These days every other book is on the itihasas. Either a translation of the epics, or a commentary upon them. Bibek Debroy has chosen to translate. Where it is the Mahabharata, we are not going to question, as there is always a place for one more rendering. And Debroy assures us that he is going to follow the critical edition of the epic compiled at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), which no one has done so far. The ‘acknowledgments' is a little unnerving when he laments the loss of his socialising, “since every dinner meant one less chapter done.” Can one work with such speed of flashing headlights hunched over Apte's dictionary?
The detailed introduction places everything in perspective. The decades of fascination with the epics as a critical investigator, the drawing close to BORI, and the decision to try another translated version of Vyasa's structure. Not allowing himself to be sidetracked by issues such as the authorship, date, and size of the work, Debroy underlines the need for relocating Sanskrit texts in English:
“English is increasingly becoming the global language, courtesy colonies (North America, South Asia, East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa) rather than the former coloniser. If familiarity with the corpus is not to die out, it needs to be accessible in English.”
We need not quarrel with Debroy's statement that his version is “better and more authentic.” Authorial pride is a necessary vitamin to keep on with a work of this magnitude. It is also good that he admires Vyasa, but poor Valmiki gets dismissed in the process as the author of “a clichéd Bollywood film”!
None of this need prejudice us against his easy-flowing version of the Mahabharata. Very much a complete version (following the footsteps of BORI edition, but with footnotes to explain his own position), but printed as paragraphs divided by the logic of the tale.
It is always a sombre joy to read the book, which opens with the Blind King's extended lament on how his anxiety for dynastic power had led to the carnage of the Kuru clan. Is it self-pity or lesson for future rulers of India? “O Sanjaya! I had no hope of victory when I heard that all our great warriors, unable to defeat Arjuna, combined to surround and kill the boy Abhimanyu and then rejoiced.”
Full of promise
The very powerful Astika Parva, the legend of Garuda freeing his mother from slavery, the vow of Bhishma not to marry, the wisdom of Yayati, the birth of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura … never a banal moment in Vyasa's Sanskrit or in Debroy's English. Nature actually rejoiced at the birth of the Kauravas and presently under Bhishma's guardianship the kingdom reached the heights of glory. But the next generation marks the beginning of the decline. Duryodhana's envy-ridden heart will not remain silent.
For a time, good sense prevails over Dhritarashtra and he agrees with Bhishma to give a share of his kingdom to the fatherless Pandavas. They build a new capital for themselves, Indraprastha, and this first volume has a happy conclusion: “With the five great archers, each like an Indra, that best of cities was adorned like Bhogavati of the nagas.”
Debroy's version of the Adi Parva is full of promise. So we shall await the Sabha Parva and the festivities of the Rajasuya Yaga. Well, who designed the cover? Fabulous in sheer simplicity!