The Forest of Stories : Mahabharata Series Book One
Ashok K. Banker
There is both peril and pleasure involved in retelling an epic tale like the Mahabharata to an Indian audience. We all think we know it intimately, we each have our favourite scenes, characters and interpretations and, despite being bombarded ad nauseam by countless print, soap opera and animated versions of the story over the last fifty years – not to mention our fading memories of Dadima’s moral stories- we still find place for a new one. Despite Banker’s modest disclaimers of commercial success in the writing of this series, I suspect he expects exactly the opposite – this is a story whose allure has not dimmed with age, and legions of readers will, no doubt, plough painstakingly through the eight books of this series, just to relive its very familiar wonders and horrors. Bollywood might come calling too, given Amish Tripathi's recent exchanges with that chronicler of all things familial, Karan Johar. Then again, we aren’t very receptive of experimentation either, are we, preferring stories that fuel our nostalgia rather than challenging our beliefs, or even suggesting our heroes (real and mythical) might be less than perfect.
Banker decides to steer clear of controversy with his new Mahabharata series. In his preface to ‘ The Forest of Stories’, he takes pains to assure his readers he isn’t here to ruffle feathers, or reinvent wheels, but merely translate the Sanskrit original as faithfully as he can. Where’s the fun in that, you might ask. In his own contemporary voice, says Banker, before making some allusions to the book being his MBA, briefly flirting with Shobhaa De lingo (“khichdi –pulao curd-rice mélange”..) then sternly shooing away any fantasy junkies and speculative fiction readers who might have unwisely strayed into this most holy of Indian literary terrain.
If you aren't of that irksome ilk, Banker’s ‘Forest..’ will not disappoint. His translation is well written, competently edited and, based on what I could gather from my own miniscule research, very close to the original. It is also pretty much a Vyasa 101 of sorts , introducing us to the mind of a man whose work continues to inspire and influence writers, management gurus, and military honchos around the world. We meet him indirectly, of course - this book is voiced by the venerable bard Sauti , our narrator over the next seven books of the series. It is through him that we understand Vyasa’s position on ethical and socio-political issues (as also a certain penchant for “slender-waisted” wenches) and witness the slow unraveling of the Mahabharata’s intricate narrative structure - a mind boggling cast of thousands, each with their own backstory, motivations and particular curses, all of them indispensable to the great things to come. Sauti’s story weaves back and forth, sometimes offering sneak peeks into the meatier bits of the tale, sometimes lingering on anecdotes about the fickleness of human nature , occasionally jumping back aeons to delve even deeper into backstory. And, in a couple of memorable scenes, dwelling with great relish on scenes of carnage that recall nothing less than ‘Kill Bill’ (arguably a mini-Mahabharata in its own right, and probably Tarantino’s MBA too). Given the detachment and formal prose with which Sauti narrates the stories of characters like Kadru, Jaratkaru and Shakuntala), the blow by blow accounts of Parashurama’s bloody rampage took me utterly by surprise. Sauti, till that point, sounds like a rather sanctimonious and humourless dude ; Parashurama’s tale transforms him into an eager eyed kid – you can almost picture him leaping around before his awestruck audience in a darkening forest clearing, waving an imaginary sword and hacking away at invisible opponents as he plays out the story for them.
You could read this book cover to cover, as a straightforward story, or dip into it at a random page, to discover a forgotten creation myth or cautionary tale from long ago. And for those undaunted by the sheer size of its cast, the occasional tedium of its narrative , the misfortunes of its many female characters (hardly Banker’s fault, of course), the absolute lack of any reinterpretation or invention, or the number of notches the author could potentially crank his inner Tarantino to once the Great War dawns - ‘Forest..’ is a promising first act to the books that will follow.