Shiv K. Kumar’s retelling of the Mahabharata offers readers a “fragrance-infused” version of the tale

The 91-year-old writer-poet-academic Shiv K. Kumar is confident about his latest work, The Mahabharata. “It is one of the best things I have ever done,” he said, recently at the launch of the book in the city. He then qualified his declaration: “A writer has to be a salesman.”

The book is an imaginative retelling of the epic. Kumar embarked on the project because he wanted to infuse “colour and fragrance” into the tale. But he wouldn’t compare his work to the popular version by Vedavyasa. “Comparisons are odious,” he said.

From the excerpt Kumar read from his book, it was clear his attempt to reanimate the Mahabharata had succeeded; a modern literary style came across. And rightly so; Kumar has spent all his life in English literature. Following English degrees from Lahore – where he grew up – Kumar studied for a doctorate from Cambridge, and has been teaching since 1947. He has several volumes of poetry and novels to his name; and won a Sahitya Akademi award in 1988 for the poetry collection Trapfalls In The Sky.

At the launch, Kumar was in conversation with writer U.R. Ananthamurthy. “I became a 10-year-old boy as I listened to him,” said Ananthamurthy, adding that Kumar reminded him of the Haridasas (traditional, wandering storytellers) who would come to his village and tell versions of the two Hindu epics. “Shiv is a Cambridge Ph.D.,” he observed, “and also a haridasa.” Ananthamurthy also saw the Mahabharata as ubiquitous for the Indian. “Every European reads Homer for the first time – but we know the Mahabharata without reading it. It is our inheritance.”

For Ananthamurthy, the capacity to tell good stories was uniquely Indian, and also increasingly limited to older generations. He categorised Kumar’s work on the basis of his dual roles as a novelist and a poet.

“The writer has two gifts – to dramatise and perform, and to meditate. The storyteller in Kumar is a performer,” he explained, “and the poet is a meditator.”

The Mahabharata has been on sale since January 2012, and is published by HarperCollins. It is available at stores for Rs. 399.

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