Srinivas Reddy – ‘Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling’
Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling
WW Norton & Company. 2015
Pp 888 | Paperback | Rs 994
Reading the Mahabharata
Carole Satyamurti’s recent translation of the Mahabharata is for me, without reservation, the most readable version of the great Sanskrit epic yet to appear in the English language. And here I mean readable in multiple senses of the word—the text is mellifluous and enjoyable to peruse, the print is clear and elegantly designed, but most of all, it is a Mahabharata that one can actually sit down and pleasurably read from cover to cover. I doubt the latter can even be said of the Sanskrit text, but this relates more to how our understanding and reception of the text has transformed over time. Satyamurti’s ‘modern retelling’ is epic, expressive and aesthetically satisfying. For someone who grew up with the powerful experience of imagining these bold characters and their multifarious exploits, Satyamurti’s new retelling truly translates the majesty and emotional depth of the beloved epic.
English translations of the Mahabharata abound in variety of forms and styles. Some of the more recent offerings that follow the more academic approach of being complete, accurate and literal (van Buitenen et al, Menon et al, Debroy, etc.), are not very accessible to a general reader. One may feel happy to have a huge eighteen volume set on their library bookshelf, but they aren’t readily approachable as texts to be read, let alone literature to be savored. Other versions (Rajagopalachari, Narayan, Buck, etc.) take a more narrative approach by retelling the story in prose, editing out sections and ultimately aiming for a literary production to be read by a general reader. Satyamurti’s methodology is to find a middle ground between these two approaches, to strike that fine balance between the literal and the literary, the prosaic and the poetic.
Although Satyamurti states that her “guiding principle has been faithfulness,” she has taken the liberty to include several favorite episodes not found in the critical edition. Furthermore, her notion of fidelity in translation seems more directed towards the spirit of the text rather than its letter. In fact the present rendering is not even based on the original Sanskrit text, but rather several previously published scholarly translations, most conspicuously K M Ganguli’s full translation from the late nineteenth century. Perhaps this is why Satyamurti subtitles her work “a modern retelling” rather than a translation. In a certain sense, there is nothing modern about the approach, in fact her methodology harkens back to an older, traditional way of retelling the great epics, i.e. editing out sections, highlighting others and perhaps even adding new, local dimensions (although the latter does not happen in this case). Unlike other retellings, it is much more of a “translation” in the conventional sense, sticking close to the original, following shlokas carefully, etc., and yet it is not written in the full-blown academic style of “full translations”. Indeed Satyamurti seems to hit upon a fruitful compromise that resonates with the approach and technique of a Nannaya or a Pampa when they composed their own vernacular Mahabharatas in Telugu and Kannada.
Admittedly, Satyamurti’s project is geared towards a non-Indian audience. Her goal is to make this great work of Indian literature better known in the western world, and in her introduction she mentions a certain “strangeness” that needs bridging and a belief systems that “may seem alien to many readers.” At the same time however, she highlights the universal nature of the moral dilemmas at hand and directly tackles the text’s central theme of dharma. Her text brings us close to “the complexities of dharma, which in India has never been a universal, atemporal, code for all mankind.” Here are her very first verses that quickly draw us into the human drama:
This is the tale of a tragic dynasty;
a narrative of hatred, honor, courage,
of virtue, love, ideals and wickedness,
and of a war so terrible, it marked
the threshold between one age and the next.
We approach the story through Ugrashravas,
singer of ancient songs, a traveling poet
who wandered the world free of encumbrances,
worshipping at sacred bathing places;
welcome at every court and hermitage
where people loved spellbinding tales.
These lines immediately pulled me into Satyamurti’s rhythmic and expressive writing style. Or as Dharwadker states, her flow “creates a narrative momentum that will hold our interest continuously” (845). In the hundreds of pages that follow, Satyamurti judiciously takes us through the Mahabharata’s grand narrative and delineates the multiple codes of conduct that govern this mytho-historic world. But as in the case of so many cultural paradigms constructed in India, “this prescribed rigidity is constantly being challenged,” or as Doniger succinctly puts it, the Mahabharata “both challenges and justifies the entire class structure.” In this context, I cite two of the many excerpts from the text that complicate the normative social design, i.e. the stories of Karna and Ekalavya and their relationship with the Brahmin master Drona. Notice in particular Satyamurti’s skillful ability in crafting a simple yet elevated tone for natural speech.
