Sunday, 21 February 2016

Mrityunjaya The Death Conqueror. By Shivaji Sawant

Mrityunjaya The Death Conqueror
The Story of Karna

Shivaji Sawant

Translated from the Marathi by Nandini Nopany and P. Lal

Writers Workshop. First published in Marathi in 1989. English translation 1989.

P. Lal is mostly famous for his almost complete 'transcreation' of the Mahabharata of Vyasa, a sloka-by-sloka re-interpretation in English of the timeless classic. He was also a poet, and a publisher, almost single-handedly publishing poetry and fiction of not-yet-famous writers through his Writers Workshop. (He passed away in 2010.) This book reveals another side to him - a translator from Marathi. Actually from Hindi - the book was written originally by Sawant in Marathi, translated into Hindi by Om Shivaraj, and then into English by Lal and Nopany. I suspect that this process of serial translation (transcription and translation? DNA to RNA to protein?) has changed  the bhava of the original a fair bit. The language in this book appears to be a straight translation from Sanskrit, so perhaps, as may well be expected, Lal brought into play all the predilections which he may have gathered during his mammoth transcreation efforts.

'Mrityunjaya' is Karna, the eldest, but illegitimate Pandava brother. He is born to Surya, the Sun God, and Kunti, a Kshatriya Princess from Mathura, before she marries Pandu. Ashamed to admit to pre-marital motherhood, she sets the new-born Karna adrift in a wooden basket on the Ashva river. This trope is found in many tales all over the world - in the story of Moses, for instance, or of Sargon of Akkad in ancient Mesopotamia, or even, in more recent times, of Sant Kabir. Maybe they have a common source, in the far depths of the ancient pre-history of mankind. Karna is eventually picked up by a charioteer, and raised in the family tradition, as one among them. Karna refuses however to be just a charioteer, not when he sees himself clad naturally in 'skin armour' and 'flesh ear-rings' - whatever these really could be. He sets to learn all the martial arts, and in a short time, without formal training, he excels with the sword, with the bow, with the mace, and in wrestling. In one incident he tames a runaway bull. This again is an idea that occurs in many ancient tales. All the while he suspects he is something special, but cannot guess what. In due time he is taken to Hastinapura, the capital of the Kaurava kingdom, where he seeks to join Acharya Drona's advanced martial arts classes, but is humiliated and rejected, for being a low-caste charioteer daring to seek equality with high-born Kshatriya princes. 

Among the princes are the five Pandava brothers, born to Kunti and her co-wife Madri, after their marriage to Maharaja Pandu. As the Mahabharata tells us, and as is repeated here by Sawant, these five brothers were also illegitimate, sons not of Pandu, who was cursed into celibacy, but issues of the mating of the gods (Indra, Vayu...) and the two wives. The rather knotty implications of this anecdote is pointed out once or twice in the book by some character or other, but it does not make any impact on anybody. Only Karna is considered a bastard, brilliantly talented, but tragically ignorant of his glorious parenthood, and of the source of his prowess.

Recoiling from the rejection and the disgrace, Karna is befriended by the evil Duryodhana, the eldest of the 100 Kaurava brothers. Several of the others are named, perhaps even all 100 of them - I did not count - but I do not know whether these are Sawant's nominations or from the original Mahabharata. The only other Kaurava brothers of note are Dushasana, who infamously tried to disrobe Draupadi, and Vikarna, who was perhaps the only one at that disgraceful assembly of men who showed some human feeling and kindness in offering Draupadi his shawl to cover herself, and who remonstrated against the dishonourable behaviour of his brothers.

But I am getting ahead of myself. To get back to the timeline of Karna's tale, he is fully ensnared by the wiles of Duryodhana, particularly when the latter declares him the Raja of Anga, thus conferring on him a kind of honorary Kshatriya status. He becomes the Kaurava's loyal follower. He is further encouraged in this in reaction to the arrogance of Arjuna and the rest, as they, aided and abetted by Guru Drona, cross him whenever they can, and prevent him from exercising all his great skills. At her swayamvara, for example, there is a hint that Draupadi is more attracted to Karna than to Arjuna. The charioteer-warrior is the better suitor, being more skilled in all the required arts. But she rejects him, and insults him, because he is low-born - or so everyone thinks. 

In the meantime, the Mahabharata story plays out, almost in the background, with Karna making an appearance at crucial points. When the Pandava brothers ask Duryodhana and the Kaurava for a fair share of their common grandfather's kingdom, they are fobbed off with a piece of barren territory in the hills and forests. The five sons of Pandu take this and transform it into the prosperous city state of Indraprastha. And then, the stupid Yudhishthira gambles it all away to Duryodhana, going so far as to bet, and loose, Draupadi, the polyandrous wife of all five brothers. (I should elaborate here on this whole sorry mess, and what it tells us about the character of Yudhishthira, but I shall hold my thoughts over for another time, perhaps when I read and write about another version of the Mahabharata. This book is Karna's story). Draupadi is saved from total disgrace by Krishna, but the Pandava and their wife and their mother are all exiled. Karna is present at this episode, and his instinct is to go to the rescue of Draupadi, but the memory of the insults he suffered at the hands of the Pandava, and of their wife, stays his hand, and he remains a spectator, even urging the evil Kaurava in their disgraceful deeds. 

