The Mahabharata: The Conflict Within

krishna_arjuna_conchshellsI developed a serious interest in the Mahabharata about 9 years ago. It is not that I was not familiar with the plot of the epic. A.K. Ramanujan used to say, “In India…no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, always ready.” I think that is a very accurate remark. I had heard the main story and also the minor ‘stories within stories’ from my grandmother. Like many of us, I had watched the television series produced by B.R. Chopra that aired in the late 1980s.

So, when I say, I developed a serious interest in Mahabharata 9 years ago, I mean that I became interested in the multiple messages that the epic was seemingly trying to convey. I became interested in the historical context in which the Mahabharata unfolds. I became interested in the scepticism and dilemma of its major characters. I became interested in looking at the human beings behind the facade of gods and their avatars. I became aware that what I was familiar with, was the Vulgate Mahabharata, the one that was popular among Hindu families across India. The one which is about Krishna’s divinity, and the lila he performs to achieve a pre-determined objective, the destruction of the kshatriya clans to cleanse the earth of their vanity and misdeeds. I began to see that this was a very narrow view of the epic, and the question of ‘what is the epic trying to convey’, started to gnaw at me.

I had never heard of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, put together painstakingly through decades of effort by V.S. Suthankar and his associates. I was introduced to the Critical Edition and the human questions that it posed, through the works of Irawati Karve (1905 – 1970), the renowned anthropologist and an authority on the Mahabharata. Her book ‘Yuganta’, a collection of essays on the various characters in the Mahabharata, is what got me excited about the grand epic. The characters, and their ‘very human’ struggles and dilemmas came alive in Karve’s work. Her piercing insight broke the hard outer shell of the epic and revealed the fruit within. I began to realize that the Mahabharata was not only about the conflict between the sons of two brothers over succession, which resulted in a catastrophic war. I started to slowly become aware of the conflicts within each major character, and the battles that they are fighting within themselves. It is this awareness and its associated reflections that I want to share in this post. Continue reading

Its Lunch time!

The Lunch Box

I don’t know why I do this. I keep disappearing from this page and then come back with a resolve to be more regular with my writing, only to fall into the same trap again! Here I am, back again after a long hiatus, promising myself that I’ll be more disciplined going forward. Let’s see how it goes.

The other day I was talking to a friend from school and was getting nostalgic about those growing up years. We spoke about a lot. The school assembly, the teachers, the basketball court, getting punished, the dreaded homework, and the best of them all, the lunch break. I don’t know how it works today in Jamshedpur, but back in the late 80s and the early 90s, the lunch break at schools across Telco Colony was a sacred affair with a great many rituals performed. Everyday, the same pattern would play out and we would participate in it with vigor and cheer.

At the sound of the bell announcing the lunch break, we would rush out of the classroom, not wanting to waste even a single minute. The destination was the assembly area near the school gate, where all our tiffin boxes were kept. We didn’t carry our lunch with us; it was sent to the school by our mothers through tiffin-wallahs, who would collect the lunch boxes from various homes, before getting them to the school on their bicycles. We would identify our lunch boxes by the bag that they used to come in. Sometimes, even bags looked similar probably because they were bought from the same store in Telco Colony. In such cases, improvisations were performed, such as etching the name of the student on the lid of the lunch box. Continue reading

Hampi: Frozen in Time

Hampi

I have been in Bangalore for the past 4 years, and ever since I came here, I have been wanting to go to Hampi. Finally, the plan materialized and we decided to go on a week-long vacation there in January. I had read a lot about this UNESCO World Heritage site, and also heard about its beauty and splendor from friends. I went with a lot of expectations and my expectations were not let down one bit. You have to see Hampi to believe it.

The site is on the south bank of the river Tungabhadra, and it is said that Hampi got its name from this river, which in olden days was called Pampa, and was worshipped as a river goddess. While settlements in Hampi and areas surrounding it can be dated back to the early part of the first millennium CE, the city actually reached the zenith of its political power as the capital of the powerful Vijayanagara Empire between 1336 and 1565 CE. The empire got its name from the capital city of Vijayanagara, meaning ‘City of Victory’, which in those days included the present day Hampi and areas around it. Contemporary chroniclers from Persia, Portugal, Italy, and Russia visited the empire during this period and left glowing accounts of the city, which was unparalleled in India and probably the world at the time. This once magnificent city, pride of the Vijayanagara kings, was ransacked in 1565 CE by the Deccan Sultans, who had formed a unique alliance against Vijayanagara. After defeating the Vijayanagara army at Talikota, some 90 kilometres away from the capital, the marauding Sultanate armies entered the city, plundered and pillaged it for 6 months, and then abandoned it. So thorough was the process of destruction that very few buildings were left intact. What remains at Hampi today are only the ruins of that great, magnificent city. Anyway, we will come to the sad part of the story later. For now, let’s focus on the foundation and growth of this great empire.