“That ultimate weapon can only be learned
said Drona, “by a brahmin of stringent vows,
or a kshatriya who has undertaken
great austerities; no one else at all.”
Karna saw that Drona would never teach
the higher mysteries of a warrior’s skill
to one who was of lowly origin. (56)
And when Ekalavya approaches Drona, the answer is similar:
“I have to disappoint you—I only teach
youths who come from highborn families.
You’re a nishada. It just wouldn’t do.”
The most distinctive quality of Satyamurti’s translation comes from her choice to compose almost her entire work in blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter. Dharwadker even calls it “the longest successful attempt in English poetry in modern times” (846), a perfect example of how translation has the potential to influence and stretch a target language. Satyamurti states that her motivation to compose in verse came after “dissatisfaction with the various translations, abridgments, and versions of it in English prose crystallized into a wish to try to retell it myself—in the form of a poem, as the original is a poem”. Indeed the Sanskrit original is largely written in verse form, roughly seventy-five percent of which is in the standard anustubh shloka meter of thirty-two syllables. But is prosody the sole marker of poetry? Within the Indian tradition the Mahabharata was considered itihasa, the “so it was” of what we commonly call history. But kavya or ‘poetry’, with its ornate language and complex meters, didn’t evolve until later when court-sponsored poets developed a more refined and rarefied literary form. In contrast, when we view both the iambic pentameter and the shloka meters as simple, common and pliable metrical forms that lend themselves to extended oral improvisation, then perhaps we come closer to Lord and Parry’s (1960) notion of an oral-formulaic style of composition as used in the Homeric epics. Does this make the Mahabharata an oral epic instead of a poem? In fact the point is not to define what the Mahabharata is, but to understand that it is more of a poem for its grandeur than its meter, and more of an epic for its orality than its magnitude.
To put things in another way, the Mahabharata is a text to be heard, and Satyamurti has composed a work that truly comes to life when recited. Her self-proclaimed “register is that of a storyteller addressing an audience,” much like Ugrashravas and the other suta bards who must have sung these stories far and wide before eager listeners young and old. In this regard, I share a story that makes evident the power and vitality of this present retelling. Last year when my father was ill, unable to speak and barely able to move, almost like Bheeshma on his bed of arrows, the one thing that gave him peace was my daily reading from Satyamurti’s Mahabharata. The narrative flow of her text, the authenticity of her expression and the undeniable oral quality of her composition made for an enthralling and emotionally fulfilling oral/aural experience.
In a 1991 article AK Ramanujan famously wrote, “No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time. And when he does get to read it, he doesn’t usually read it in Sanskrit.” Doniger riffs on this by recollecting that he “used to say that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time” (xxiv). All of this may be true, but perhaps this fresh retelling does something new. I believe Satyamurti’s translation has transformed the Mahabharata itself, she has recast it into a text to be enjoyed as world-class literature. Now people from around the world, and in India too, have a Mahabharata that they can read for the first time. And when they do, they are sure to find a lushly engrossing masterpiece supplemented with a detailed map, selected bibliographies, glossaries and genealogical tables, making it the finest English telling of India’s greatest story.
Earlier I quoted the first two verses of Satyamurti’s Mahabharata, and here I include the very last few. Everything in between (which according to the Mahabharata can be found nowhere else!) is pure storytelling magic.
“Just as Himavat is a mine of jewels
the Mahabharat is a fathomless
mine of wisdom, precious gems of knowledge
for anyone receptive to the truth.
“We are born, we live our lives, we die;
happiness and grief arise and fade.
But righteousness is measureless, eternal.
So ends the matchless Mahabharata, composed by Vyasa, for the good of all.