Face to face Literary Review

‘Human predicament engages me’

Carole Satyamurti: Retelling the Mahabharata in blank verse.  

It is 30 years since the epic created spectacle, and discourse, with Peter Brook’s Theatre that closed the cities-of-culture century at Glasgow.

Carole Satyamurti’s Mahabharata — a Modern Retelling (W.W Norton: 2015) has arrived. One of Britain’s distinguished National Poetry Competition winners, she is shortlisted for the Forward Prize.

Satyamurti’s epic heralds the complexity of the story in poetry.

“Many people are sleepless”, said Vidura/the anxious lover, one who is destitute,/thieves who fear discovery, householders/nervous of theives — but none of these, I think/is our condition. Are you perhaps, burning/because you covet another’s property?”

There are many paths to Mahabharata. What was your point of contact and what are the threads that most interest you?

My first husband, T.V. Sathyamurthy, introduced me to the Mahabharata when I was very young. I remember him reciting verses from it in Sanskrit, and being entranced by the cadences and rhythm of the lines, which seemed so different from the sounds of the English poetry I was used to.

Later, I read various versions of the epic in English — those by R.K. Narayan and C Rajagopalachari, for instance — as well as scholarly translations. It has always seemed to me a marvellous work of world literature — and yet, apart from the chapter known as the Bhagavad Gita, it is not widely known outside India. Even in India, although the main narrative and certain stories are very familiar, there is a great deal in this enormous epic poem that only comes to life in the context of the ongoing detailed narrative. In my retelling, I wanted to bring out the ethical complexity, the tragedy, the humour, the sharp characterisation, the psychological authenticity, the political sophistication, and much more beside. I based my version not on other people’s retellings, but on scholarly translations from the original Sanskrit into English — notably the 5000 pages of K.Ganguli’s translation.

You have written it in English blank verse — different from the sloka meter. Is this inspired by the complexity of the epic as well as drawing from Sanskrit?

It has been argued that the original sloka verse form of ancient Sanskrit is the equivalent of modern prose, because it was used for a wide variety of texts, not just ‘literary’ ones. This has been a justification for most retellings of the Mahabharata being in prose. But the original is in patterned language, designed to be recited, and for this reason, my version is in blank verse, which arguably has a place in English poetry comparable to that of the sloka. It has the loose rhythm of iambic pentameter, and natural speech in English often falls into that rhythm. Although my version is (mostly) a poem, it is in no way obscure or ‘difficult’. My first priority has been to draw the reader in to the absorbing narrative, as if they are reading a novel.

How does the Homeric epic work and how is this different?

In the West, when people think of epic poems, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey come to mind. As well as being several times longer than both those epics together, the Mahabharata is (as Wendy Doniger has said) much more interesting. Whereas Homer’s gods often behave like a dysfunctional family, the gods of the Mahabharata — Krishna in particular — tend to operate for the good of humanity, as they see it. Unlike Homer’s women, in the Mahabharata women play an active and articulate part in the events. And the profound exploration of ethical action ( dharma) in the Mahabharata is unparalleled in Homer.

You are a sociologist, translator and poet, as well as an adjudicator and teacher of the craft of poetry. How does it all come together?

I came to working on the Mahabharata after publishing several volumes of my own poems. My working life has been spent as a university teacher of sociology, and the subjects that I write about in poems have tended to be human ones, in the broadest sense. Of course everything one writes about is ultimately about human experience, but I have hardly ever written a ‘nature’ poem, for instance. It is the complexities of the human predicament that engage me most — and the Mahabharata has plenty of those!

I came rather late to writing poetry, after going on a creative writing course run by the Arvon Foundation.  Since my academic background was not in literature, I had somehow not thought of myself as a possible poet. But the course was a real conversion experience, and I have written poems ever since.  Poets who have influenced me — there are so many, but they include Elizabeth Bishop, David Constantine, Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Larkin, Michael Donaghy . . .

 As well as sociology, I have a long experience of teaching the writing of poetry. I enjoy the teaching process — helping people to clarify their thoughts, and to arrive at the best possible expression for what they want to say, whether in a poem, or in a PhD thesis.

This article earlier mentioned that Carole Satyamurti was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. She has won the Roehampton Prize for Poetry shared with Sean O'Brien. The error is regretted.

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