“It used to be every poet’s ambition to write a Ramayana or a Mahabharata,” AK Ramanujan once wrote. He wasn’t referring to poets of antiquity, some of whom, galvanised by a sense of rivalry or literary envy, must have spent their nights and days dreaming of creating something as readable, complex and culturally valuable as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Instead, Ramanujan wanted to highlight the respect with which modern Indian poets, himself included, always regarded our mythological epics. His point being that every modern poet’s ambition was not so much to write as to rewrite these great texts as an act of literary tribute.
Karthika Naïr’s fascinating new book, Until The Lions — a critical retelling of the Mahabharata from the points-of-view of its marginal, and mostly female, characters — is a fulfilment of that still-persisting writerly ambition, besides being an important addition to a subgenre of Indian literature that is founded upon the principles of mythological revisionism; one that continues to flourish.
With this book — composed of a series of interconnected, though formally diverse, poems — Naïr finds herself in distinguished company. There’s Mahasweta Devi’s short collection of stories After Kurukshetra , which is about the surviving widows of those who fell victim to the legendary war between the Pandavas and Kauravas in Kurukshetra. Then, there is Arun Kolatkar’s beautiful long poem, hilarious and poignant by turns, called ‘Sarpa Satra’ — another critical interpretation of a minor episode from the Mahabharata involving a ritual performed by the emperor Janamajeya, aiming to exterminate ‘the Nagas, or the Snake People’ to avenge his father’s death from a snakebite.
Themes like hostility, revenge, oppression of the weak, unrestrained violence and injustice — all culminating in a senseless genocidal war — are some of the central motifs of the Mahabharata. And the credit for bringing such themes to light goes to poets and novelists, rather than to theologians, who have for the most part tended to glorify these texts and safeguard them from critical scrutiny.
Until The Lions draws on our literary past, and the rich critical tradition it inheres. Naïr re-presents to her readers those untold tales from the Mahabharata that revolve around hate, manipulation, ‘forced liaisons’ and ‘sanctioned rapes’, giving voice to some of the epic’s as-yet voiceless characters.
The book begins with the voice of Satyavati (Ved Vyas’ mother, according to legend) on a powerful and declamatory note that is sustained throughout. ‘Listen. Listen,’ are the first words we hear. After which we are flung straight, as a poet once said, into the heart of things primordial. We hear Satyavati saying, ‘hate rises, hate blazes, hate billows from battlefields./ Hate arrives — searing rivers, shrivelling plains, reaping deserts on its path...’
Merely two lines into the book, and we can already sense the power of Naïr’s words over us. We can even sense how important words are to her, in their varying shades of meanings and even in their almost-tangible presence, their appearance, on the page. It’s not for nothing that the word ‘arrives’ appears next to its near-mirror image ‘searing’ in the line quoted above. So right at the outset, we’re made aware of a poetic voice not only worth reading but also worth listening to — the distinction being all that separates minor versifiers from real poets.
A piece of advice to those planning to get this book: try reading the words out loud.
Until The Lions gets its title from an interview the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once gave to the Paris Review. Here, Achebe quoted a proverb: ‘…until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ He spoke of how history, as a narrative written by the victorious, is often distorted in its telling. Naïr writes in the same vein in one of the sections of her book: ‘…the bards will sing/ only victors’ odes — psalms on the lost dead don’t greet spring.’
But in all truthfulness, it’s unfair to quote anything from Naïr’s book, just as it is unfair to cut out separate segments from a painting and present those as an example of an artist’s talent. Naïr’s words have to be read in their right context, not least because of her emphasis on, and experiments with, myriad poetic forms in this book: forms like the canzone, the landay, the Spanish glosa and concrete poetry among others. In Until The Lions , the words are actually seen dancing on the page.
Technical proficiency, however, isn’t by any means the sine qua non of poetry. In fact, it can also weigh a poem down. This happens when the equivalent of a dance performance on the page becomes an acrobatic act, and the poet starts composing lines like Naïr sometimes does in this book. Lines like: ‘…words would nictitate through dream…’; ‘…winsome as honey…noisome as hell...’; and, my personal favourite, ‘...together they were an infrangible inconel bolt…’
These words, shedding no light on the world around, are all sound, and while we’re able to hear them, their effect is lost on us. This was precisely what the critic Clive James had once cautioned us against. “For a poet to be all sound,” James wrote, “is nearly as bad as for a painter to be all paint.” But even so, look beyond the technical frills, listen a little more closely, and you’ll hear Until The Lions hitting all the right notes.
Vineet Gill is a journalist with 'The Sunday Guardian'
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