Through Arjuna's eyes we find a unique summing-up of the epic: 'I looked towards the river. Between the longed-for seas of Dwarka and the mountains of the north where Shiva as a hunter came to me, there stretched a plain that was the warp and woof of life. Here were the poisonings, the Palace of Delight, the dice game and the insults, the exile and the embassies, theakshauhinis and the field of battle. What happened there when I had loosed my arrows here to kill? Our arrows aim at unknown targets. Our lives themselves are arrows shot from the unseen into itself.'
These insights come to Arjuna in Vyasa's ashram, after the war. And here the author offers us yet another gem of insight: why did the seer arrange the vast whole of the Veda into four parts? For he foresaw the shrinkage of the mind which would only comprehend through division, through analysis, not through an integral apprehension of the gestalt. She has Vyasa say, 'I sort out the Vedas so they can sort out men'They will guard the knowledge until a Wisdom such as we have never dreamt sets them to rest forever. Until then they will be the raft that will carry us across the darkness of a Yuga.' It is with the death of Bhishma that the weight of the ancient dharma slips from the earth and it renews itself. In a remarkable scene where, after the war, Arjuna and Krishna mingle with the commoners, Maggi Lidchi-Grassi provides the woman's eye-view of Bhishma's static role: 'They say he saw it coming. But he was not the father. He had to sit there like a eunuch on account of having given up his throne'The only people who had any sense had given up their power or were Sutas like Sanjay and Vidura.' She has Bhishma admit his error on his deathbed: that despite being the guardian of the monarchy and the true heir he failed to rule and allowed Kurukshetra to take place: 'If you refuse to rule because of false compassion and remorse,' he tells the eldest Pandava, 'there will be other Kurukshetras.' The only dharma of a king, he declares, is to rule: 'He cannot sacrifice it to please his father or his Guru or his son, or anything or anyone.' It is precisely this dharma, the supreme calling, which Devavrata Gangadatta Bhishma abjured in favour of a personal oath and in that decision lies his grand tragedy, his hubris and his hamartia.
Vignettes of unexpected beauty surprise us with joy: Arjuna telling the sorrowing Uttara stories of her brother and Brihannala routing the Kuru invaders of the Virata kingdom (a clear prefiguring of the great war to follow, with Arjuna-Krishna forcing the fleeing Uttara-Arjuna to face the foes); Arjuna and Krishna mixing incognito with the commoners after the war; Krishna reviving the still-born Parikshit; Yudhishthira, in a unique moment, revealing his love for Arjuna; Krishna explaining Kunti's silence about Karna. The exploration, albeit cryptic, of the psychology of Pritha, given away by her father, bereft of her very name to be known only as Kunti and placed at the service of eccentric Durvasa in her adolescence, is one of the many scintillating gems of insight whose sparkle entrances the reader throughout the corpus of the novel.
However, whatever else the novel might be, it is above all the story of Arjuna, his autobiography. It is in Arjuna that we see the author at her very best. She gives the hero a new name: the Wanderer, who needs must savour the sense of being alive as if living on the razor's edge. It is in his post-war wanderings to Indraprastha and the conquered lands for the Ashvamedha that the apotheosis of the book is reached. For, these journeys become a survey of his whole life as he re-visits all the kingdoms he had been to before the war and sees the sea-change wrought in the years gone by. But even more than this, it is a record of the inner journey of which the Ashvamedha is a symbol. It is Arjuna's exploration of the depths of his own self till he is able to meet, fight and conquer his own ego, break the 'inner Gandiva' of his own conceit. Appropriately, the author has placed this at the very end of the book, after Arjuna, in the full flight of his soaring pride, has been knocked unconscious by his son Babhruvahana.
Babhruvahana is the immediate cause. But it is the sacrificial horse, whom the author names Kalidasa, that takes Arjuna through this journey, culminating in his own sacrifice as the Aryan striver offering himself in the flame of aspiration in response to the horse's question, 'You have conquered the nations but what of yourself?'
What delights one is Maggi Lidchi-Grassi's vision merging the Vedic epiphany into this re-creation of the epic. For, indeed, Mahabharata is said to be the fifth Veda. Chapter 28 echoes and re-echoes with superb recreation of Vedic chants as the five brothers sing with Vyasa towards a sense of reconciliation with what lies before them to be taken up after the holocaust. It reappears in the elaborate description of Yudhishthira's consecration, in the unique Ashvamedha the author conjures up. For no armies follow the steed. Lone Arjuna accompanies Kalidasa.
One only wishes that in the evocation of the meeting of Chitrangada and Arjuna after more than a decade the author had absorbed the unforgettable Chitra of Tagore and that in the picturisation of the Karna-Krishna meetings she had at the back of her mind the marvellous insights of Buddhadeb Bose's Pratham Partha.
The novel opens with a recreation of the Gita and it is this opening that is the weakest part of the brilliantly written book. It simply does not grip. But, then, this has not even been attempted by anyone since the Gita was authored!
The novel is so full of memorable passages that one can scarcely stop quoting. Out of them what remain engraved in one's memory are certain images she uses. The Pandavas walking towards Bhishma are thus described: 'We walked towards our childhood.' Again, for Duryodhana, 'peace was a knife searching his entrails.' Vidura is 'the lamp that cut through every wind.' Knowledge of the mystic nature of the Sacrifice is 'like the fabric that Duhshasana tried to pull from Draupadi'It kept unwinding with new colours long after you thought it must come to an end.'
The Legs of the Tortoise is a major work. It is a book to come back to for drinking at the reviving fountain of new insights into our half-forgotten mythic heritage. It was Joseph Campbell who, in the last series of TV talks he gave before his death, pointed out that with the hiatus created by science between mythological symbols and modern society, 'there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime...Violence, murder and despair'It is the myths that offer the most solid supports of the moral order, of the cohesiveness and creativity of civilisations. And it is in the phenomenon of the spate of creative literature concentrating on our epics that I see the hope for our society in the twenty-first century.' In that stream of creativity, Maggi Lidchi-Grassi's work shines like a gem of purest ray serene. We eagerly await her promised third volume.