If you have read Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr’s virtuoso and polyphonic retelling of the Mahabharata, it is hard to believe that for nearly two decades, between the ages of 13 and 34, she wrote no poetry at all. “I wrote a lot of bad poetry when I was about 11. Then, I had a flash of realisation about how awful it was. Thankfully, we lived in Shillong at the time and there was a fireplace there, where I burned all of it,” the 42-year-old says with a laugh. With her father in the army, Naïr’s was a peripatetic childhood, marked by a series of hospitalisations and surgeries, due to a genetic condition called epidermolysis bullosa (EB). “I was sick very often, and stayed at home a lot when I was growing up. That’s how I picked up the reading habit, because my parents would buy me lots of books to keep me company.”
Around the age of 16, when she had a feeding tube attached to her stomach, Naïr couldn’t attend college and began to pursue a degree in sociology through the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). By that time, her father had taken voluntary requirement to come back to Kerala. Naïr says, “My parents realised that the long-distance course wouldn’t be enough, and that I would get depressed, so they enrolled me in a course at the Alliance Francaise in Trivandrum.” Around the same time, she also began contributing articles to newspapers.
It was learning French, however, that gave her life a new direction. She says, “The then director wanted to give Alliance Francaise in Trivandrum an image makeover. It was never going to be as big as the branches in Mumbai and Delhi, so he began positioning it as a vibrant cultural centre. Many French artistes came and performed with Kerala artistes. I began working with Alliance as a press attache, until my role grew to where I was handling all the line production.” The writing took a backseat, as Naïr got busy figuring out the turn that her life had taken. “I was sent on a ministry of culture scholarship to France for a short refresher course and it was there that I encountered the idea of arts management as a discipline,” she says. She returned to France to study arts management and settled down there to a career as dance producer/curator, which saw her work with leading lights such as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet. She also served as principal scriptwriter for the Akram Khan production, DESH.
In all the years that she was living in France, Naïr craved the multiplicity of language one finds in India. That’s when she found her way back to poetry. “It was initially just a way for me to have a conversation with myself,” she says. Once rediscovered, poetry soon grew from a source of comfort to a creative exercise which resulted in Bearings, her first book of poetry, published in 2009. She also published a children’s book called The Honey Hunter in 2013.
Naïr was prompted to consider reimagining the Mahabharata when she read a bad fictional retelling of the epic; what especially irritated her was the use of an omniscient narrator. One of the great qualities of the epic, she says, is that its large cast of characters offers space for numerous points of view. As a reader, she may have been dissatisfied but the poet in her began to wonder whether she couldn’t do a better job.
What galvanised her into action was reading Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra, where the late poet retold the opening story of the Mahabharata — the snake sacrifice conducted by Janamejaya — through the perspective of a minor character, Jaratkuru, the sister of the Naga king Takshaka. “Jaratkuru is not a very important character, she appears after the main action of the Mahabharata is over. Using her the way he did, Kolatkar really upended my notions of chronology,” she says. She was also intrigued by the possibilities of using similar minor characters to add new perspectives to the Mahabharata.
Naïr began working on Until the Lions around April 2010 when she discussed with her publisher VK Karthika (at Harper Collins) about the possibility of retelling the Mahabharata using 18 different voices. “I had an initial list of about 30-33 characters, including Jaratkuru. I thought it would be a great tribute to Kolatkar to include her in the book, but I ended up having to drop her from the final list of 18 names since she didn’t fit into the cartography of the book,” she says.
In the first two years of the project, she read widely and voraciously — as well as watched several movies and performances. The list of references at the end of the book — ranging from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata and Gulzar’s lyrics to Malayalam novelist MT Vasudevan Naïr’s Randamoozham and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Violin Fase — is indicative of how deeply Naïr immersed herself in her work. “My family and friends were very supportive during this period and they helped immensely by sending me books, articles, movies. My parents even read out PK Balakrishnan’s Ini Njan Urangatte (a retelling of Karna’s story as seen through Draupadi’s eyes) in the original Malayalam over Skype,” she recalls.
Using a variety of poetic forms — the Provençal sestina or canzone, the Malay pantoum, the Pashtun landay, the Spanish glosa, the Japanese haibun — Until the Lions narrates the Mahabharata through the eyes of characters who are so marginalised that sometimes we don’t even hear their names. One of the 18 voices, for instance, belongs to Draupadi’s unnamed mother, who laments the loss of her family to hate. Another is the handmaiden who sleeps with Vyaasa in place of Ambika, when the latter is too frightened to do so, and who gives birth to Vidura. Naïr has named her Poorna, and fleshed her out so completely that it’s hard to believe that she doesn’t play a larger part in the original narrative of the epic.
In writing the book, Naïr took on the task, as she puts it, of “passing the mic to the people whose voices we don’t hear”. Hence, in the section ‘Bedtime Story for a Dasi’s Son’, the maid Sauvali, mother of Dhritarashtra’s son Yuyutsu, says to her child, “When the king decides to rape me or my kind, no one will use the word rape. The word does not exist in the king’s world. This body is just another province he owns, from navel to nipple to eyelid, insole to clitoris.” The purpose of the book becomes clear from the epigraph which quotes an African proverb: Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
While she was forced to drop her plans for an overt tribute to Kolatkar, the Mumbai modernist’s influence can be seen in another way: the only fictional character in Until the Lions is the dog Shunaka who, given her worldly-wise and cynical manner, could be considered the literary descendant of Ugh, the debonair canine narrator of the opening poem in Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems.
In another way too, Naïr manages to make Kolatkar’s influence manifest. Mythology, which is used as a weapon by right-wing extremists, was used by the late poet in Sarpa Satra to point to the absurdity of cycles of vengeance and hatred. Naïr’s Until the Lions works just as powerfully. With the widening gulf between the powerful and the powerless, Naïr says, “Merely giving a voice to the voiceless itself becomes a political act.”