As one enters Hampi, the first thing that catches the attention is the landscape, which is lined with granite boulders of various colors, distributed either as hills, ridges or sometimes just piles of boulders balancing precariously against each other. One gets the feeling that the terrain might be a result of a massive earthquake. Archaeologists and authors John M Fritz and George Michell in their book ‘Hampi Vijayanagara’ say:

The terrain is, however, one of the most ancient and stable surfaces to be found anywhere on earth, its unique rocky appearance caused not by earthquake and upheaval, but by some three thousand million years of erosion, first underground and then, when uplifted, by exposure to sun, wind and rain.

The terrain might have been one of the reasons the Vijayanagara kings chose the site for their ambitious capital. The rocky terrain on all sides and the Tungabhadra to the north gave natural protection to the city against possible invaders. Continue reading

Writing on The Wall

Rahul Dravid

On Friday, March 9th 2012, Rahul Dravid announced his retirement from Test cricket. I wouldn’t say, the announcement hit me like a bolt from the blue! I knew it would happen and I also knew it would happen before the end of this year. However, I was surprised by the suddenness of the decision. Why now? I asked myself. And then, it dawned upon me. The best players go when the world is asking ‘why now?’ and not ‘when?’.

But then, I thought, shouldn’t he have got a swan song series, a chance to say good-bye to his fans? He deserved it; moreover we fans deserved it. We could cheer for him in the stadium, chant his name, and shed tears as he raised his bat to us fans in the galleries for one last time, before walking into the sunset. While I was thinking about all this, I read his statement which said while he respects the fans’ desire to watch him play one last time, the fans should also respect his decision that this is how he wanted to go. No hullabaloo, no hype, no build up, only the poignancy of leaving and the pride of having served the game for so long! Typical of the man! No distractions, just getting on with his game.

For cricket lovers of our generation the following players will always be special – Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, and Rahul Dravid. We grew up watching these heroes, we grew up watching them fight hard and win matches for India, watching them take Indian cricket to great heights. Especially after the dark clouds of match fixing had threatened the very survival of the game in this country. Kumble and Ganguly have already moved on and now it is Rahul Dravid. I still remember his debut Test at Lord’s in the year 1996. While Sourav Ganguly got all the attention for his well compiled century, for me it was Dravid’s 95 that stood out for its technical brilliance. Lovely strokemaking, so pleasing to the eye. The cover drives, the flicks through mid-wicket, the straight drives, the leg glance, and the ferocious pulls, all grace and elegance. Continue reading

Ray: The Master Storyteller

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray was one of the most celebrated movie directors of the 20th century. His films won worldwide recognition and were regularly showcased at International Film Festivals. He even won an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in the year 1992. Ray not only scripted and directed his films, but also scored them and designed the publicity material for them. An artist, an all-rounder, a genius.

However, this post is not about Satyajit Ray, the movie director; it is about Satyajit Ray the author. I’m not going to put up any pretensions and say that I love Ray’s films. Honestly, I cannot relate much to them. Not for me the arty world cinema; I am the popcorn munching casual moviegoer, who has been brought up on a staple diet of Hollywood extravaganzas and kitschy Hindi movies. However, I am a huge fan of Satyajit Ray, the author. I love his books and I’ve read them over and over again. His stories have fascinated me, tickled me, made me cry, and regularly transported me into a world of imagination.

Writing was probably in Ray’s blood. His grandfather Upendrakishore Roychowdhury and father Sukumar Ray were prominent literary figures in Bengal. His grandfather had set up a printing press in Calcutta and the Ray family published a few Bengali magazines. It was for these magazines that Ray wrote most of his stories. I’ve read several of his short stories and novellas and have loved each one of them. Continue reading

Rediscovering Tintin

Tintin and Snowy

No, this is not about the movie, ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of the classic comic series by Hergé. I have not watched the movie as yet; though I do want to watch it – in 3D. Maybe I’ll try and catch it this weekend. This is about the Tintin books, compiled by Hergè over many years, and loved by readers across the globe. This post is about my love for the books, or to put it the way Thomson and Thompson would have, ‘to be precise it is to book my love’ for the classic series.

I first read Tintin when I was in school. A great many Library periods were gainfully employed in reading about the adventures of Tintin across the world, from Congo to America to Egypt to India to China to Scotland; even the moon. I remember desperately wanting to buy all the 24 books that I saw in the school library, but I knew we couldn’t afford it. So, I continued reading and re-reading them in the library, wistfully looking at the attractive cover pages, feeling the glossy inside pages, marveling at the beautiful drawings, and laughing at the slapstick humor. And then I grew up. Continue reading