The daringly original text is fully served by a powerful translation.
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana have been “re-told” from so many diverse perspectives that one begins to feel wary and weary at the mere mention of a re-telling. In writing Randamoozham, M.T. Vasudevan Nair may have worked within what is now a done-to-death tradition of re-tellings, but his path remains a stunningly original one. There are many Mahabharatas but there is only one Randamoozham.
M.T’s daringly original Malayalam text is amply served by Gita Krishnankutty’s powerful translation, Bhima: Lone Warrior. In her note, Gita draws attention to the challenges of translating a text that is “enveloped in the aura of the epic that inspired it”, even though it does not employ a classical idiom and language. The grace and felicity with which she achieves her task are remarkable. First published in 1984, M.T’s out-of-the-box Mahabharata employs Bhima, the oft-over-looked and under-valued Pandava, to probe and question the Kshatriya universe and its obviously skewed values. Despite being a mighty and skilful warrior, Bhima is largely dismissed by his family. Yudhishtira who, ironically enough, is responsible for the hardships of the Pandavas, routinely addresses him as “blockhead”, secure in the knowledge that, as the eldest, he is undisputedly the king. Draupadi and Kunti are fonder of Arjuna than they are of Bhima and they make this clear. Bhima sees through it all. He is no fool, despite what the others think of him. In fact, it is he alone who has a bird’s-eye-view of everything and everybody. And yet, he remains unswervingly loyal to his family, watching over their sleeping forms at night, fighting their enemies single-handedly, ensuring that they come to no harm. If he fails Draupadi at times, it is because his hands are tied. As the younger brother of Yudhishtira who conveniently invokes “dharma” to suit his ends, Bhima must tow the line and therein lies much of the dramatic tension. Even the decision to “share” Draupadi is forced on the other Pandavas by Yudhishtira.
Bhima is loved and respected most by his “other” family, the family he is forced to leave behind in the forest since they are not Kshatriyas. The narrative centre of the text is made up of all the voices that are destined never to be heard in a universe that is a deadly cocktail of patriarchy, masculinism and casteism: the voices of the women Hidimbi, Draupadi, Balandhara and Kunti and the children abandoned by their father — Sarvada and Ghatotkacha. Bhima, who understands and emphathises but remains powerless to change anything, is a tragic victim as well. His perspective remains haunting and powerful.
Bhima’s question is echoed later by Draupadi who is upset that the Pandavas can even consider making peace with the people who have insulted and dishonoured her publicly:
“Ignoring all of us, she went up to Krishna. ‘I am aware that no one here has asked for my opinion. The object of a wager has no tongue to speak with, after all.’”
In the masculinist/Kshatriya universe in which Bhima finds himself, he cannot find joy in playing the role of father. When his son (by Balandhara) Saravada comes to join the Pandava army before the great war, Bhima is embarrassed: “I embraced him, silently ashamed of my own callousness. We princes so often forgot our children who were growing up in other places.”
Bhima: The Lone Warrior; M.T. Vasudevan Nair, translation: Gita Krishnankutty, Orient BlackSwan, price not stated.