Even as the Pandava serve their thirteen years in the forests, Karna goes on a conquering spree to establish his credentials as a Kshatriya. His army scythes through all territories to the North, East, South and West of Anga, spreading death and destruction, while enormously enriching the treasury. On his return, Karna gives away to the poor all the loot he has gathered, and establishes himself not only as a great conqueror, but also as a paragon of generosity. When Indra, the father of Arjuna, deviously disguises himself as a poor brahmin (it has to be brahmin, naturally) and seeking to give his son a decisive advantage in future one-on-one combat, asks Karna for his 'skin armour', the generous soul gruesomely peels it off and hands it over.

The Pandava return from exile, and the stage is set for the great battle. Karna wants to lead the Kaurava army, but is passed over by the elders in favour of Bhishma, and then Drona. Eventually the tortured, unhappy, tragic Karna enters combat as the leader. But it is too late. On the 17th and penultimate day of the battle, lacking his protective armour, and in fulfillment of a curse previously laid on his head, his chariot is stuck in a bog, and he is a sitting duck for Arjuna's arrows. His death is mourned by Krishna, one of the few who knows the true tale of Karna's origins and inheritance. 

As the translators remark in the preface, Indian mythology has very few tragic heroes in the Greek tradition. Karna is one of these few. Like all such heroes, he is great and good, but with a fatal character flaw. In this case the flaw is his love for and loyalty to an evil man - Duryodhana. It may be argued that if Karna had been acknowledged to be the eldest Pandava, the Mahabharata would not have happened. Duryodhana and his brothers would have been neutralized very early on, and neither the gambling, nor Draupadi's disgrace, nor even the exile would have occurred. But that is not what Ved Vyasa wrote. In my opinion, it is not only Karna who has a character flaw. None of the dramatis personae, not even Krishna, come away anything like unblemished. Of them Karna is probably the one who is the most wronged against - by fate, by society, by his parents, and by his brothers.

Sawant writes this version of the Mahabharata in different voices - those of Karna, his brother Shon, his mother Kunti, Duryodhana, his wife Vrishali, and finally, Sri Krishna. Except for some small criticisms of Arjuna and Drona, each of these narratives hews to the exact psychological story line of the original. Thus the tragedy of Karna is presented chiefly as his being brought up in a low-caste family, Duryodhana is evil personified, the Pandava are good and great, Yudhishthira is truth, Krishna is perfection, and so on. The book was written in 1989, but none of the modern ideas of what makes a decent society find any place in it. Casteism, misogynism, racism, false pride, feudalism, male dominance... all are faithfully repeated from an epic that was written millenia ago, in a different society, a different time. Especially casteism. To repeat what I have written above, the central idea of the book, the tragedy of Karna, is that he is brought up in a low-caste family. Note that he does not actually belong to the charioteer caste. The thrust of the tale is that his great skills would not be possible if he had not been a Kshatriya. But since no one knows about his actual origins, all this huge talent is discounted. This is emphasized again and again, even in the many auxiliary episodes that go to make up the whole in the original epic, and which are reproduced here. In the story of Eklavya and Drona for example, or that of Karna and Parashurama. And while this is alright when we read the original, it grates not a small amount when we read it in a book created just a few decades ago.

The writing style is epic and lyrical. The similies and the metaphors are of epic times and places. The main emotion is of valour and stoicism in the face of mysterious and outrageous fate. I do not know how much of this, especially the language, is due to the proclivities of the translators, and how of it comes from Sawant. Sometimes it appears overdone, but mostly it is charming. The effect, perhaps the intended effect, is of writing of great antiquity. On the whole a good book, but one that must be read as if it were a epic written thousands of years ago, not as if it were a modern novel. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Big Sleep. By Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler

Chancellor Press. First published 1939.

Marlowe spends half the novel tracing a blackmailer who's attempting to extract money from General Sternwood, an old, now invalid, oil millionaire, with two wild, spoilt daughters, the stories of whose lives would furnish several blackmailers. He solves that case, only to persist with doggedness born of integrity to his profession as a private detective, to try and uncover the mystery of the missing husband of the elder daughter. A few more bodies, beatings, abductions and wisecracks later he arrives at the gruesome solution.

Like all books that belong to this genre, it pushes a fiercely independent world view that may today be characterized as belonging to the 'Tea Party' of modern day America. Except, of course, it is much more honest and sincere, and always pushes the case of the underdog, the white underdog, generally. His writing is un-apologetically homophobic. It is also misogynist and racist, but not very overtly so. Though these are probably unreasonable complaints, given the times in which he was writing, and given his audience, it is difficult therefore to make the case that Chandler was a left-leaning liberal. (Not that one would want to). He probably hated communists and 'Okies'. 

In an earlier post I had made the case that maybe P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, both having attended the same school (Dulwich College) in London, learnt their witty writing styles there. Here are a couple more examples that prop up that argument.

"'Well, how's the boy?' he began. He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn't owe too much money."

"'Mr. Cobb was my escort,' she said. 'Such a nice escort, Mr. Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record....'"

"I always wear my rubbers in bed myself. In case I wake up with a bad conscience and have to sneak away from it."