Arjuna – Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince

Anuja Chandramouli

Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd

ISBN 978-9381576-39-7

Arjuna – Saga of the Pandava Warrior Prince’ is the debut novel from Anuja Chandramouli. Out of her deep love for the epic of Mahabharata, Anuja decided to pay her homage to this epic by retelling it with a modern panache. ‘Janmajaya’, son of ‘Parikshit’, who is the son of ‘Abhimanyu’, who in turn is the son of ‘Arjuna’, listens with rapt attention as 'Ved Vyasa' commissions his disciple, Vaishampayana, to narrate to Janmajaya the epic poetry that is Mahabharata. The story, or stories focus on events around Arjuna and his Pandava brothers and what events transpired throughout their lives, their struggles, victories and defeats.

The author narrates briefly how the royal Kuru family was besieged by trouble and how the lords of Hastinapur tried to outmaneuver fate. The story belongs to the time when the age of ‘Dvapara’ was drawing to its close and evil had to be vanquished for once, and start the cycle again. It was the time when Gods walked among men, when the incarnation of Vishnu, walked the earth as Krishna. It is not surprising that this epic tale has been held in high regard not just among the people belonging to this faith, but also by academicians from across the world.

Recycling Indian mythology seems to be the furore among many Indian debutants. With many Indian authors spinning tales around our mythology and presenting them with their own tint, this one could easily be taken as one of those attempts on the first look, especially with what is written at the back of the book cover. But this book is different. Instead of presenting a view that has been morphed by the author into an imaginary tale taking cues from the mythology, Anuja presents the mythology in its right context. The author makes no attempt to fill in the perceived gaps by drawing conjectures. This is what makes this book stand apart from the modern novels, but I am afraid, also makes it the old story retold.

The storyline tends to remain fairly chronological from the events that transpired in the Kuru kingdom as a preface to what conditions the Pandava brothers were born into. But it does jump back and forth precluding many stories of other characters, other than Arjuna and Mahabharata. Personally, I knew most of these stories, without having read Mahabharata. I owe this knowledge to many sources, Ramanand Sagar’s 'Shri Krishna' being one. I haven’t seen much of Mahabharata (TV serial) either because it wasn’t aired on Doordarshan when I was a kid. My school text books were another source of these stories. I remember that I read the story of Guru Dronacharya getting the ball out of the well for the young Pandava princes with mere grass blades was an opening chapter into my English textbook in some class (ICSE). The story of Eklavya was in a Hindi textbook. There are possibly two major stories that I was not aware of: of Arjuna’s death at the hands of his own son, Babhruvahana, and his encounter with Hanuman where his braggadocio nearly cost him his life. I know the story of Hanuman teaching Bheema a lesson, but not this one. I guess that was a childhood spent well for me? This book was a reminder of sorts, of the values that our heritage upholds as righteous.

But what made this novel different from the television serials was the portrayal of these sons of Gods. They have been thoroughly treated as humans; mortals, susceptible to the vices of this carnal shell. Arjuna was perpetually too haughty in his demeanor. Bheem too has been shown as a braggart and even though he was the most powerful man at that time in terms of brawn and muscle, Duryodhan bested him in the sport of maces through sheer skill and perseverance. Yudhishthira abided by his Dharma, but had a fatal flaw of gambling. This flaw was so innate in him that he lost not just a kingdom and also led to his wife Draupadi being profaned midst a courtroom once, but could have very well lost it again had Bheem not played foul. His swaying from his ‘dharma’ in the battlefield which led to Guru Dronacharya laying down arms and of him losing temper are proof that even Yudhishthira was not beyond reproach. These men, though aware of their divinity made no effort to live up to it which is a very normal thing to do. Nakul and Sahdeva haven’t been given much limelight here.

