From The Book Review of India, December 2015
It is so difficult to achieve a combination of the ancient and the modern, the historical and the imaginary, the authentic and the innovative. But in The Last Kaurava by Kamesh Ramakrishna we have it. In it, the Mahabharata comes alive with a twentyfirst century zest.
The author who grew up in Bombay and studied at IIT-Kanpur, holds a PhD in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh. He has made significant contributions to software engineering and architecture and lives at present in Massachusetts. But, as he states in the Introduction of this novel, his interest in the Mahabharata is long standing. ‘As a child, the Mahabharata fascinated me—not only did it have heroes, heroines, villains, and fastpaced action, but it also raised profound human questions about fairness, the need for revenge, the horror of war. When I became interested in history and pre-history, I struggled to fit the stories into what the archaeological record showed on the ground’ (p. 9).
As a key reference, Ramakrishna has used J.A.B. van Buitenen’s translation of the critical edition of the epic brought out by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (B.O.R.I.). Other influences range from A.K. Ramanujan and Iravathi Karve to Marvin Harris, Robert Graves and Gore Vidal. The core ideas of the novel have been published in the journals The Trumpeter and The Indian Journal of Eco-criticism. Other books by the author include The Making of Bhishma (an Amazon Kindle book incorporated intoThe Last Kaurava in prose and with less detail) and Little Bird Learns to FLY (a children’s story written with daughter Jaya Aiyer, published by Pratham Books, Delhi, and Kashi Publishing (Cambridge, MA, USA) in Japanese.
The Last Kaurava is in seven parts, viz., The Prisoner, The Son, The Crown Prince, Interlude, Bhishma The Terrible, The Son(again) and the Appendices . Each part contains several chapters, sometimes broken into sections.
There is a ‘frame story’—the penning down of the epic by scribes as narrated by bards forming a Kavi Sangha or Society of Poets. The author has ‘imagined a highly evolved, non-literate and orally based culture in 850 BCE’ (p. 10) and taken it into one where there was a guild or collective that recorded and archived oral material. The ‘project’ was ‘expensive’, and delays were not encouraged by ‘the city’. This is a brilliant interpretation of the familiar tale of Ganesha taking down Vyasa’s dictations non-stop.
Within the frame, there are the epic events as seen through the dying eyes of Devavrat Bhishma, called ‘the last Kaurava’. (What about Dhritarashtra himself? Wasn’t he the last one?)
This allows an entirely new approach to the tale—to my knowledge, never attempted before.
The usual understanding of the Mahabharata is inclusive of fantastic elements, magical weapons, gods and goddesses, rebirths and reincarnations. This novel steers clear of all that—which is by itself a novelty. No horses! No horse-driven chariots! This revolts against the concept of Parthasarathi Krishna who is so pivotal to the general impression we have of the epic. But the author has made it his ‘ground rule’ to be firmly rooted in 2000 BCE as per evidence.
He has set the novel against the background of an ecological crisis—the drying up of the river Sarasvati (a border of the area known as Brahmavarta, the other border being defined by the river Drishadvati). This, according to the author, caused refugees (such as the Nagas) to overcrowd Hastinapur, a city situated on the Ganga and ruled by the Kuru dynasty. Devavrat, as the caretaker of the dynasty, dealt with it in his fashion. But the Pandavas laying claim to the throne are likely to undo what he did. This provides Devavrat to stick to Suyodhana (Duryodhana) rather than side with Yudhisthira. This, in turn, leads to war and destruction.
An ingenious innovation, this issue of immigrants and ecology. But while the Mahabharata does not contradict it, does it have enough to provide this hypothesis a launching pad?
The most startling innovation of the novel is making Devavrat Bhishma realize on his deathbed that he has killed Shikhandin, who is Amba’s son and his own as well. This is revelation to the old grandpa (pitamaha) as he lies dying of his war wounds, and a revelation to most readers as well!
The Mahabharata quite clearly says that Bhishma did not even shoot at Shikhandin because he knew he was really a woman, that is, Amba reborn. If there is a gap in any statement, it can be filled by ‘poetic license’. If there is already a full statement, imagination is contradiction. Can it pass as re-interpretation or trans-creation? This puzzles me especially because the book is otherwise so erudite and informative.
The text carries short but useful footnotes. In the seventh part (which is entirely the Appendices), Appendix A provides Endnotes (e.g., on Trade Routes in India, Measures of Time and Distance) while Appendix B is a Glossary of Sanskrit Names).
(I do have a minor issue here. ‘Devavrat’ is not consistent with Bhishma, Yudhisthira, Suyodhana and the like. Why not put an ‘a’ at the end, for one who performed his vrata with lifelong dedication. In that same vein, Panchanada, not Panchnad.)
Plus, the book has a map (in colour) of the Mahabharata country, and a family tree (also colourful) of the Kauravas. The map shows ancient cities with their modern names, the Kururashtra, the Naga territory, and the migration routes.
So read this book. Read this book with tolerance, no, respect for new views. The Mahabharata has never been completed, whether by a single author or a Kavi Sangha. It is being translated, abridged, retold, dramatized, serialized, digitalized and so on … continually. It is always evolving. Kamesh Ramakrishna is yet another of the contributors to it.
Dipavali Sen is Associate Professor in Sri Guru Gobind Singh College of Commerce, Delhi University, and a free-lance writer.
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