An epic journey

Bibek Debroy wears many hats with ease: economist, writer, columnist, Sanskrit speaker, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and recently a permanent member of NITI Aayog, the body that will replace the Planning Commission. Having undertaken an ambitious project of to translating translate the unabridged version of The Mahabharata (originally in Sanskrit) from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition, Bibek writes that “it has been a journey of six years, 10 volumes and something like 2.25 million words,” a testimony to the mammoth task emerging out of his regular and demanding work schedule. An interview with the writer:

The Mahabharata has been the subject of many retellings, TV series adaptations, movies, graphic novels and so much more. What makes it so timeless?

Let me answer this in the following way. The Mahabharata is about human beings in situations where they confront dilemmas, where there is no demarcation between right and wrong decisions. They take decisions and on that basis, suffer problems. These are eternal dilemmas that appeal to each one of us.

What have you discovered from taking up this mammoth task?

I can respond to this in several ways. The Mahabharata has been retold several times in English, abridged. Therefore, there was a need to eliminate certain segments and retain the interesting parts. It is fundamentally about dharma. My translation is not too academic; I’ve identified and explained as much as possible. About what I’ve learnt… I learnt a lot about India’s geography, mind you I’m talking about what was India then, a lot about dharma in the broader sense; for instance, rajya dharma in The Mahabharata is richer than in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. My wife keeps mentioning that I’ve changed, something that I’m not aware of myself. I don’t know what I’ve got out of it, but I know what I’ve lost: anger. I’ve become detached now.

While working on the translation, what were some of the salient points you had to keep in mind?

Well, time management was certainly one. If I hadn’t earmarked a certain time of the day, this wouldn’t have been completed. I wrote 1,500-2,000 words per day on an average for two hours; of course, I couldn’t do that while travelling. I took a conscious decision not to use didactic marks or have an index; I didn’t know what to list and what not to. One other conscious decision was that it had to be as close to the text as possible, even if it made the English seem less smooth in retaining some of the words. And then again some words cannot be translated (dharma, brahmana) in English, so I retain them as they are. For example, reviewers have criticised me for a term like bharatarshaba, which I have translated to “bull amongst Bharata lineage”. I could’ve translated it as Bharata but I wanted to retain it perfectly.

Don’t you think 10 volumes are a little daunting for the average reader, especially for youngsters?

Ten volumes was a roadblock for me, it seemed to stretch (laughs). Not many young people are familiar with Sanskrit. My firm belief is that the original Mahabharata should be read, the abridged version is less nuanced. If the interest is triggered by reading Devdutt Pattanaik or Namita Gokhale they might read the original. In English, the version by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, perhaps?

In a previous essay you’ve written how The Mahabharata has been blamed for creating an atmosphere of misogyny...

I dislike that. The Mahabharata was composed over a period of 1,000 years, you cannot expect social norms to remain the same; it’s an umbrella text. I can cite chapter and verse in it to prove that women were liberated as much as they were oppressed; it’s not internally consistent on the status of women, Shudras, or even astronomy.

You must be one of few people who converse in Sanskrit.

I have never formally studied Sanskrit. When you study a language you first learn to speak, then read and write. I self-taught myself over a span of 20-odd years and so it worked in reverse for me wherein I taught myself to read first and then converse and write. The conversational part I picked up in four to five years and it was tough because who do I converse with? I only talk to my dog in Sanskrit and that is a monologue.

If you had to list some of the most misconstrued stories in The Mahabharata, what would they be?

People usually misunderstand these examples. The scene where Draupadi was dragged into the hall during the game of dice: we’ve seen it as an obscene gesture. We must not impose today’s norms on what happened then. Duryodhana gestured Draupadi to sit on his left thigh. Traditionally, the left thigh is for the queen and the right for the daughter or the daughter-in-law. All Duryodhana was asking her to do was to accept him as the husband. People think I’m supporting Draupadi’s oppression. I’m not. One needs to read the text before one comes to conclusions.

What are you working on right now? Any projects lined up for the future?

The Harivamsha, which is the appendix to The Mahabharata. Then, the Valmiki Ramayana. But the one I’d really love to do are the unabridged translation of the Puranas that have around four hundred thousand shlokas. I’m sure I wouldn’t survive before I finish that. (laughs)

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 11:54:02 PM |

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