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Updated: December 30, 2013 19:01 IST

Epic reboot

Harshini Vakkalanka
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Gender is important But is not the focal point of the story, says Krishna
Gender is important But is not the focal point of the story, says Krishna

Krishna Udayasankar says her Aryavarta Chronicles are a reconstruction of the Mahabharata from the point of view of socio-political change

In Krishna Udayasankar’s retelling of the Mahabharata, The Aryavarta Chronicles, Govinda is not entirely blameless and Syoddhan is not entirely the villain. Govinda (Rs 199) and Kaurava (Rs 350), the first two books in the trilogy published by Hachette are available in bookstores. In this email interview, the Singapore-based writer talks about the cosmic rationale for the book.

Would you say that The Aryavarta Chronicles narrate the tale of the Mahabharata?

Yes, of course. But this is the epic like you’ve never heard it told before. It is more than a counter-epic or a ‘loser’s perspective.’ Rather, it is a story that takes out many of the fundamental assumptions we make about the Mahabharata and then puts what remains back together with research to reconstruct, rather than reinvent the epic.

What made you retell the tale?

Reclaiming this part of my cultural history has been important to me. I grew up in an environment that placed a lot of emphasis on tradition as laid down in the ancient texts. The epics, in fact, were held up as moral imperative. The problem, however, was I found many of those moral imperatives unacceptable, particularly those that supported inequality and hierarchy, be it from a gender perspective or from class or other perspectives. So being able to reconstruct the epic as something more rational, more in tune with universal norms, was an essential part of finding my own identity and place in the larger scheme of things.

What perspective did you choose to tell the story from and why?

My story is that of socio-political change and revolution. I don’t know how much of a conscious choice it really was, though. I set myself two basic rules when I began writing The Aryavarta Chronicles: no magic and no destiny. This meant that people had to behave in a somewhat logical and consistent fashion – even when it came to doing wrong. But taking out divinity and destiny leaves a huge void in a tale like this, and the only way of holding the whole story together was to look at it is the tale of a society, an entire system going through change.

What role does gender play in your work.

Gender is important, but I also am wary that often gender becomes a focal point to the exclusion of other issues, and sometimes I suspect that is the case with the Mahabharata. Making it about ‘a woman wronged’, or seeing it as a personal war of revenge and redemption completely ignores the central theme of the epic, which is revolution against a system of governance that failed when it did not apply due processes of law. For example, in the game of dice, Yudhisthir staked not only his wife and brothers, but also the lives of his citizenry. And such are the excesses that Panchali rails against, time and again, not just the violence that she suffers.

Can you talk about the naming of the characters?

In some cases, I wanted to go back to the original or birth name of the characters – such as Syoddhan for Duryodhana and Vasusena for Karna. In other cases, I have used names that emphasize the nature or qualities of the person. In both cases my intention was to try and shake the readers up with a little unfamiliarity, so that they would bring in less of the existing notions.

There are no absolute heroes or villains…

Human beings are complicated creatures, so to reduce a complex web of events such as in the Mahabharata to a simplistic story of good guys versus bad guys, seemed inadequate. After all, it is our flaws and how we overcome them that make us human, and proudly so.

The story of The Aryavarta Chronicles, is a celebration of that human quality. To tell that story, I had to look beyond the usual stereotypes of the characters, beyond winners and losers. The result is what you see, hopefully, as the grey areas. All I was trying to do was make these characters real, just like you and me. Sometimes smart, sometimes silly, often kind and occasionally cruel… or just human.

Why do you think the Mahabharata is seemingly such a so popular with tale that many Indian writers wanting to adapt it?

I think many people, readers and writers included, would share my passion, the need to reclaim, recreate and reinterpret. Even so, the Mahabharata tends to be a favourite topic. The obvious reason I guess is that it is complex and intriguing and ever-relevant. But there is one more thing, a subtle thing that makes this epic so popular.

Particularly in these times, we need heroes who don’t just stand lofty and unreachable on high pedestals, but rather we need heroes that rise; we need heroes that we can be, each one of us, people who stand up for what is good and right. The Mahabharata is the story of such hero(in)es. It is the story of hope. That is why it endures.

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