Growing up in small town in Assam in late 1980s and early 1990s, there were very few avenues for recreation, especially when you are introvert and do not like games. Thank God for the district library, though. The library was located next to the school where I studied, and the rows and rows of those wonderful books in those damp rooms were my constant companion.
My mother was a voracious reader, and I had inherited the trait from her. She had her own library card and I had one too. Every week, she would borrow two adult books while I would borrow two children’s book. By the end of the week, I would have read all the four books. My mother was especially partial to Bengali fiction. I remember reading Ashapurna Devi’s Pratham Pratisruti (First Promise) in a single day, and it was a tome.
Apart from those weekly books, our home had just one book, a battered copy of an Assamese translation of The Mahabharata. I cannot count how many times I have read the book. I knew the book by heart. Later, I would go on to read several different versions of the text, from Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s original translations from Sanskrit to C Rajagopalachari and R K Narayan’s retellings to the recent Devdutt Pattanaik’s retelling, titled Jaya, and also several fictional works based on the epic’s characters, from Chandra Prasad Saikia’s Maharathi to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, in Assamese and English.
It is said that everything that is Indian can be found in The Mahabharata; in short, it’s not so much an epic as it is a history of a people, from time immemorial to the future ahead. This is one of the major appeals of the text, which has been told and retold for innumerable times, and yet has not lost its zing. Reading the book, any version of it, is like visiting an old friend. There’s nothing new to talk about, but the company itself is invaluable.
You know the tale, the tussle between the cousins, and the 18-day war, the fall of the heroes, and the choices they make... What I like most about The Mahabharata are the peripheral characters and stories, which have their own charms.
My grandfather’s father was called Janmejoy, and I am fascinated by Janmejoy’s story, which is both the beginning and the end of the epic. The story of his ancestors was told by the sages during the serpent sacrifice, which he had arranged to avenge the death of his father, Parikshit.
I like the tale of Amba, who had to take another birth to avenge her betrayal at the hands of Bhisma. I like the story of Abhimanyu, who went to the war knowing certain death.
Most of all I like the Mahabharata story of the happy ending: After the war was over and the land was filled with widowed women mourning for their husbands and lovers, Vyasa granted a boon. One day, he called froth all the men who had died in the war for a reunion of their spouses. He then allowed the women to join their spouses if they wanted; only Uttara, Abhimanyu’s wife, was not allowed to do so, as she was carrying Parikshit, the only heir to the Kuru clan.