Epic Retold Books

Faithful to a fault: Aditya Sudarshan reviews Keerthik Sasidharan’s ‘The Dharma Forest’

Fascinated; A Kathakakli dancer enacts a scene from the Mahabharata.   | Photo Credit: Getty images/ IStock

Suppose you are regarded as a venerable fount of wisdom. What kind of disciple would you want for yourself? Obviously, one who is completely faithful to your sentiments, who conveys your thoughts exactly as expressed, who invariably upholds your authority.

So it may seem, at first blush. But is this really so? I think you would soon find yourself wishing that this earnest disciple of yours was not quite so earnest. That he did not keep insisting on your every saying. Perhaps you would even start yearning for some obscurity, so that your wisdom may have some wiggle room, and the reputation that hangs on it may not always be weighing upon you. Unless, of course, you were invincibly convinced of your own perfection.

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I would not ascribe such egotism to the Mahabharata. So it seems to me that Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Dharma Forest, a 500-page tome that is only the beginning of a trilogy, is doing the epic a subtle injury. Subtle, because Sasidharan certainly does not darken the tale by crude falsifications; and yet an injury, because by the naivete of his diligence, he ends up dragging it into a bad light.

The book is structured as stories of the Kurukshetra war, being recounted to a dying Krishna by Jara, the hunter who has shot him by accident. There are three main segments that focus, respectively, on Bhishma, Draupadi, and Arjuna. Thanks to Sasidharan’s powerful imagination, the reader is amply transported to their world. The encampments of the weary and wounded, the histrionic violence of the battlefield, the other-worldly characters, their jealousies and rivalries and ruminations, their contracts with the gods, who watch them with pleasure and anxiety, Krishna with his beatific smiles — and dharma with its exacting tolls: these are the elements of the epic, and these are also the elements of the book. The reader who is interested in something more modern and critical, perhaps regarding the social or gender relations of the epic, will not find it in Sasidharan’s telling.

That is his prerogative. But it is one thing to avoid a critical perspective on source material, another to be fascinated, in helpless fidelity, by its most grotesque aspects.

Air of wisdom

In The Dharma Forest, the grotesquerie of the whole story is firmly on display. One encounters astronomical violence,

Faithful to a fault: Aditya Sudarshan reviews Keerthik Sasidharan’s ‘The Dharma Forest’

mind-boggling body counts, and visceral descriptions of mutilated bodies. One sees what it is to be the wife of five warlike men, noting, in particular, the sexual callisthenics it may involve. And one breathes the air of wisdom that blankets it all; that sweetly delivers sweet-sounding words to reconcile oppressive vows, expedient chicanery and continuous bloodshed with dharma.

But, someone might object, all these things are a part of the story. They are indeed a part of the story, and yet are so psychologically fraught in their interplay that angels must fear to tread where The Dharma Forest rushes in.

It should be noted that the extremism of the Mahabharata — the ‘next level’ that it reaches, surpassing the war epics of other cultures — owes precisely to the fact that its characters have caught hold of such a lofty notion as dharma. Just as killing and vowing and revenging begin to naturally pall on them, dharma arrives, not only to justify but also to spur exponential killing and vowing and revenging. In this way, the Mahabharata avoids the explicit sense of tragedy that is typically the keynote of ancient classics.

But the whole process is really not pleasant to look at. It is unpleasant as regards the deeds it produces and the metaphysics it propagates in relation to those deeds.

Lacking sobriety

And the combined presentation of all these factors is the most appalling. Thankfully, one usually doesn’t encounter this. A philosophical study of the Mahabharata might not linger on the cruelty; another may well do so, but might innocently leave out the metaphysics; even a comprehensive rendering could separate the two in the telling (just as the dialogue of the Gita may be abstracted from the rest of the tale).

But The Dharma Forest is faithful unto foolishness, realistic unto distastefulness, and does not seem to notice the effect of its handling because of its intoxication with the material. In this connection, it is notable that the character whom Sasidharan treats most impatiently is Yudhishtira. Yudhishtira, who at least tries to navigate the world of thought alongside (not abstracted from) the world of action, is frequently confounded by what he is doing. This happens because he is sober-minded enough to retain doubts about it all. But he is portrayed as something of a neurotic.

Sobriety is precisely the quality that is lacking in The Dharma Forest (and, incidentally, in its oblivious blurbs). On the other hand, intoxication can wear off suddenly and surprisingly, and Sasidharan is probably too skilful a writer to always remain in it. I look forward to the rest of this trilogy.

The Dharma Forest, Keerthik Sasidharan, Penguin Random House, ₹499

The writer is the author, most recently, of The Outraged: Times of Strife.

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