The art of war
The Mahabharata: Volume I
Translated by Bibek Debroy
Rs 550 pp 536
At a time when Sanskrit has all but disappeared from our consciousness, in a space where the future has more ‘utility’ than the past, among people who don’t read beyond text messages and 140-character tweets, one more translation of the world’s largest treatise? Having loved and lived the story through more than 20 abridged translations and one literal one (Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s 1896 masterpiece that took 13 years to complete), I remain as wonderstruck by the story as I was when my grandfather first recited it to me when I was all of four.
So, when Bibek Debroy’s translation of the Mahabharata landed on my desk, I ignored the first question that came to my mind: what, another one? Instead, I let my heart do the singing. Coming from an economist I respect and an Indologist who has gone beyond rehashing old texts, with translations of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita behind him, this first of 10 volumes will do justice, I thought. And I was right.
If you want to read the complete Mahabharata, you need intellectual stamina — the endurance to wade through adjectives and descriptions best left to Sanskrit; a memory that can hyperjump across time, characters and even treatises (the Ramayana in the Mahabharata, for instance); and the constantly changing morals that every moment pull premises you stand on (the 15 Gitas, of which the Bhagwad Gita is just one) from under your feet, in the ultimate pursuit of Dharma.
Debroy’s translation is a shade easier to read than Ganguli’s. The modernisation of language is visible, it’s easier on the mind, through expressions that are somewhat familiar. The detailing of the story is intact, the varying tempo maintained, with no deviations from the original. The short introduction reflects a brilliant mind. For those who passionately love the Mahabharata and want to explore it to its depths, Debroy’s translation offers great promise in the first volume.
This isn’t in-flight reading. So arm yourself before you enter the Great War.