ISBN-13: 978-0982998700 $12.20
“I do understand my Kshatriya dharma. As Kshatriyas, our duty is to fight for the right cause. But now I would rather leave this war and go live in a forest. I cannot take any more of this destruction for the sake of a kingdom. My valiant brothers accepted this war for my sake. They are suffering because of me.” –Yudhishthira, eldest of the Pandava brothers, The Mahabharata
For those who are not familiar with the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, it is essentially the story of the war between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas, fought because the Kaurava king refused to give the Pandavas their rightful share of the kingdom.
Remember the four topics you are not supposed to talk about in polite company? This book tackles all of them, featuring polygamy, class inequality, religious and racial discrimination, and the politics of war. The story begins as Professor Archi Rainwal, his wife Tula, and his two graduate research assistants Marla and Jennifer arrive in Dehradun, India, located in the Garhwal Himalayan region, to observe the Pandau dance. This dance is an enactment of the eighteen-day war told in The Mahabharata. As they befriend the locals, they are regaled with colorful stories of the local people.
This book is a provoking read. Some of the questions that came up as I read this book are:
Are the heroes of The Mahabharata really “heroes”?
What are the motives of a “god” who counsels men to kill in the name of dharma (duty) and chooses sides in a war?
Is an epic so “great” that sanctions inequality?
This novel is written like a suite of short stories. Each day of the war in The Mahabharata is described in every other chapter, intercalated between the tales of the modern Garhwali locals. You do not need to have read The Mahabharata to understand this novel, as Chandola has done a great job summarizing the epic that is easy to understand. A glossary at the back of the book is very helpful for readers to easily look up unfamiliar words. One passage I find particularly memorable is the following:
“Every other character is a complex of fleeting relationships. The whole war is a set of relationships. It’s not the kingdom in conflict. It’s the conflict of relationships. The kingdom is there, but only in the relationships of the participants. The Mahabharata story is basically a mega-breakdown in relationships.”