A Review of “The Last Kaurava” a novel of Bronze Age India
Hartwick College, Cooperstown, NY
Anthropology, Adjunct | South Asian Archaeology
This story is a wonderfully heterodox encounter between traditional faith and archaeological science. Set during the late stages of the Mature Harappan period, the book is a narration of events leading up to the Great War, set in historical, rather than mythological time, and compressed to fit into the limits of the natural world. This unique plot twist works, but only because of the meticulous attention that is paid to both literary and archaeological detail. This is not so much Mahabharata as hagiography, but rather prehistoric fiction that imagines the landscape of Northern India following the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. The author imagines a socio-political response to these migrations that fits within the narrative of the Mahabharata storyline, though with some unique deviations. As the population of Hastinapur swells with migrants, the exiting Kuru regime struggles to integrate them into the surrounding territories – this leads to the establishment of harsh social policies and heightened conflict with the Naga tribals. In this narrative, as in many other versions of the epic, questions about one’s duty are framed in terms of good governance. However unlike the original, there are no supernatural lessons to underscore the importance of following dharma; this is not a morality tale in the spiritual sense but rather one that brings to life the political milieu of North India during the late Bronze Age. This is a story that will delight readers already familiar with the epic and curious about the way in which lived prehistory may have made its way into legend and myth.
Between the poles of Modern Orientalism and Hindutva ideology, there are hundreds of millions of people, and it is to these masses that this story is pitched. While this is perhaps not a book that set out to make a statement, in navigating the divide between the academic left and the religious right, it certainly serves as an important reminder that one can have a familiarity and love for the epics that is not dogmatic or close-minded. This is perhaps an especially important message to Western scholars who often seem incapable of viewing non-assimilated indigenous perspectives through anything other than a lens of extremism or the soft bigotry of lowered expectation.
Set during the end of the third millennium BC, a time of environmental change and social upheaval, the story addresses themes of migration, integration, and colonization, using plot twists and turns to align the traditional account of the Mahabharata with what is known historically and archaeologically about society at the time. As this period was in fact the era when large parts of the epic are believed to have been composed, this is a fascinating glimpse of the Mahabharata as it could have happened. Although the timeframe of the novel neatly elides the question of Indo-European migration, the story is set in a world richly populated with a diversity of ancient cultures across and beyond the Indian subcontinent. From a scholarly perspective, some themes may be contested – for example, the idea of the Indus Civilization as a matriarchal utopia, or the use of environmental factors as prime mover explanations for large-scale social change. Nevertheless, what is particularly compelling is the way the narrative evokes the very important idea of social memory when considering themes of continuity between the Indus civilization and later historic societies in South Asia. It will be quite interesting to see how future volumes in the series will unfold, and how additional characters will be fleshed out and brought to life.