Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Kim's Review : Bhima - Lone Warrior & JLF Meet The Author - MT Vasudevan Nair

I have been waiting forever to read M T Vasudevan Nair's Randamoozham in English. While it was earlier translated into English as Second Turn, it was impossible to get my hands on a copy. Hence, I was really excited when Gita Krishnakutty came out with a new translation last year titled - "Bhima - Lone Warrior"

MT Vasudevan Nair, popularly known as just MT, is one of the foremost authors in Malyalam today. From short stories and essays, to novels and movie scripts, his scope and breadth of literary work is exhaustive.

In 1995, MT received the highest literary award in India - the Jnanpith Award, for his overall contribution to Indian literature. Randamoozham is widely believed to be his masterpiece. His works have inspired a slew of new authors and Anand Neelakantan (author of Ajaya and Asura) says he was heavily influenced by this particular book of MT's.

Randamoozham / Bhima retells the story of the Mahabharatha from the point of view of Bhimasena, the second of the Pandava Brothers, and the epic is demystified and demythified in the novel. Of this work, MT says "I have not changed the framework of the story by the first Vyasa, Krishnadwaipayana. I have read between his lines and expanded on his pregnant silences". One reason attributed to Randamoozham's cult following is that this was the first time Malayalam readers experienced revisionism in literature.

MT comes across as an uncomplicated, honest soul who writes from his heart. Born into a lower income agricultural family in a small village in Palakkad in 1933, he says there was not much to do in terms of entertainment while he was growing up.

Books were a rarity and very difficult to get ones hands on. He did not have many friends of his age when growing up, so writing was something that he could do on his own.

When asked "Ernest Hemingway stated that - Every Writer has a Wound - what is your wound"? MT responded by saying that he had many wounds, but the main ones were Hunger and Loneliness.

Talking about his early days, he spoke about how money was tight and it cost 3/4th of an anna to send a short story by Book Post to a Magazine House. It was difficult to even get the right address for a Magazine House and 3/4th of an anna was not so easy to come by. But he persevered and slowly started making a name for himself.

He said that films just happened along the way, he did not think he would be writing film scripts, but he doesn't say no to any offers.

He also said that since his stories are human stories, there is no time limit on them, they will always remain evergreen. He remembers the stories told by the women in his family and the discussions on their own lives has been fodder for many of his books.

Gita Krishnakutty who has translated a few of MT's books said that there is a sense of loneliness in MT's stories. His characters face problems of all kinds and these tend to be echoes of MT, which is why people often say that his books are autobiographical in a sense.

While Gita has done an admirable job of translation, I can't help feeling that some of the beauty of  MT's prose has been lost. I see the glimmer of the poetry and beauty of his descriptions, but it is more a shortcoming of English as a Language, rather than of the translator which is what I would hold responsible.

There is a depth of knowledge of history, mythology, psychology, warfare, gambling, wrestling, rituals, sacrifices, yagnas, customs, human behavior, jewelry and other topics behind this tale.

In MT's Randamoozham / Bhima, all the characters are human, including Krishna and Balaram, so there is an extremely human reasoning behind every action that takes place rather than a divine reason or karma. Weak family relationships and human beings who become entangled in them are common themes in MT's work and continue in this book too, albeit in a more ancient era.

Bhima who is larger than his other siblings and cousins is often ridiculed for his size and called a blockhead and only mentioned for his size, strength and appetite in popular lore. MT's Bhima has many more facets to his personality. A sensitive soul who is a skilled warrior, but who is overshadowed by his older brother Yudhistra who is destined to be king and his younger brother Arjuna famed for his good looks and skill in archery. A human being with unfulfilled longings, an intense love for Draupadi (inspite of having 2 other wives - Hidimbi & Balandhara whom he completely forgets about, once he leaves them behind pregnant with his sons), often ridiculed and misunderstood.

Gita Krishnakutty says that MT's Bhima is lonely, often helpless, constantly aware that his physical strength is both a boon and a curse. She sees similarities between Bhima and the protagonists of MT's other novels - Sethu of Kalam, Appunni of Nalukettu and other characters in his short stories, all of whom are alienated individuals caught in the family feuds stemming from the disintegration of the matrilineal joint family in Malabar. Bhima shares their 'outsider' consciousness, their tendency to introspect, their desperate desire to succeed.

The tale starts when the Pandavas set out on Mahaprasthanam - renouncing their Kingdom and worldly possessions and embark on a final pilgrimage towards the Himalayas so they may enter Heaven in their human form. The story immediately deviates from the traditional tale when Bhima stops to take care of Draupadi when she falls down and the rest of the story is told in flashback.

As the second brother, Bhima's impression of his eldest brother is not complimentary at all. He doesn't understand Yudhistra's concept of Dharma and the reason to follow Dharma especially when it does not conform to common sense. While Bhima does come to terms with Yudhistra's line of reasoning at some point, it does not last very long. However, given that he is the eldest brother, Bhima and the other 3 are forced to comply with Yudhistra's decisions.

Kunti comes across as extremely astute and politically savvy. A woman who quietly works behind the scenes and much more aware than any of her sons. Given the overall place of women in society, she works quietly but efficiently behind the scenes to keep her sons safe and united and to put Yudhishtra on the throne.

Certain well known parts of the tale like Krishna coming to Draupadi's rescue while being disrobed are not even in this book (MT says that it isn't in the original Mahabharath either), but other incidents that find barely a mention in the original like the stealing of the Saugandhika flower from Kubera's garden are expanded upon.

The number of bombshells dropped in the last 3-5 pages is astounding, because they hit you when you least expect it - the reader is lulled into thinking that story is over and there's nothing more of any significance to add.

I loved the reinterpretation of events through a human lens rather than a mythical, divine or mythological one. It is so much easier to identify with the characters in this version rather than the popularly believed version. It is impossible not to empathise with Bhima and made me wonder how the tale would have changed if Bhima was the eldest brother.

If you can read Malayalam, I would heavily recommend reading the original. For those who can't, this translation is a good place to start exploring MT as an author. If you enjoy alternative retellings of the Mahabharata, definitely do not miss this one.

Rating : 4 / 5

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