This book also highlighted a few points that sparked off many debates in my head. The first off the line was the introduction of moral laws and the concept of infidelity being introduced by Svetaketu. Anuja highlights that before him, humans cohabited like animals and anyone could sleep with anyone if the two consented. This was changed by a man who felt that it was wrong for a man to request his father to allow him to sleep with his mother and the father merely said that it was contingent upon his mother consent. It is hard to believe, but given that we have actually evolved from animals to societies, to civilized animals, it shouldn’t be too hard to digest. Still, the acceptance of this thought also triggers a mental battle between two contrasting ideas, one that we’ve been brought up with and the other, of what we’ve evolved through. Right now, to think of such an act is heinous for me. But let us dwell in it for a moment, not the consequences, but a few simple inferences. First, the concept of God came first, then came the concepts of morality. Svetaketu is attributed with the creation of the Upanishads, and his journey from darkness to light. So, is this it? If God came before and he did not lay down rules of morality, and possibly, no one outside human race obeys them as is evident from the story of Urvashi and Arjuna in Indralok (where Arjuna was cursed by Urvashi to be an eunuch), then who was Svetaketu to make such laws? By what right? Is his the journey from darkness to light or is it the other way round. We feel violated right now because such has been the status quo for a very long time and people trying to violate it have met tragic ends by being branded as heretics, or malaise to society. Incidentally, I haven’t known such things happening in the animal kingdom either, never heard it in monkeys, in cat family or canines. So who gave this sense of morality to them? Apparently it is in our genes to not have such urges and it is right for us to feel offended. Second, if it was fair for Svetaketu to define such moral laws, why did he bind just the women to one man, while no such restrictions were levied on men? Did he perceive women to be too strong a force that needed to be suppressed (which actually is) or was he just jealous? It would be wrong on my part to condemn him of any such acts without having read about him outside what the author has told, so these arguments must be taken in context with the information presented in the book alone.

Second, when does an incarnation of God promote foul play? We see Krishna telling Arjuna that Bheema could not win if he were to play within limits of fair play. This isn’t the only instance where the noble souls have used rather unfair means to achieve their ends. Krishna had abducted Rukmini (she wanted escape from her stubborn brothers, but that is a separate issue because we are talking about means), and Arjuna had abducted Subhadra in a similar fashion. When Balrama had chased him, Krishna had pacified Balrama by saying that "A heroic Kshatriya will not wait for his bride to be handed over to him like a dole of alms, nor will he place his faith in the uncertain outcome of a swayamvara". Now, Ravana also did the same thing in treta yug, and same could be said for Jayadratha too, though it is unwise to say the two names in the same breath because the reasons were distinctly different in the two cases. But the point is, when did something which is wrong morally became right when divinity did it? This reminds me of a discussion I had with one of my friend about the difference between morals and ethics. What is morally wrong, might be ethically right at that point of time, this was what we had concluded. As the maxim goes, ‘everything is fair in love and war’, but love and war could easily encompass every possible case.

Because I was inclined to thinking a lot when I read this book, I got a lot of fodder for my thoughts. But I am afraid the case would not be so had it been a leisurely read. The author doesn’t serve the inquisitive well. The stories are rather insipid in detail. The grammar is tiring, with injudicious and overzealous use of adjectives. Not just that, in a bid to do something better than what Indian authors have done when dealing with English language, Anuja has tried to rise above the common man’s English. Indian fiction writers do not have a very good image on the international scene and I think Anuja tried to debunk this oft stated sentence. For me, what doesn’t sing doesn’t work. Her language, unfortunately, was not able to thrum my strings into a song. It was extremely tiring, even 'The Tale of Two Cities' was more benign. I even suggested one of my friends who was about to appear for GRE to use this book as his punching bag for wordlist revision, as it literally contained all those words. For instance, why use a ‘Diademed One’ or ‘Diadem fell’ everywhere and refuse to use the easier, colloquial word ‘crown’? I could notice only one or two places where the word ‘crown’ was used. Even though the author tried to use as many synonyms, she did fall into the trap of patterns. One heavily used allegory was ‘ululating like women’. Frankly, I didn’t even know what ululating was (which should be enough to make a conclusion that my vocabulary is mediocre at best), but I did look for it and found that it wasn’t even apt in most places. It looks like the author has written a book of commons for the elite, like writing Ramcharitamanas in Sanskrit for the Brahmin scholars who looked at Awadhi as a deplorable and filthy language not fit for their higher intellect. She created a tragedy out of comedy.

The ending of the book is sudden and abrupt, totally detached from what it began with. Janmajaya was being recited a story, and he was listening with rapt attention because he wanted to know more about his ancestors, especially Arjuna. But Anuja the severed the story with Arjuna’s fall into the chasm. What happened to the story, to the listener, to the reader? It wasn’t fair.

My suggestions? Read the Mahabharata if you have to, not only will you know what Indians are capable of, which the entire world acknowledges, but you’ll also know that Indians were pretty cozied up with the concept of inception at much deeper levels, before it was mainstream.