It can be safely stated and assumed with confidence that no other story captures the imagination of Indians across caste, class, region, religion and borders like the Mahabharata. The sheer range of books, films, television serials, critiques, essays, poems, theatre adaptations, folk dances and performances based on this epic are a mind-boggling testimony to this. Each version brings with it the claim that it is a fresh re-telling or re-interpretation of the Mahabharata, a claim that is true to a certain extent. Each author/poet/director/singer/dancer brings a perspective to the story that is uniquely his/her own in their narration. And yet, each re-telling retains the essence of the story that is the Mahabharata.
Ashok Banker, the latest writer to come out a re-telling of the Mahabharata, is very clear that his version is not a “religious polemic”, or a “historical document” or “itihasa”. It is just a great story told in his voice, a story that he wanted to narrate all his life.
This is simply the Mahabharata of Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa retold by one man.
That man is me, of course. (p.xix)
The book review
The Forest of Stories (Westland, 2012, pp. 352 + xxii, Rs.295/-) is the first of 18 books in the Mahabharata series of Ashok Banker, who prefers to call it the MBA series ! The book is divided into 9 sections or pakshas, and each paksha is further sub-divided. In addition, there is an introduction to the series/book as well as acknowledgements and some information on the forthcoming two books in the series.
The book begins with the arrival of Ugrasrava Lomarsana (also known as Sauti) at Naimisha-sharanya, a school of learning and meditation for young brahmins, which is located deep within the bowels of the hostile and dense forest, Naimisha-van. Sauti is a renowned kusalavya or wandering bard whose renditions of poems and stories and epics have made him famous all over the land. His arrival sends the ashram residents, students and teachers alike, into a tizzy of hope: that they will be fortunate to hear Sauti narrate the epic poem Jaya.
Their collective hope turns into delighted reality when Sauti agrees to recite not only the original poem written by Vyasa, but narrate it in the form it has grown to over the centuries.
The original poem that he [Vyasa] composed was some 8,800 shlokas. In that form, it was simply known as Jaya… covering the history of the war between the two factions of the Kuru family… However… he himself expanded it to a larger work numbering 24,000 shlokas, which he then named Bharata… the history of the Bharata race… But today… it has burgeoned to the mammoth size of a hundred thousand shlokas… [and] is now known as Maha-bharata. Or the Great History of the Bharatas. (p.17)
So begins Sauti’s recitation of the Mahabharata with the story of creation itself. And then it is a narration of stories within stories, of flashbacks within flashbacks, of dreams within tales, of myths and legends, of sages and snakes, of kings and princes, of devas and asuras… There are stories of Parashurama, Takshaka, Vyasa himself, the churning of the ocean … The book ends with the tale of Dushyant and Shakuntala, the progenitors of the great Bharata race.
This first book in Ashok Banker’s “MBA series” is ambitious indeed, not to mention risky too. A book which just sets the context to the main Mahabharata as most of us know it with no mention whatsoever of the main protagonists, the Kauravas and the Pandavas (except in the synopsis that Sauti narrates at the beginning of his narration). It is a book that seems to be a narration of a series of unconnected events, where the author moves from story to story or rather a story within a story within a story… It would not be incorrect to say that it reads almost like a collection of short stories.
Ideally, in such a scenario a book like this shouldn’t work. And it almost doesn’t. But somehow Ashok Banker manages to pull it off. Not that it is a seamless piece—the constant back and forth and delving into tales within tales does make it a little tiresome and irritating, not to mention dizzying. Banker manages to get the message across that each of these tales are important and have a bearing on the stories to come. He also keeps the narrative simple, and in his own words “as closely to the original [Vyasa’s Sanskrit version] as possible”.
I picked up this book to review because I love the Mahabharata and always find something new in every retelling. But, at the same time, I was also apprehensive that Banker’s MBA series would be something like his Ramayana series which read like a mythological story meets Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars meets Jurassic Park meets Bhojpuri film script ! But, happily and thankfully, no such creative or outrageous liberties have been taken here, at least none that I could discern, except perhaps in keeping the language simple and fresh.
It, however, remains to be seen how the series sustains itself in the years to come. The first book has begun fairly well, and I’m going to wait and
watch read every book in the series. Hopefully.
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