Story of an epic
Krishna Udayasankar discusses her second book in ‘The Aryavarta Chronicles’ and why she aimed at a reconstruction and not re-telling of ‘Mahabharata’
Krishna Udayasankar’s ‘Govinda’, the first book in ‘The Aryavarta Chronicles’ series, was a surprise for readers used to contemporary re-telling of ‘Mahabharata’. Krishna was making the story her own, refraining from painting her characters in stark black and white and narrating a new story, nudging readers to have a new look at the epic. The second book ‘Kaurava’ (Hachette India publications; Rs. 350) takes the story forward, attempting to further demystify the characters. Edited excerpts of an interview with the author who holds a Ph.D in strategic management from Nanyang Business School, Singapore, where she now teaches.
There have been many re-tellings of ‘Mahabharata’. Weren’t you tempted to merely retell a story rather than giving it a new spin?
When I first started out on what, a long way down the road, evolved into ‘The Aryavarta Chronicles’, it was a satirical retelling, with modern references and anachronisms thrown in. It featured characters like Yudi, Archie, DD (Duryodhan) and Duss. I’d written a fair bit of it following the storyline of ‘Mahabharata’ and spared no sarcasm or pith, but then I got to two characters who completely made me skid to a halt: Panchali and Govinda. These characters defied comedy, forced me to reconsider all that I thought I knew about the epic. Soon, I realised there was a much bigger story that I had set out to narrate. By that time, I was aiming for a reconstruction, a mytho-history rather than mythology — something that goes not only into the sequence of events, but also the underlying explanations for them.
When were you first introduced to ‘Mahabharata’ and how were you influenced by it?
As a kid, I hated green vegetables. My childhood gastronomical idiosyncrasies drove my despairing family to come up with a solution. I was fed stories from ‘Mahabharata’ along with my greens. Clearly, the consequences had not been foreseen! The myth continued to affect me as I grew. For me, understanding the history, the kernels of fact behind what has subsequently been aggrandised into mythology and used to legitimise social elements, is an essential way of understanding the cultural and moral fabric of the society we live in. A common response I used to get from my orthodox extended family, whenever I questioned the way things were done, used to be ‘that’s they way it’s laid down in the scriptures’. The attempt to demystify these stories and their injunctions is almost like a quest for a more believable truth, an attempt to make these amazing characters and stories more ‘real.’
‘The Aryavarta Chronicles’ must have involved planning and research. Tells us about the journey.
It was tough, but it was also fun. There are tomes of material that deal with the epic and the epic ages. It took many months of painstaking work trying to reconcile legend with logic and scholarly evidence and variations in English and vernacular literature across India and other parts of Asia too. But, as someone trained in social sciences research, I have tried my best to draw on that strength, that scientific approach, when coming to conclusions on the probabilities of why or how things happened in a particular way.
The names you have given to the characters and the clans are different from that of ‘Mahabharata’, but containing in them the essence that each character stands for. How did you arrive at the names of the characters?
In some cases, I went back to their birth names — such as Syoddhan for Duryodhan and Vasusena for Karna. I used tried to use the most common appellations for a character, particularly where it symbolised what they stood for, such as Dharma, for Yudhisthir. I think the use of these names were important to establish the attempt at an unbiased approach to reconstruction, and also to get readers to look at the characters again, anew, without bringing in our common perceptions of these characters.
While writing, authors tend to develop a strong bond with the characters. Which were the characters you connected with the most?
Govinda, of course. More than connected, it’s like I am driven to know what makes him the way he is, his thoughts, his beliefs — he is a mystery and I am constantly trying to decipher him. I also have a soft corner for Shikandin and Asvattama and these two characters have, unexpectedly, evolved as parallels or mirrors of each other.
You’ve made each character appear human, with their misgivings. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes, particularly because what I feel strongly about was removing divinity as an explanation for events and actions. The moment we try to understand what characters do as normal people, they become nuanced and shaded. Beyond a point though, the characters have a life of their own, they have their own personalities when they interact with me. I am just trying to represent their positions fairly.
Panchali is one of the strongest characters in your work. How differently did you conceive her from the epic?
Panchali is different from the epic in the way all of them are different, because she is real and not lauded as a force of destiny or divinity. She is normal — strong, weak and sometimes confused. It bothers me when we point to Panchali Draupadi as the cause of the ‘Mahabharata’ war, when we say her wrath destroyed the entire Bharata clan, instead of talking about the ambition, greed or sheer ineptitude of the other characters involved in the chain of events. It bothers me when the wrong done to her is admitted, yet dismissed, by constructing her as an ideal figure beyond reproach. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t respect the epic. I very much do and that’s why I needed to reconstruct a version that would still make me revere its characters — not because they were gods or subjects of destiny, but because they were human beings who stood for good and right.
You studied law from the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, before you did your Ph.D in Strategic Management. How did the interest in writing come about?
I’ve been writing since childhood. Apparently, when I was asked the all important ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, my reply was: “A writer. Or an astronaut.” I remember creating imaginary worlds in my head and weaving stories in and out of them — everything from staged battles to horseback chase sequences. When I look back at the kind of careers I chose — law and then academia — I can see a link to the issues and ideas that I found fascinating, the issues that now show up in my writing, such as the history and philosophy of the complex socio-economic world around us.
The topics that come up during the classes I now teach — business-government-society interlinks, democracy, capitalism, international trade and political relations — all of these give me the grounding to approach my books the way I do, as stories of socio-political change.