Watching B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata is a fond memory of my growing up years. The title song was my favourite part of the serial for it also aptly captured the essence of the epic.
Every time the voice crooned, ‘Bharat ki hai kahani sadiyo se hai puraani; Yah gyan ki hai ye ganga rishiyo ki amarbaani,‘ I crooned along with it.
When I had first picked up this book I was confident of reading it quickly enough to finish it in a few days. (I have always been an unhurried yet a quick reader but the sheer volume of unread books in my shelf and the ever-growing list of TBRs had compelled me to read at a pace that if any less than a million words per minute would signal the end of my life!) I had assumed the book would simply narrate the events of the Mahabharata, albeit in a different voice, and hence, only present a different perspective to the whole epic. How wrong I was!
Fortunately, this misconception was cleared within the first chapter itself for once I started reading I realized the value and impact this book would have, making it one of those books which I was in no hurry to finish. (And you shouldn’t be either.)
I desperately tried to prolong the reading time as much as I could. One chapter a week – that’s exactly how much I read from Yudhisthira – The Unfallen Pandava by Mallar Chatterjee to make it last.
This is no whodunnit with a big mystery that gets solved only once you reach the last page. It is no race to reach any life-altering answers, and no big revelation that you will come across once you finish the book. Instead, the revelations are sprinkled throughout the book itself.
Hence, the deliberate effort to read no more than a chapter a week. And yet, that itself is a challenge because the book is such that you just don’t want to put it aside. During the time I took to read YUFP, I simultaneously finished many other books. With this one, it was so tempting to read just one more chapter and one more page that I had to keep reminding myself to not finish it too soon. I truly wanted to savour it for as long as I could. And yet, I faltered often. Before every new book I picked up or even while I was reading them, I’d cheat and read a page or two from this one. After I had read fifteen chapters and finished more than half the book, I panicked and tried to slow down even more, albeit unsuccessfully. It truly teaches you to appreciate the journey more. Reading it and savouring it, not racing to the last page, is the real trick to extracting the most out of this book.
This is only the second such book of modern mythological retellings of Mahabharata that I read. The first book I read about Mahabharata was Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions. Mallar Chatterjee’s book offered another such perspective to my understanding of the mythology and the character that Yudhisthira was, and I was not even half-way through the book. This is why we need so many narrations and retelling that offer different perspectives, I realized.
Yudhisthira – The Unfallen Pandava isn’t just a different narrative of the same story. Narrated in the first person, it is an in-depth insight into the person that was Yudhisthira. As he retrospects on his life and the great battle of Mahabharata, the narrative doesn’t shy away from focussing minutely on his fears, resentments, regrets. His introspections are sometimes filled with anger, sometimes wonder, and sometimes guilt, but always evoke a sense of sympathy in the reader.
That’s when I realized this wasn’t a book I could possibly review. How does one review someone’s life? This is Yudhisthira talking to you directly – narrating his experiences, unburdening his guilt, sharing his regrets. How can one possibly pass comment on that?!
My judgment on the book isn’t much different today. Because it is far more than just a story of Mahabharata. For me, reading this book was an experience – a learning of many lessons through the narrator’s eyes.
Chatterjee’s extensive research on Mahabharata and his incisive understanding of Yudhisthira’s thought-processes is the reason why this book works so well. The layered nuances of the story, the exquisite prose, and the unbiased dispassionate narrative present the character in a completely new light.
What also works brilliantly is that this book does not in any way attempt to tell the story of Mahabharata. Chatterjee assumes the reader’s level of awareness and understanding of the epic and takes off from there. This results in a narrative that is far more complex and introspective than just a simple retelling of the epic.
The first person account works well and Chatterjee doesn’t let the flow (Kudos also to editor, Indrani Ganguly) falter at all, not even to present the facts or a contrary view for a deeper perspective.
What I also loved was that the author does not portray Yudhisthira in shades of white or black, and neither is he put up on a pedestal. Yudhisthira’s arrogance in the initial chapters is surprising and stems from a matter-of-fact view of the world and its offerings. His introspective stance on his regrettable actions evoke sympathy in the later chapters. His wisdom takes you by surprise and yet leaves you wondering about his actions and decisions.
He is flawed – weak, conflicted, sometimes even outrightly wrong. Hence, you blame him for the ill-famed defeat against Shakuni. His lack of decision-making is the first among many reasons that would lead to the inevitable battle and ultimate doom. But you can’t help but wonder if at all he is that wrong and guilty.
Some shining examples from the book that leave you pondering about life, materialistic gains, the inner demons that one needs to conquer, and present the innumerable layers and nuances that are hidden in Mallar’s prose –
- ‘Who said the war of Kurukshetra was the greatest war fought by us?’
- ‘……most elementary nemesis of this planet is hunger.’
- ‘… being a human makes me more privileged than God. I am at liberty to love or hate anyone without any explanation or justification.’
- ‘If destiny were so inevitable, why was this world in such dire need of Krishna – an avatar? Why was he needed to perform miracles after miracles to sort out things?’
The questions that the book leaves you with are enough to want to put the book aside and reflect on the answers if there are any.
This one was easily one of my best and most fulfilling reads. I often read the same bits over and over again, reflecting on what I had read, and in the process, absorbing fully the many snippets of wisdom and savouring the many layers it unveils without the inquisitiveness of what happens next gnawing at me.
It, truly, is a surprising insight into Yudhisthira’s life. If he were to write his autobiography I don’t think it would be much different from this.
This is what I would call ‘an ideal read’ for it offers so much more than just the story it narrates.
Have you read any modern retellings of Mahabharata? What was your opinion of them? Leave your comments and feedback via the comment box below.