My reading has been sparse. When I say it I mean one and a half books. But nonetheless the reading has been absolutely pleasurable. For who can hope to get less out of a translation of the Mahabharata, the greatest epic ever written?
The Forest of Stories, by Ashok Banker is part one of the MBA series as he calls it. As far as my background knowledge of the epic goes I know most parts of it that the majority knows. At this point I’m so proud to owe all my knowledge to my grandmother and B.R.Chopra. Together they made knowing the epic one fantastic ride for me. In fact I remember little episodes of my wee nine year old self animatedly giving discourses on Yudhishtra(righteousness personified, literally) and Dharma(righteousness)
Now the book takes us back. It tells us the tale of our nation itself right from the beginning. My gremlin half reminds me of ‘The Lion King 3’ where Timon tells something like, “Oh no Pumba! We’re going way back”. Well, the book is everything but frivolous mind you, far from the distractive picture painted here. So I suggest a calm, interested mind while you decide to sit with it.
I’m yet again tempted to take a diversion from the point. But this one’s far more relevant. So hear me. The Tamil(a regional language in India) version of the title song of B.R.Chopra’s Mahabharata features these beautiful lines,
Oru kadhaikul pala kadhai
Pala Kadhaigallil oru vidai…
It literally translates as,
Many a tale within one
And each tells the same answer…
This has much to do with the context but as a new reader you can expect to be treated with stories galore! And Ashok Banker has done a great job of stringing together the many beads of the tale. The attention to detail, the accurate accounts of characters and the seamless conjoining of the stories with engrossing continuity really stands out. These render the translation that enchanting nature typical of the epic. For a sceptic of translations this one came as an exceptionally commendable one.
The narration has that surreal quality which initially creates a hollow and then pulls the reader into its depths. The book starts its magnificent sojourn at the mysterious ‘Naimisha-van’ a thick, majorly uninhabited forest and the focus zooms into the veiled ‘Ashram’, an ancient centre for learning. The beginning teases one’s curiosity to the limit and like a coaster fall delivers an exhilarating experience.
This volume revolves around the various events that eventually lead to the illustrious climax. The tension slowly builds on the periphery while at the centre of the stage are introduced powerful characters like the axe wielding great sage, Parashurama, the king of snakes, the ancestors and descendants of the heroes of the Mahabharata war. Their stories are less heard of but extremely engrossing to read. It’s more of a live streaming of history right inside your mind’s eye.
This little excerpt could well give you a good glimpse at what lies within this fast and fervid translation:
He had walked unstintingly for days, stopping neither for food nor rest. Accustomed though he was to a rigorous pace, a life spent on the open road, the forest unnerved him. There were tales told of Naimisha-van. Rumours of strange inhabitants who resided within its shadowy depths. Not all were human, it was said. Not all were benign. There were tales of horror, wretched stories of hapless travellers who had spent the night within the vaulting embrace of these formidable boles, and had never been seen or heard from again.
It’s one of those ‘un-put-down-able’ books and a must read for all, be it those who are acquainted with the tales or not. It’ll certainly leave you wanting for more, like me waiting to read the next installments. That’s the promise the writer offers.
Last year I picked up a typical yellow, dog-eared copy of the book ‘Vintage Stuff’ by Tom Sharpe. Somehow I never got to it until now and regret having done that. It’s more of a companion to me right now. I turn to it at intervals, when I’m away from my desk and have a good time. It’s everything funny, original and funny! I’ll be back to say more but for now, it’s my comrade that I’ll hold on to until work gets a little less taxing.