The forest of stories: A review

The background

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writer to come out a re-telling of the Mahabharata, is very clear that his version is not a “religious polemic”, or a “historical document” or “itihasa”.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.

The verdict

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.

♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Programme at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

27 thoughts on “The forest of stories: A review

  1. ‘I picked up this book to review because I love the Mahabharata and I always find something new in every retelling.’

    I love it too and I agree with you about always finding something new with every retelling. However, I am wary of Ashok Banker’s writing but now you have made me entertain the idea of actually reading this!

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  2. I am wary of reading Ashok Banker, too. This time, though, I will browse through a few pages at a bookstore before taking call on buy-and-read , borrow-and- read or don’t read options. Thanks

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  3. Ashok Banker does not go well with my digestive system. However, if you could traverse the entire length of the book and survived to write a review, it is an encouraging sign. The theme and the tales chosen are perennial milch cows and naver fail to arouse the reader, if well presented.

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    1. I actually had to stop laughing before I could reply to your comment, Umashankar. Thank you for that. We are after all the land of cows, and holy cows that too. So if the Mahabharata can be likened to a milch cow, it will be milked for centuries to come. I have only read Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series and hadn’t recovered sufficiently enough to read his Krishna series. But the Mahabharata proved irresistible, even Banker’s. The first book wasn’t great, but i wasn’t bad either. It has piqued my interest enough to want to read the next 2 books in the series. After that, let’s see 🙂

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  4. I was almost getting apprehensive that noone but me had liked this book! I really did enjoy reading the stories in this one. I hope Blogadda is nice enough to provide the next books that are out too 🙂

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    1. My worry with this book was because of Banker’s earlier work that I had read. But thankfully, this one is nothing like the Ramayana Series. And I hope that Blogadda will pick us to review the next books in the series too. 🙂

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  5. Have never read Banker and I doubt, I will. I love the Mahabharata that I read as a kid. Unfortunately, with both the Ramayana and Mahabharata there have been so many interpretations that now, a new one simply annoys me. I think I will stick to the version which propagated the victory of right over wrong and the importance of doing your karma.

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      1. Thanks, Meera. Sometimes we need to read all kinds of books just to appreciate the ones that we already like or know. Banker’s Mahabharata has not begun well, so I’m waiting and watching. But do stay away from his Ramayana 🙂

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  6. Mahabharata is like a never ending ocean always conducive to the churning out of various sub-stories as well as innumerable variants of the same stories. Vernacular writing in India seems to be me to the best in bringing out the different facets of the Mahabharata, with ‘Parva’ by ‘Bhyrappa’, ‘Mrityunjaya’ by ‘Shivaji Samant’, ‘Irandam Idam’ by ‘M.T Vasudevan Nair’ etc.

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    1. Welcome here and thank you for stopping by and commenting. Parva is not just my favourite “Mahabharata” book, it is one of my all time favourite books. I haven’t read the other two books you have mentioned and will definitely try to get a copy of these two books.

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  7. I have had this one recommended by a number of people. With you doing as much as well, it looks like it is surely worth a read. Even I love every re-telling of Mahabharata as it is one epic that never ceases to surprise. There is always something that I don’t know, something to be added. The review is tempting; will pick this one up.

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