The Last Kaurava is not a re-told Mahabharata – it uses several characters from the Epic and mostly follows the story-line, but there are events that never occur in the Mahabharata or are at great variance from the story as told in the Mahabharata.
The Last Kaurava is not a re-told Mahabharata – it uses several characters from the Epic and mostly follows the story-line, but there are events that never occur in the Mahabharata or at great variance from the story as told in the Mahabharata. Reading The Last Kaurava requires that the reader be flexible and open-minded enough to let the story play out. To repeat, this is not a retelling of the Mahabharata; it is an entirely new work of fiction.
Two stories unfold in the book: the first story explores the writing down of the Mahabharata. It parallels the episode from the very beginning of the Epic in which Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, agrees to transcribe the poem narrated by Vyaasa. The second story, the main story, most connected to the Epic and referenced in the title of the book, explores the life and choices of Devavrata-Bhishma.
A core fact anchors each story: the first story ties the writing of the Epic to the invention of the script called Brahmi, one native to South Asia. It is the first script whose letters are organized in a system based on how the sound is produced by the speaker.
There is an amazing, almost unbelievable, observation underlying this invention – writing does not seem to have taken off in South Asia till after Chandragupta Maurya around 300 B.C.E. There is evidence from contemporary visitors, like Megasthenes, that among themselves South Asian merchants made oral contracts. It looks like the culture of South Asia was non-literate at a time when the contemporary cultures to the
West (Persian, Assyrian, Greek, etc.) were writing stories and maintaining written records. But from the earliest recorded times, South Asia has been seen as richer, more sophisticated, and highly evolved. At some point, the orally transmitted Epic was written down – scholars debate the date. The novel assumes that this occurred around 850 B.C.E. and conjures a story of how this came about with the invention of Brahmi.
The second story builds on the disappearance of the river Saraswati – modern geo-mapping technology allows us to date this event to about 2000 B.C.E.. The book assumes that this disappearance was an environmental crisis that led to the destruction and dispersion of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization. Large groups of migrants found their way to the Frontier of that time, marked by the small trading outpost of Hastinapur (as the city is re-characterized by the novel) on the edge of the great forest covering the Gangetic plain. Unfortunately this area was already occupied by forest-dwellers who resisted the immigrants. The Kuru rulers of Hastinapur upto Shantanu struggled to cope with the stresses – Devavrata-Bhishma saw the opportunity to create a Kuru empire. But at the core was the conflict between the urban migrants and the native, forest-dwelling, non-urban population, a conflict with no hope for compromise. War would be the tragic outcome, the Great War of the epic being the dramatized residue of that traumatic memory.