The eighties have been many things to many people. To me, in the twin fields of literature and entertainment, these years have been overwhelmingly the decade of the resurgence of myth. In this period, there has been a remarkable outpouring of the human imagination, recreating our mythology in the written word, on the stage and television. After K.M. Munshi’s novels and plays on Vedic, Epic and Puranic India (Lopamudra, Lomaharshini, Bhagawan Parashuram andKrishnavatar), there had been little in post-Independence India to captivate the imagination till Buddhadeb Bose’s probing of the intricacies of the human psyche through a re-interpretation of creation episodes from the epics of Bharata in four Bengali plays and Dharmavir Bharati’s Andhaa Yug. In a different way, Acharya Chatursen and Guru Dutt turned the two epics into gripping tales of high adventure and romance in their Hindi novels. But these remained isolated though brilliant efforts to make our myths meaningful today. In the seventies, Gajendra Kumar Mitra’s Bengali novel Panchajanya was yet another such solitary gem, speaking of Krishna’s secret love for Panchali. Suddenly, in the eighties the literary scene came throbbingly alive with a series of twelve novels in Hindi by Ram Kumar Bhramar, each retelling the Mahabharata through the lips of one of the major protagonists. In Bengali came the spate of novels by Kalkut and Dipak Chandra on bothRamayana and Mahabharata, radically challenging our traditional points of view and seeking to give new meaning to the myths in terms of the present. In Oriya, Pratibha Ray spoke for Draupadi in her novel Yajnaseni; in Marathi it was Shivaji Sawant writing Karna’s autobiography, the massive Mrityunjay; in Kannada the blood, tears, sweat and mire of Kurukshetra was brought frighteningly alive by S.L. Bhyrappa in Parva; in Malayalam P.K. Balakrishnan’s And Now Let Me Sleep wove Draupadi and Karna together while M.T. Vasudevan Nair presented a remarkable exploration of Bhima’s psyche in Second Turn. On the Bengali stage the agony of Draupadi, husband-less though five husbanded, was unforgettably brought home to entranced audiences in Shaoli Mitra’s one-woman performance. And there was, of course, Peter Brook’s gargantuan dramatisation of the epic on the international scene, albeit a flawed tour-de-force. The most pervasive invasion by myth, however, took place through television, where the Indian masses—the elite and the petty bourgeois, the intellectual and the hoi polloi alike—found the epic characters peopling their own homes, with interpretations as widely varied as those of Shyam Benegal, Ramanand Sagar and B.R. Chopra.
To the English-speaking world, however, the realm of Indian myth remained a closed book all this while. Peter Brook’s effort was available to ever so few. There had not been a single attempt in English after K.M. Munshi to re-create the meaning of the epics, to make the great experience living for the modern man, utilising that most powerful of literary forms: the novel. Then in 1987 appeared The Battle of Kurukshetra, the first part of Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s trilogy on theMahabharata. Here, through the lips of a most unusual character, Ashvatthama, the son of Drona cursed by Krishna to live in everlasting agony on earth, with Arjuna as the other speaker, she re-told the epic in a manner that has never been done before.
Maggi Lidchi-Grassi grapples with the existential predicament of the protagonists in the epic holocaust, as they find themselves at the end of the battle. “For a long time I thought it was because I had asked for milk”—that is how the trilogy opens. Never has the core of Ashvatthama’s being been thus held open to view: tortured, bleeding, anguished, struggling to reach at some sense behind all the destruction. She paints an agonisingly gripping picture of a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night, ending the novel with bewildered Arjuna—aghast and dumbfounded at the spectacle of what he is supposed to do—hearing Krishna telling him, “Get up and fight, Arjuna.”
Why has the author given this peculiar name to the sequel, The Legs of the Tortoise? The reader finds the answer provided in so many words—if he has failed to perceive it so far—in Bhishma’s last advice to Yudhishthira two-thirds through the novel: “When desire comes, be as the tortoise...pull in your consciousness…nothing enslaves you more than desire.” This sounds like a paraphrase of theGita’s urging to cut the tree of desire with the sword of non-desire. But Maggi Lidchi-Grassi goes further, much further. Through Bhishma’s mouth she brings to us truth voiced by the Vedic seers: “The desire for peace, for unburdening yourself of your kingly duties. To discard that last desire is to allow yourself to be carried by the sacrificial fire in triumphant offering. In that moment when you cease to strive, desirelessness is complete; you are king.” This is the viryata yajna, the supreme holocaust, the offering by the Aryan, the striver, of all that he is to the Divine Godhead. In the last sentence of Bhishma, the author brings about a superb union of Vedic vision with the inimitable insight-through-parable that characterises Sri Ramakrishna. His is that story of the children and wish-fulfilling tree, the Kalpataru, and the lame child so entranced by the spectacle of the inveterate wishers that he forgets to wish as a profound sense of compassion wells up in him for these creatures caught in the mad wheel of desire. He is the free person, the mukta purusha, the true Lord of himself and thereby of all creation.