Chindu Sreedharan’s book Epic Retold flouts the traditional expectations of an epic. His hero, here the protagonist and narrator, is not of superhuman stature; there are no supernatural beings like gods or demons; and the narrative style is not ornate and distanced from common speech. In fact, this is an epic for a new age and is meant for a readership that the author describes as the “hungry, impatient children of Twitter”. This book is a collation of several thousand tweets, 140 words at a time, the author tweeted over four years on the digital medium.
For traditional readers of books, this book comes with an element of surprise—the visual shift from twitter to elemental pages. The pages are divided into thin horizontal lines depicting the end of a tweet and the beginning of another. But the lines don’t intrude into the storytelling as each tweet lucidly flows into the other. The book is one of its kind because it muddles a traditional reader’s expectations of how the page of a novel should look like. It has been called the country’s first twitter fiction and its replication in the form of a book makes for a fascinating study.
Vyasa’s Mahabharata has through ages conquered its anxiety of being the Original. It is a “tradition” (Ramanujan) that has accepted interpretations, perspectives and alterations thereby multiplying into several Mahabharatas. In fact, it is not Vyasa’s Mahabharata but M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s retelling Randamoozham (Bhima Lone Warrior) and Prem Panikar’s Bhimsen that have mainly influenced Chindu Sreedharan’s adaptation of the epic. Like Vasudevan, Sreedharan in this book makes an attempt to lend a voice to the silences in The Mahabharata. In an essay entitled ‘Repetition in the Mahābhārata’, A.K. Ramanujan compares the form of the epic to the properties of crystal growth, where many crystals grow out of imperfection. There are certain problematic areas, silences or points in the epic that give rise to adaptations. Epic Retold is a retelling that is a response to these “inherent stress points” (Lutgendorf) and silences. Being an academic who specialises in the study of war narratives, Sreedharan treats The Mahabharata as a war story. He presents a strong anti-war message; in fact the protagonist – Bhima – is himself a reluctant warrior. The story begins and ends on the note of disillusionment, from ‘The Palace’ to the ‘Palace of Tears’. The silences that are given voice to take the form of marginalised characters.
There is no omniscient narrator to distance the story from the readers/blog-followers. It is Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers, who narrates the story and its characters in first-person through a sensitive and observant eye. In his scope of storytelling, it is the subaltern who gets to play important roles. It is therefore the forester, the tribal, and the woman, who represent more strength than the others. At one point in the book, Bhima muses on the strength of women like Hidimbi and Balandhara to love unconditionally without the expecting anything in return. The tribals like the Nagas are skilled hunters. It is not the gods but foresters like Mayan who possess ample knowledge of weaponry and architecture. Knowledge is not restricted to the realm of the shastras and the gurus but also found in the forests with experience. Visoka, a charioteer, is as important a character as Krishna. Foresters like Kirmeeran and Ghatotkacha are of comparable strength to that of the trained princes. Though the male characters seem better developed than the female characters, the book brings a lot of the marginal characters of the epic to the centre while relegating the more traditionally important characters to the margins.
The narrative is devoid of a deus ex machine i.e., gods and demons or any supernatural element. It is, as the author remarks in his note, “a character-driven story” that refuses to drift from realism. Hence, Bhima’s wife Hidimbi is not a demoness but a tribal girl. Bhima’s encounter with hanuman is reduced to his meeting a langur drunk on local liqour. Krishna too is not a divine figure in this book and is given little space in the narrative. He is not Draupadi’s saviour in the cheer haran scene nor is he shown to be of help to Bhima in the killing of Jarasandha and later Duryodhana. None of the Pandavas in this retelling are fathered by gods, but by men least expected. God and demon are de-glorified just as are the central characters, the war, and the weapons. Drishtadyumna, Draupadi’s brother, tells Bhima how “War is ugly”, and that “The righteous war” he seeks “exists only in Yudhistira’s mind”. Krishna scoffs at Visoka, when the latter talks of Karna’s magical weapon, saying how “Any advanced weapon is indistinguishable from magic to many!”
As a counter to war, love makes its presence felt throughout the book through the relationship that Bhima shares with his wife Hidimbi. No war or love ever satisfies Bhima for it is always the thought of Hidimbi that haunts him. The realisation of having left her alone, pregnant with his child, at the command of his mother never deserts Bhima. The Pandavas are as fallible as the other characters in the book. There is an intensely personal note to the narrative. Bhima speaks of war and love to the new-age reader, who has meagre patience with long narratives seemingly distanced from postmodern realities.
Epic Retold provides the quickest way to read the Mahabharata, but with a twist. It makes for an interesting experiment in storytelling because it is told by an author who is not a recluse, copiously pondering in his ivory tower away from the crowds, but someone who writes with the readers.
Lutgendorf, Philip. 1991. The Life of a Text: Performing the Rāmcaritmānas of Tulsidas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nair, M.T. Vasudevan. 2013. Bhima Lone Warrior. New Delhi: Harper Collins.
Panikar, Prem. 2009. Bhimsen. http://www.goodreads.com/ebooks/download/2757012-randamoozham.
Ramanujan, A. K. 2004.‘Repetition in the Mahābhārata’, in Vinay Dharwadker and Stuart H. Blackburn (eds) The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Sreedharan, Chindu. 2015. Epic Retold: #Mahabharata #TwitterFiction #Bhima #140Characters. New Delhi: Harper Collins.