Latha Anantharaman suggests skipping pages to finish the book.
The modern English novel is supposed to have broken with its 19 century avatar by acquiring a crisp and tightly written structure. We still have our baggy monsters, some of them literary works and some of them plain old pulp. It used to be that pulp fiction at least had the virtue of inventiveness, and we would twist and turn our way to the end just to find out what happened. Now it’s quite the norm for a pulp writer to recycle an old story that everyone knows. Does it ever occur to such writers that if we know how it all ends, there’s no reason to read it at all?
One story packed with high-grade recycling material is the Mahabharata. It is admittedly long and unwieldy, even for an epic. It mostly reads as if it were written by a committee. If we wanted to make it more marketable we would, in Amar Chitra Katha style, extract the little stories from the main thread, the tale of King Parikshit and the snake, or Shakuntala and her royal seducer, or the incomparable Savitri’s dialogue with death. The epic doesn’t lend itself to wholesale re-imagining as a novel, though valiant writers have attempted it, from the Honourable Shashi Tharoor down. After all, much of the main story is a maha bore, just squabbling and cheating between cousins. That’s why the old storytellers threw in some philosophy, some altruism, some love and the sublime Gita.
But the present-day novelists who insist on retelling the Mahabharata take all that out, leaving bare bones fit to be boiled into a Salman Khan movie. Of all the ingredients in the epic, such writers seem to hold on faithfully to the intrigue, politics, target practice, sex, violence, and insulting of people’s mothers. Sandipan Deb’s The Last War fits the mould. He uneasily rams epic alliances and confusions of paternity together with glorified gang wars in Mumbai. He lays on the smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs, prostitution, match fixing, and police corruption. In no way do the references to the epic ennoble Deb’s fiction. In today’s world, in fact, inviting other men to father children on one’s wife or daughter-in-law, sharing a wife with a brother, or using blood as a hair conditioner is just disgusting. Why must a writer resurrect old vices when we have plenty in our own times?
Some of the incongruities are hilarious. Jeet (= Arjuna), who is trained to “focus, focus, focus” on the eye of the bird, runs into a house in which he is supposed to kill a rival. Along the way he admires the atrium, “tastefully decorated”, with “Victorian-style sofa sets and a grand piano in one corner”. It doesn’t stop there. Like a writer for the LA Times’s Style section, he also takes note of the winding staircase, Persian carpets, a Native American totem pole, and small works of sculpture. This warrior hero is all over the place. Or, as Deb spells it, “inattentative”.
In other scenes, the rival cousins and their mentors discuss what “people want”. Apparently leaders of the Mumbai underworld worry about public opinion and take a straw poll before deciding who gets Chembur and who gets Matunga. And possibly Deb has got a small fee for the number of times he mentions brand names such as Romeo y Julieta. There’s endless chatter about dharma, the greatest delusion of all. In the excruciatingly long build-up to the final battle, the principals give notice to everyone and politely assure the police chiefs that there will be no civilian casualties. Really? A family fighting for an empire based on arms, drugs, smuggling and corruption is squeamish about the death of innocents?
So fights are staged here and there, each one mirroring a skirmish in the epic, until a small number of people are left standing, all ready to kick back with a glass of scotch and discuss the futility of war. There’s a feeble twist in the tale, but it wouldn’t be fair to the author to reveal that. As for being fair to readers, they can skip as many pages as they like. It’s one way to outrun a baggy monster.
The Last War, Sandipan Deb, Pan Macmillan, 2013, Rs.299.