Devdutt Pattanaik is a master story-teller, as his several books on Indian mythology testify. However, why the Mahabharata? There are several translations and retellings floating around. What value addition can a new one offer? Where is the USP? There are four excellent reasons to read this book.
First, the illustrations, and until carefully reading this, I had not realized that Devdutt does his own illustrations, with some help from his driver.
Second, this is not quite an abridged retelling of the Mahabharata. It is a collection of stories, which of course are the core stories from the Mahabharata. However, these stories occur in other places too, such as the Puranas. What is the Mahabharata? We tend to think of it as the Sanskrit Mahabharata. Unlike the Ramayana, where there are several versions, authored by several different people, the Mahabharata has been authored by Vedavyasa or Vyasadeva, more accurately, Krishna Dvaipayana. Vedavyasa or Vyasadeva is a title, conferred on someone who collates and classifies the Vedas. In each era, there is a different Vedavyasa and there have been 28 Vedavyasas so far, Krishna Dvaipayana being the last. So runs the belief.
There were different regional versions of the Sanskrit Mahabharata too, more than 1000. Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute started a mammoth exercise in 1916, ending in 1966. A group of scholars examined all the 1000-plus versions and produced what they believed to be the authentic text, shorn of subsequent interpolations. This is known as the Critical Version. Many popular stories do not figure in this critical version, such as Vedavyasa dictating to Ganesha or Krishna saving Droupadi when she was being disrobed by Duhshasana. However, beliefs and myths do not necessarily adhere to a Sanskrit cum authenticated scholarly version, a point made in a slightly different context by Wendy Doniger in her study of Hinduism.
Devdutt’s third USP is that, while he recounts the Mahabharata stories, he doesn’t always stick to the Sanskrit version. He uses stuff from popular renderings of the Mahabharata and from the Puranas too. The stories are embellished and become richer. My favourite is the folk-tale from Tamil Nadu, about the origin of “Aviyal”. Duryodhana attempted to poison Bhima and Bhima drowned in the river, travelling to the city of the Nagas. Everyone thought Bhima was dead and prepared a funeral feast for him, with vegetables and spices. When Bhima surfaced, everyone was delighted. More to the point, Bhima cooked a special dish, with all the vegetables and spices thrown in, and that became “Aviyal”.
Fourth, and this is probably the most important USP, this isn’t a straight abridged retelling of the Mahabharata. There are several explanatory boxes that help understand the context. It is these boxes that are the richest part of Devdutt’s rendering and these make it different from a pedestrian retelling of the story. Increasingly, English is becoming the language of communication, even among young Indians. There should be translations of the Mahabharata in English and several such have emerged, including those in non-print form. But these presuppose that readers (or viewers) know or understand the context. However, that assumption isn’t always true and it is this that Devdutt Pattanaik, the interpreter of myths, has accomplished in this version.
Recently, “Sunday Guardian” asked me about the best books I had read recently. I have no idea why, probably for some year-end supplement. In my professional career as an economist, I read several books, almost always centred on economics. I responded that I would exclude such professional books and restrict myself to the “non-professional”. Having said that, the only book I could immediately think of was this one. It is a great book and it is a pity that it hasn’t so far received the recognition it deserves. Part of the reason may be the title. This isn’t an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata. While it is that, it shouldn’t be looked at as only that. It is much more than that and perhaps this narrow interpretation has deterred people, who look at the title and the cover, without getting into what the book actually contains.