Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Mahabharata for Young Readers translated from Bengali by Swapna Dutta (The Book Mine, Hachette India 2015)
I expect my readers are generally familiar with the notion of divine inspiration: God, or a god, breathes life into a mere human’s writing. Sometimes a writer even claims to literally take dictation from a spirit being. The great Indian epic the Mahabharata happened the other way around. It was written down by the elephant god Ganesh, taking four-handed dictation at speed from the more-or-less human Vyasadeva. Ganesh is traditionally shown with one broken tusk because when a nib of one of his pens broke Ganesh snapped off part of a tusk and dipped it in ink to keep up with Vyasa’s stream of words.
Since that mythic event there have been many translations of the Mahabharata, some of them into English. It’s roughly a hundred years since Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury published his Chheleder Mahabharat, a version for Bengali children. Only now has this pint-sized version found its way into English, thanks to the labours of children’s writer and blogger Swapna Dutta. It would be a challenging read for most children in my part of the world – no illustrations and a lot of unfamiliar concepts – but those who rise to the challenge will be well rewarded, as I was by Kingsley’s Heroes.
The book tells of a longlasting feud between two noble families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, which culminates in an epic battle that leaves millions of corpses piled on the ground. Within that framework is an extraordinarily rich compendium of tales – of magic, nobility, craftiness, romance and treachery, of words which, once uttered, bind the speaker in unexpected ways. Some of them are familiar to me from my time editing a children’s magazine. Others are so archetypal that I feel I ought to know them (and am pleased that now I do!). For example, when the five Pandava brothers return home from an adventure where one of them has won the hand of a beautiful woman, the bridegroom-to-be calls out to their mother, ‘Come and see the beautiful thing I have found.’ From inside the house, their mother replies, ‘Make sure you share it with your brothers.’ In the world of the Mahabharata these words are binding, and the brothers must find a way for all five of them to marry her. (They do, with happy results.)
Familiar names inhabit the pages, notably Arjuna,the great warrior, and Krishna, here Arjuna’s charioteer. There are many others, like the women Kunti and Draupadi (the bride of all five Pandavas), who ought to be better known.
Of course, this version is no substitute for the thing itself. Among the incidents considered not suitable for children, for example is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna when the latter has misgivings about going into battle and slaying an awful lot of people. This conversation is passed over in a sentence here:
Krishna’s words were long enough to fill up an entire book that came to be known as the Bhagavad-Gita which you should read for yourself when you are older.
The Bhagavad-Gita is 700 verses long, and according to Wikipedia ‘presents a synthesis of the Brahmanical concept of Dharma, theistic bhakti, the yogic ideals of moksha through jnana, bhakti, karma, and Raja Yoga … and Samkhya philosophy’. And there are other bits where our narrator tells us that someone explained the meaning of life but doesn’t burden us with the content. I imagine that both my relief at not having to read the philosophy right then in the middle of the action, and my curiosity about what Krishna said are exactly what Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury hoped to rouse in his young readers.
Given that the lengthy philosophising is omitted, is there anything for the reader besides superhero murderousness and charming folktales?
Well, yes. There’s a lot here to grab the imagination and engage the moral intelligence, not to mention stirring curiosity about the possible historical events that lie behind the tale. Ii imagine every reader will find something different here. For me, possibly the most moving thing was the way, even though at the surface level there seems to be a massive celebration of violence, there is also a tremendous sense that the warriors are trapped, that many of them are fighting against their will, obliged by codes of honour and obligations of loyalty to fight and kill close relatives, whom they love dearly. The famous World War One episode of the Christmas Truce, where soldiers played and sang together for a day before going back to killing each other, could have come from these pages.
Don’t take my word for it. I was given my copy by Hachette India, but you can buy one for about $20 here.