Rajesh M. Iyer: Evading the Shadows,
Kriscendo Media, 2016,
Indian writing in English has finally woken up to the treasure trove ready to hand in its maha-kavyas. After Prof. P. Lal’s “The Man of Dharma and the Rasa of Silence,” Amreeta Syam was the first to write long poems on Kaikeyi and Kurukshetra.
Amidst the several re-imaginings of the Mahabharata in the form of a novel, Rajesh Iyer’s first attempt stands out because of his unusual recasting of the Pandavas’ exile-in-incognito in terms of a spy story. The Virata Parva is unique because of the absence of both Krishna and Kunti. From the Pandavas’ birth till their marriage with Draupadi, Kunti is their friend, philosopher and guide. Thereafter, the role is assumed by the Krishna-Krishnaa duo. Indeed, as the Hindi novelist Chitra Chaturvedi was the first to point out, Kunti’s is the dynasty that rules Hastinapura, half Yadava in lineage. One awaits a novel about her in English (Dipak Chandra has one in Bengali).
Telegu cinema produced two memorable films based upon the Virata parva: Narthanasala and Virataparvam (in the latter N.T. Rama Rao took on five roles—a unique phenomenon—as Krishna, Arjuna, Brihannala, Duryodhana and Kichaka). Here, without their twin guiding lights, the Pandavas and Draupadi have to fend for themselves, weaponless, disguised, pitting their wits against Shakuni’s spies who are seeking them. Iyer’s creation of spy-master Jartasya, the vengeful brother of Purochana whom the Pandavas burnt alive in the house-of-lac (in Varanavata, not “Varnavrata”) is an inspired ploy. He also has a tribal woman spying upon Draupadi as Sairandhri in the queen’s apartments. An opportunity is missed here to build on the burning alive of a Nishada woman and her five sons by the Pandavas in the house-of-lace. Iyer creates a team of Pandava servants led by Indrasena acting as their spies, pitting their skills against Shakuni’s in a see-saw battle that engages our interest successfully.
In just eight pages Iyer provides a succinct account of events leading up to the 13th year of exile as recited by a wandering rhapsode who, then, leaves the village keeping the audience in suspense, eagerly awaiting his return from the next hamlet. A fine touch is ending this introductory portion with the Bharata Savitri which most of us are unaware of, and the benefits that accrue from listening to the Mahabharata. The novel proper begins with Draupadi as Sairandhri, switches to Duryodhana conferring with his cabal, then returns to each of the disguised Pandavas. It is with Yudhishthira that the Vyasa-knowing reader experiences the first stumble when Iyer gives his assumed name as “Kanak” (gold) instead of the original “Kanka” (flesh eating crane). “Kanka” is drawn directly from Yudhishthira’s interaction with Dharma disguised as a crane over the corpses of his brothers immediately before the incognito period. Since Iyer recounts this interaction later as a reminiscence, it is all the more an unfortunate change. Where the Pandavas prepared their incognito identities so carefully, how can Draupadi be taken aback when Queen Sudeshna asks her name? Nor would Virata employ a eunuch to teach his daughter music and dance without testing his potency, which Vyasa clearly mentions.
Highlights from the past are woven in as reminiscences, such as the parallel tale of Nala-Damayanti (Iyer takes care that we do not miss the similarities) and the attempted disrobing. Here Iyer innovates by having the Kaurava women fling their garments over Draupadi instead of leaving it wholly to a miracle. The battle of wits between the two bands of spies makes for interesting reading. Iyer invents a trip to Madra by two of the Pandavas where they are almost discovered by Duryodhana’s spies (quite thrilling) and even has Duryodhana and his cabal visit Virata’s kingdom in disguise to spy out the Pandavas, creating considerable suspense. Iyer’s achievement in breathing life into the shadowy characters of Nakula and Sahadeva, besides lending some dimension to Virata, deserves appreciation. What he does not do is exploiting the link between the Pandavas’ great-grandmother Matsyagandha-Satyavati and her twin who became the Matsya-raja whose king at the time of the exile was Virata. It is because of this link that they choose this particular kingdom—it is a symbolic return to their matrilineal roots. The fish is also a symbol of re-birth (which is why the early Christians used it).
Iyer seems to be in a hurry towards the end, his handling of the murder of Kichaka and the battle with the Kaurava army being rather perfunctory, particularly as the original is considerably detailed. Particularly disappointing is his failure to draw upon Vyasa’s brilliant depiction of how Draupadi seduces the sleeping Bhima into killing Kichaka immediately instead of waiting for the incognito period to be over as he advises her initially. The venue for the killing is not Kichaka’s guarded apartment—which is quite absurd—but the dancing hall which is deserted at night. Brihannala does not offer to be Uttara’s charioteer; Sairandhri suggests this to the prince. There is a rare comic moment when the transvestite pretends not to know how to don armourIt is not Arjuna but Uttara who climbs the tree to fetch the weapons and it is he who collects the garments of the somnolent Kaurava generals his sister had wanted Brihannala to bring back. Iyer fails to capitalize on the hilarious description of Uttara fleeing, chased by Brihannala with braid and skirts flying. The Pandavas do not reveal their identities immediately after the victory to Virata but surprise him the next morning by occupying his throne and other royal seats in his court. How can Draupadi be maintaining a diary on parchment, when all that existed was palm-leaf and tree-bark as writing material?
Iyer enriches his novel by introducing two elements from regional retellings. One is the failed attempt of Duryodhana to kill the Pandavas by invoking an evil spirit occurring in Villi’s Tamil Bharata. The other is Shakuni’s hidden agenda to destroy the Kaurava clan to avenge the deaths of his father and brothers, which is mentioned in passing. We hope he will expand upon this in the novels that seem likely to follow.
The story-telling is good and would improve with greater attention paid to grammar and idiom and by matching style to character. Would Draupadi be “gaping listlessly at the sky” or Yudhishthira be “wailing” so loudly when struck by Virata’s dice that Sairandhri hears him in the women’s quarters? Actually, she is present in the court. Ever alert, she catches Yudhishthira’s glance and rushes to catch his dripping blood in a vessel before Arjuna can see it. There are some awkward usages that grate (e.g. “returning back,” “stifled mocks,” “advices,” “hunky dory”. The map is difficult to read and should have been printed clearly. Schwarberg’s historical atlas of South Asia has an excellent map that could have been drawn upon. A helpful glossary has been appended. Over all, the author is to be complimented on a successful first novel.