This is a true story. When I was a child,I insisted on reading the Mahabharat. Given that my grandmother had been delighted at the same request being made for the Ramayan,which I had just finished with,I thought it would be a snip. Turned out to be a battle of epic proportions. Turned out that no respectable household,especially one that housed a joint family under one roof,kept a copy of Ved Vyasa’s classic,because if you did,the belief went,ghar mein Mahabharat chhid jayegi. A compromise was struck. A copy would be bought,or borrowed,I now forget which,and as soon as I was done,the potha would be returned from whence it came.
The heavy tome was duly brought in. I remember starting to read. And I remember forgetting. Time. Food. Friends. Everything. Because the Mahabharat was the story of Everything. Of creation and death. Of gods and goddesses. Of valour and bravery. Of cowardice and jealousy. Of love and betrayal. Of beginnings and endings. I was entranced. I still am. Only much later,I realised what a journey that reading was,and young as I was,how much of an impact it had on me. Not just as a timeless tale,but as the receptacle of all values and wisdom.
The feeling of getting lost,of getting mesmerised,is part of the delight of Peter Brook’s version of The Mahabharat,which toured the world for several years,starting 1985. It was a nine hour-play which was reduced to six hours for TV,and then further to about three hours. The one I’ve just watched is a double-disc Hindi dub of just under six hours. And,after all those years,I was equally enthralled. After,of course,Id got over the lip-synch problem (even if the quality of the dub is excellent,the lip and the lines are invariably at variance),and after the disconnect I felt,all over again,watching a Black Bhishma,an Oriental Drona,and a clutch of Occidentals as the Kauravs and Pandavs.
However much you know that the Mahabharat is universal,to see the beloved,familiar characters being played by non-Indians was always going to be a shock. But once past all that,I was drawn,like before,into the sparse,stunning world of these characters,who wore plain,muted,earth-coloured flowing garments,used hand-hewn metal and jewels that appeared to belong to that era,to create an effect that was rich and gorgeous and utterly right. As opposed to the garish,hideous travesty that was BR Chopra’s Mahabharat.
This time around,I was struck by the story being not so much about faraway celestial beings,even though it featured demons and apsaras,but about flawed humans and how they have to struggle to keep going in the face of inimical niyati or fate. To be human is both hard and tough,but even the all-knowing gods do not always have a great time. Because life is an unending river,with joy and grief waiting on either shore.
The story of Karna,the Brahmin putra who had to put a brave face on being a low born sarthis son,is one of the most interesting strands of the epic,and is done with great power. Each character,from the wily Krishna,to the weak Yudddhistir,to the conflicted Arjun (and the terrific Gita pravachan on the battleground of Kurukshetra) ,to the beautiful Draupadi (Mallika Sarabhai,the only recognizable Indian face amongst the cast) is well chosen,and well enacted.
Be warned,though,some of the lines may sound archaic. A face-off between princes is pratispardha,and a warrior is described as alokik shastra ke gyaata bhi hain (he is well versed in celestial weapons too). But the English subs are terrible. I caught devide for divide,and jelouse for jealous. Stick to the Hindi. After a while,you will get swept up by the musicality and beauty of the language. And the sheer majesty of the Mahabharat.