Thursday, November 24, 2011

Speaking of Karna

I love a quote that is attributed to A K Ramanujam, that no Hindu in India ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time. Whether you have a storyteller granny at home or not, there would always be some reference somewhere to the characters from the story, be it to tell you to be a good wife like Draupadi or to be brave like Arjuna or fair and righteous like Yudhishtira. You could not have missed the cultural references. My grandma was a fantastic storyteller and I grew up listening to that grand adventure, complete with visions of pretty princesses and war cries floating in my head.

Apart from Uncle Pai’s illustrated Mahabharata, I have never really ‘read’ the book. Not that there was ever a need to. Then a while ago I heard about this concept of perspective storytelling, where a popular story is told from another perspective, usually a minor character’s. Upon a friend’s recommendation, I picked up Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions and was quite hooked to the story told from Paanchali, or Draupadi’s POV.

It explores a single line from Vyasa’s epic where there is a passing reference to an attraction between Draupadi and Mahabharata’s most tragic hero Karna. Karna would have attended her swayamvara as well but is forbidden to try to win the competition arranged because he is not of royal bloodline and hence unworthy. Behind that of course is the story of his birth which you have all surely listened to. Now this book, written in first person, explores Draupadi’s feelings for Karna, how she tries in vain to suppress her adulterous thoughts, and how she, in hindsight, regrets several of her decisions. It is quite a well written book, not as pop as Amish’s books, but with enough sprinkling of love and romance.

The portrayal of Karna in the book is what I best liked. Growing up, listening to stories, even watching the phenomenon of Ramanand Sagar’s Mahabharata in the early 1990s, Karna is not someone you bother yourself much with. Any pity you feel for the injustice he battles, from Drona, from Kunti and from historians henceforth for his role in supporting Duryodhana, is just a passing one. (On an aside, a friend reminded me recently that Duryodhana’s actual name is Suyodhana, but the prefix su- meaning something good, poets have brought the prefix dur-, meaning something bad, into popular usage, befitting a villain).

Throughout the story, you allow yourself to hate the Kauravas, pity the Pandavas, revere the God Krishna, fall in love with the handsome warrior Arjuna and feel terrible, for various feministic and other reasons, for Draupadi’s plight. But it is who Karna remains the most tragic figure in the story, so entwined in plots and mysteries and promises and loyalty and in fate that his life cannot but be one tragedy after the other. No one perhaps is a bigger pawn in destiny than he was. He is always a facilitator, always a footnote in the greater scope of the story, downgraded to a lesser role than the main heroes Arjuna, Bheeshma, Duryodhana, and others. Rarely, if at all, are his heroics separately acknowledged, praised, apart from a mention so that the rest of the story can go forward.

The book makes you feel so sorry for him. Draupadi comes off as haughty and too self important, not the meek one that finds mention more often than not in popular interpretations. Kunti is probably most infamous for having told Arjuna to share whatever he has brought equally (in this case, Draupadi) with his brothers. In the book she comes across as a scheming mother-in-law in the traditional struggle to wrest power over the son(s) from the daughter-in-law. There are minor other sub-stories and sprinklings of philosophy thrown in as well. I wish someone would write an interpretation of the epic from Karna’s perspective. Now that would be refreshing!

Come to think of it, isn’t Mahabharata such a fantastic story? Like the saying goes, if it is in the world, it is mentioned in the Mahabharata and if it is not mentioned in the Mahabharata, then it is not present in the world. The other day, thinking about the book, I was wondering what language the Pandavas and the Kauravas must have spoken. If Pataliputra is today’s Patna, I imagine a version of Bhojpuri mixed with Samskrita and a dash of some tribal dialect perhaps. Tribal I say because I remember reading a theory somewhere that the Pandavas and the Kauravas might have been tribal groups who had a scuffle over power and land and this incident was glorified by the poets to become Mahabharata. But then, it sounds too prosaic and unromantic to want to think of that theory now.

Somehow, when each of us hears the story, we put words in our language into their mouths. Every time you hear Yudhishtira admonish his brothers and sermonize on the right thing to do, you hear them in the language you speak. You imagine the saree, the shalyas and the garments worn the way your ancestors wore them. (That brings me to think about a fascinating book on linguistics that I am reading, where Steven Pinker theorizes that perhaps language is an instinct and that thoughts are not dependent of any language. More on that later though.)

The Northern states are grudgingly allowed to call them their native and continue referring to modern cities by names from the epics, but in exile, the Pandavas have visited every place in India. Every city, village and town, every mountain and a corner of every forest has claim to having a foot, a stone, a river that has been touched by them, a mountain as having been their shelter for a night, an unusual rock formation as having been Draupadi’s refuge. The same goes for Ramayana’s Sita as well. Perhaps these heroes went on exile to allow all of the country to embrace these stories as their own.

Even stripped off its religious references, I love how brilliantly the Mahabharata is told. There are fascinating plots, stories within stories within stories, mystery, drama (much, much of it), love, betrayal, tragedy, humour and morals thrown in for good measure. Not very unlike a typical 1990s Bollywood film, come to think of it! But even as I continue to marvel at the beauty and complexity of the story, my heart continues to bleed for poor, poor Karna.


s panda said...

Just a factual correction: The Mahabharata tv series was produced by BR Chopra, not by Ramanand Sagar as you have said.

lola said...

yes, ramanand sagar produced ramayana