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The Mahabharata's tragic hero

Arundhuti Dasgupta 

M T Vasudevan Nair
Harper Perennial 2013

Translated by Gita Krishnankutty
373 pages; Rs 350

If you conduct a quick survey among friends and family about the most memorable character in the Mahabharata, in all probability, Arjuna or Karna would top the list. Some may mention Yudhistira, and a handful Duryodhana, but the least likely to get a shout would be Bhima. And therein lies the story behind this book.

Author, screenplay writer and journalist found it interesting that a character as important as Bhima gets short shrift in our memories. He believes that this is because Bhima was extremely different - in his size and appearance - from his brothers and was always relegated to the second spot (to Yudhistira by birth order and to Arjuna when it came to Draupadi's and Krishna's affections). Even his mother, hints this book, treated him less favourably than her eldest and younger sons.

Bhima's story is lost in the twists and turns of the lives of the other characters. But MT, as the author is popularly known, takes on the role of a soota to sing about Bhima's acts of valour, his compassion and his unrequited love for Draupadi. The result is that we get to hear a fascinating tale that would otherwise have been buried in the silent spaces of the Mahabharata.

The author does not conjure anything new, nor does he add new characters to the epic. He simply presents us with a different perspective. For instance, take the story of Bhima and Hidimbi. For most of us, it is a minor episode in the journey that the Pandavas undertook after their palace of lac was burnt down. But when we look at it through the eyes of Bhima, the character of the heroes and that of their mother is revealed. Yudhistira is weak, petulant and ungrateful. Kunti appears thoughtless and even insensitive to her son's feelings. Bhima gathered his mother and brothers on his back and walked with them when they were fatigued; fetched his mother water when she was thirsty; and found his love in a woman whom his brothers called a demoness and sorcerer. Even so, he was not given his due. Yudhistira warned Bhima, "Be careful. These people know sorcery. Don't let her come near you, especially at night." And then, when their belongings were stolen, he said:"It's her, the tribal woman. She's a demoness." And when it was time to move on and Bhima discovered that he would have to leave behind not just his new wife but also his unborn son, his pain went unacknowledged.

MT also brings out the relationship between the Vedic clans that were dominant at the time and the adivasi tribes. Hidimba and Baka (whom Bhima killed in combat) were Nishadas, a forest tribe. In several popular renditions of the epic, the two have been called asuras or rakshasas, but this book helps us appreciate the nuances of the relationship between the races. Baka, for instance, was believed to have been a cannibal who demanded a human for his meal every week. But the story, as Bhima tells it, was that Baka collected men on behalf of the king who wanted to conduct the Purushamedha, or the human sacrifice festival. These are revelations that make one want to go back to the epic, take a torch to its dark corners, dig up the obscure references and read it afresh.

The book also deals with the two strong women of the epic in an interesting manner. Kunti is shown to be the master planner who, perhaps driven by grief and bitterness, manipulated everyone - even her own children, in order to get her eldest son on the throne. Draupadi was ambitious, vengeful and, in Bhima's eyes, heartless; she used his love to get her work done. An interesting facet of Draupadi's character, as fleshed out in this narrative, is her love of a good battle. She was aroused by violence and gore; she even asked Bhima for detailed descriptions of his bloody fights with his opponents. The book also reveals several lesser-known characters. We get to know about Bhima's wives, his charioteer and Dhristadyumna - all of whose roles were not as elaborately sketched out in the epic as they are in this book.

The author not only reveals a new dimension, but also expertly demonstrates the important role that a narrator plays in telling an epic. The Mahabharata, after all, is a balladeer's tale. It was sung at places where people gathered, at temples and pilgrim spots, and it expanded and changed with every narration - just as it does with this one.

First Published: Wed, September 25 2013. 21:25 IST