzles: its strangeness seems fresh, and its originality permanent.

Aravind Adiga is the author of The White Tiger and Last Man In Tower.

SL Bhyrappa was the recepient of the 2010 Saraswati Samman

Booker Prize-winner Aravind Adiga kicks off a new series in which HT Read asks Indian authors writing in English to write about the favourite book they have read in their mother tongue

First Published: Jan 27, 2012 18:54 IST