Retelling the Mahabharata

Series 3 No. 13 - Transplants

In retelling a classic text for a 21st century audience – and one which may be totally unfamiliar with the work – there are several choices and decisions to be made.

(with an extract from the poem)

The Mahabharata, one of the two great epic poems of India, was composed, in Sanskrit, about 2000 years ago. Because of its length – the only existing full English translation is nearly 5000 pages long – its transmission has always involved selection and abbreviation. Aspects of it exist as dance, drama, TV serials, comic books, as well as numerous printed versions. Stories from it are told to every Hindu child, and in every Indian language. Its religious, political, moral and philosophical teachings sit at the heart of the Hindu world view. So, although there is a generally accepted Sanskrit Critical Edition, in terms of the cultural existence of the epic it makes sense to talk not of one Mahabharata, an ur-text, but of a Mahabharata tradition. This fact is heartening to one embarking on a new version. 

I am working on a verse retelling of the piece that will be around 700 pages in length, closely based on existing scholarly translations. How can the fascination of a text from such a remote time and place be conveyed to a contemporary reader? In retelling a classic text for a 21st century audience – and one which may be totally unfamiliar with the work – there are several choices and decisions to be made.

First, what is the best form for it? Most existing English versions of the epic are in prose. But, because the original is a poem, albeit one written in relatively plain language, I want to render it as an English poem. The sloka form, in which the original is largely written, was a flexible and widely used form. For my version, I have chosen an iambic pentameter template, often amounting to blank verse, seeing that as occupying something of the same place in the English literary tradition as the sloka form did in ancient Sanskrit. It is a line particularly well suited to narrative, reflecting as it does the rhythms of English speech.

Like the Homeric epics, the Mahabharata would originally have been orally transmitted, by bards. Furthermore, the whole piece consists of stories or teachings told by one character to another. Although my version has to work on the page, I am writing it in a story-telling ‘voice’, or register, which lends itself to reading aloud, or even to enactment as drama. The language is not elevated, not ‘poetic’ on the whole, though I make use of the poetic resources of alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, as well as metre. It is certainly not difficult to understand (though a list of characters will be necessary, to enable the reader to keep track of who is who). In these respects, my translation resembles the original. 

Part of what is engaging about this epic is that the characters, and the situations and dilemmas they find themselves in, are recognisable in any age. Of course, retelling involves re-imagining and, inevitably, through a 21st century lens. I have struggled with the question of how far to give myself licence to do that. I feel that it is essential to honour the original text, which must not be used, in the name of ‘relevance’, as a platform on which to parade specifically 21st century concerns. The Mahabharata is relevant enough, without forcing, and the reader has to be trusted to perceive that relevance. There are two main ways in which I have ‘re-imagined’. First, I have dwelled more on the characters’ subjective states than the original does although, I hope, without a facile ‘psychologising’. Second, I have sometimes drawn on other sources to conjure up a picture of the physical world that surrounds the actors.

What to include, and what to omit from the vast work that is the Mahabharata? The epic has been seen by some as a collection of disparate elements, added over time to an original core. But because I regard it as a unified work of literature (and there are scholarly grounds for seeing it that way), it seems important to reflect every aspect of it in the retelling. Certainly, the heroic narrative is central. However, unlike most previous versions, I have given space to the teachings which amount to nearly one third of the whole in the original – material which offers a vision of politics, kingship and the state that parallels that of Machiavelli in its interest.

The Mahabharata

from: ‘The Lacquer House’
(This passage concerns the arson of the house in which the Pándavas, the epic’s heroes, are living)

. . . The fire surged crackling
from room to room, through corridors and stairways,
tongues of flame greedy for each other
red, yellow, orange, leaping upwards,
playful, free. An ecstasy of burning. . .

Watching, helpless, hour after anguished hour,
the citizens of Varanávata
witnessed the House of Wealth become a wreck.
Wracking explosions, showering sparks and cinders
lit the entire sky. They flung their garments
over their heads and wept. ‘O terrible!
Shiva! Shiva! We’ve lost the Pándavas,
the jewels of the kingdom, our bright hope!’ . . .

When he received the news, Dhritarashtra
was torn, as always. Just as a deep pool
is chilly in its depths, warm on the surface,
so the king’s heart was at the same time
hot with instant grief, and deeply cold.
He had not, quite, expected these events.
He and his sons cast off their royal robes
and performed all the proper funeral rites.
He ordered public mourning, kingdom-wide.
No outward show of sorrow was omitted.

See also the extract included in MPT 3/12 ‘Gandhari’s Lament’.

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