Daily Archives: December 13, 2010

Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik

I have always been fascinated by mythology. It has intrigued me in ways that no other field has managed to, and from there very early on stemmed the fondness for Indian Mythology. The rich and varied world that was right there before me, which was waiting to be explored and which I never had, till a friend advised I read, “Ka” by Roberto Colasso, surprisingly written on Indian Mythology by a foreigner. That led me to read “The Pregnant King” by Devdutt Pattanaik which I enjoyed thoroughly. I remember telling him at that time, “You must write something more on the Mahabharata. Something magnanimous” and he said he would and he wasn’t kidding.

So here “Jaya” by Devdutt Pattanaik was out and I was disappointed initially – only because of its size. I wanted more and more of it and only got this much, but whatever I read was brilliant. I believe that The Mahabharata is the greatest epic ever written and it surpasses even The Odyssey and The Iliad. Spread over eighteen volumes, to read the actual Mahabharata or to attempt to read it is no mean feat. I am doing that as of now through Bibek Debroy’s translation and that is another post altogether. Back to Jaya.

The story of the Mahabharata is not new to us – we know about it, we have heard about it, however how much do we really know? I guess not much and “Jaya” as a book makes you more aware about it. The various tales that took place in between till the battle, the nitty gritties you missed out on while watching it on the television (tsk tsk need I say more?), the stories that your grandmother forgot to mention and many such stories can be found in “Jaya”. The geetasar from Krishna to Arjun is beautifully written. It is my most favourite part in the entire book.

How is “Jaya” different from any other book on the Mahabharata? After all plenty have been written. It is an illustrated retelling and it lives up to that in every single way. The line drawings are brilliant – the strokes convey the expressions precisely – from anger to love to envy to sorrow to grief – after all that is what this epic is all about isn’t it – a melting pot of emotions.

Do not miss out on the footnotes at the end of every chapter – at times they are better than the actual chapter going by what they provide the reader – a better insight to the epic and why rituals are conducted the way they are, why is religion the way it is and so on and so forth.

At the end all I can say is that read “Jaya”. I have not said anything about the plot of the Mahabharata assuming that you know something about it and if you don’t then the net will always tell you more. However, to know a little more about the epic I highly recommend this book. Read it for the story it tells – about a family torn apart by greed and a war won by deceit, a blind king and his wife and their hundred sons, sons born from gods and women who turn into men. It will leave you speechless.

Jaya; Pattanaik, Devutt; Penguin India; Rs. 499

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Following an earthquake severe enough to damage the building containing the Indian consulate nine people are trapped in the visa office located in its basement. Seven of them are there to apply for an Indian visa, two are the last remaining office workers. One of the applicants, a student of Medieval Literature, has brought her copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with her. This suggests to her the idea of having each of the trapped people tell a story, some encounter with one amazing thing that may help to pass the time and keep their minds off the stifling conditions and the increasing mortal danger. As in Chaucer’s poem all of these characters come from disparate backgrounds and are on a pilgrammage (of sorts). The multicultural background of these characters creates a microcosm of the world in a room, a stationary Pequod in which human frailty and the universality of suffering seems never to deter the quest for happiness or our incessant search for meaning.

As they tell their tales, some with an autumnal poignance that is like the fast dying light of the early setting sun, others that are filled with an anger and bitterness that seems to increasingly typify an alternate American experience for those caught in the snare of recent history, we discern something deeper in the manner in which the author lets these stories unfold. As the characters struggle on the knife-edge of calamity, living a nearly posthumous existence even as they try to fend off the darkness, we are engrossed in their past struggles as much as their current travails. Through Divakaruni’s creative alchemy we are drawn to the power of stories to reveal who we were, what we are and what we hope to become. As the darkness draws near, we watch these troubled lives begin their ghostly flickering, entombed in what one of them describes as a “damp mausoleum”. The author shows us with stunning simplicity and skill that after we die all that may remain are our stories. And for the solace they offer and the instruction they bring these stories need to be told as much as they need to be heard.

The story moves back and forth between the characters’ stories and the present situation in the office. As they struggle to survive the tension builds. They must put aside individual needs for the common good, and trust their lives to strangers. The result of this perfectly balanced story is like a literary symphony; it builds, swells to a taut crescendo, and leaves you haunted by the last echoing strains of the tale. As they struggle with whether to fight for survival or resign themselves to dying in the rubble, the stories provide both a distraction and a reason to keep going.

One Amazing Thing combines suspenseful action with a spiritual insight into matters of life and death. As the characters fight for survival, their passion for living and the crushing disappointments of their lives all come into play. In an easy-to-read light yet poetic prose, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s words flow with a simplicity that gets to the heart of the issues while leaving enough unsaid to allow the reader’s imagination to enter the story. While one scene flows naturally to the next, the chapter and sub-chapter divisions within the narrative work at odds with the natural flow of the story. The breaks do not always correspond to the speaking voice or to specific events. Quite frankly, the text flows smoothly without all these divisions on account of the author’s skill so that at times the divisions seem superfluous or stop the smooth flow that would exist without them. The ending might not satisfy readers who prefer all questions resolved at the end, especially since the suspenseful plot drives forward towards the end, and yet others, like myself, might find the ending a most satisfying ending all the more so because it respects the almost mystical, spiritual dimension of life opened up by the characters’ stories. 

The book keeps a reader glued to the pages, anxious to find out the fate of the characters but also wanting to never quite reach the ending in hopes of witnessing more revelations in the intimate look into the characters’ hearts. It is not a disaster survival book laden with physical how-to details nor are the fleeting portraits heavy in psychological detail. Rather,One Amazing Thing, like the moment it portrays, is a quick glance at a moment in time, a moment marked by points of spiritual and emotional conflict as the characters struggle to survive. Easily read within one sitting, the narrative satisfies a desire for a light read that nevertheless touches spirituality or something beyond the everyday reality, a spirituality that is not overly preachy or defined by division. Part of the charm of this story resides in the empty spaces and details that the author leaves up to the imagination of the reader.

One Amazing Thing; Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee; Hamish Hamilton; Penguin India; Rs. 450