Krishna, tell me what to do. Please.
This time, Gladys brought along this book for us to read: an Indian epic, interpreted and written in French by a French writer and actor, and translated to English by a British theatre personality. It’s not easy to read a play, especially one strewn with tongue-twisting names like Dhrishtadyumna, Dushasana, Dhritharashtra and the others, but Gladys was admirably stoic of my monotone and I quite enjoyed myself. As I read, I liked imagining how it might have been picturized and did feel that the epic had retained its elements despite the long journeys it had made between cultures. (Now this could well be because I’ve only ever read the Mahabharata in English and even the stories my grandmother told me were only in that language.)
This play was first performed in 1985 and later made into a television series. Some Indian scholars complained that the play trivialised the epic and depicted it not as the portrayal of a titanic clash between the forces of good and evil, which it is meant to be, but rather the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord. I felt this criticism rather unfair – although I had only read it and not seen the stage version. Perhaps the play itself did reduce the great pride of the Hindus to a trashy village story. Both Gladys and I agreed that though we couldn’t imagine sitting through 9 hours of it a stretch, we did feel it did justice to a great world epic and that the translation was contemporary and admirable. (You can also read the full and rather eloquent criticism Pradip Bhattacharya wrote in November 2004.)
I must admit that the only other Mahabharatas I’ve read have been children’s versions so of course I don’t really have a basis for comparison. However, the stories of the epic are complicated and powerful, they are not silly fairy stories, and as I read, I did feel the force of the complex messages that the Mahabharata carries – the messages of how we should act, and the reality of how we actually do act; and how easy it is for good and bad to flip sides when your own perspective changes.