Friday, March 16, 2012

The Forest of Stories by Ashok K. Banker

To begin with, I am happy to be among the chosen ten to review the latest book by Ashok K. Banker. So, thank you BlogAdda!

The Forest of Stories is Book One in Ashok K. Banker's long awaited 'MBA' Series; his retelling of the greatest epic of all times - the Mahabharata. Ashok K. Banker himself is quite well known to readers - for his internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the Krishna Coriolis series. However, since I have not read any of the author's previous books, I went about reading this one with a clean slate - and I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

This is the Mahabharata of Krsnadvaipayana Vyasa popularly known as Veda Vyasa, retold by one man - Ashok K. Banker. He has referred to every single available English-language translation and retelling, rechecked the original Sanskrit, then wrote his own rendition. He says he has not taken great creative liberties, imaginative leaps nor ventured into outright fantastical diversions and has stuck very closely to the Vyasa Sanskrit epic. And that he has kept the structure and order of the parvas and chapters exactly as in the original epic and has tried to cover all the details in the original as well. The only difference is him, 'coz this is his way of telling the story.

There are nine pakshas in all: Paksha One: Sauti's Tale Paksha Two: The Book Of Creation Paksha Three: The Tale Of Parashurama Paksha Four: The Sarpa Satra Paksha Five: Tales Of The Bhrigu Paksha Six: The Book Of Snakes Paksha Seven: The Birth Of Vyasa Paksha Eight: Anshavatarna Paksha Nine: Shakuntala And Dushyanta.

All of them rendered by a dusty traveler who arrives at the ashram of Kulapati Shaunaka (deep into the haunted jungle of Naimisha-van) with sad tidings, that Maharishi Krsnadvaipayana Veda Vyasa has passed on. That dusty traveler is the renowned kusalavya, Ugrasrava, son of Lomarsana, known as Sauti to one and all.

Frankly, I am quite impressed with the breezy nature of the book. The language is just apt - not too meandering or exalted, while retaining a dash of the lyrical. It's not quite a cursory read, since one needs to be attentive, but given the nature of the book that's not difficult and is worth every bit of it. One needs to pay attention, exercise one's gray cells and play out what the author has tried to convey - in one's mind, so as to fully grasp the contents of this book. Yet one is neither overwhelmed nor is enveloped by its enormity, in fact one is left asking for more.

The original poem that Vyasa composed contained some 8,800 shlokas and was known simply as Jaya - since it covered the history of the war between the two factions of the Kuru family. However, over repeated retellings, he himself expanded it to a larger work numbering 24,000 shlokas, which he then renamed Bharata, for it was no less than the history of the Bharata race itself, and while the great war was the central matter, it was preceded and afterceded by several other narrations as well. But after the great retelling consuming twelve years of the sarpa sacrificial ritual of Raja Janamajaya, it has burgeoned to the mammoth size of a hundred thousand shlokas. In this epic form, the poem is now known by one and all as the Maha-bharat - or the Great History of the Bharatas. And it is by this name that Vyasa has consented to have it known, although he himself preferred the original title of Jaya.

While Vyasa composed his Mahabharata in three years, Ashok has taken much more than that to write his, primarily because of the lack of a comprehensive unabridged English-language translation of this great epic. Frankly the author's attempt to retell the hundred thousand shlokas - in the English language - is itself quite a feat, and an enormous one at that, since most of us are not familiar with the Mahabharata in its entirety. We know it in bits and pieces, thanks to Uncle Pai and B.R. Chopra. But after having turned the last page of Book 1 of this series, I have this great urge to read the celebrated Kaliprasanna Singha's magnum opus. It is the translation of the original Mahabharata (in Sanskrit) of Veda Vyasa into Bangla by Kaliprasanna Singha and is still considered as one of the most authentic translations of this greatest of all epics. Calcutta Sanskrit Vidyamandir's teacher, Taranath Tarkavacaspati, aided him in resolving contradictions in the texts and figuring out the meaning of knotty Vyasa-kuta slokas, while Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar himself went through his translation, apart from supervising the printing and the work of translation in his absence.

In this book (The Forest of Stories) we read about: names, words, events and aspects that we may have been somewhat familiar with, yet probably do not understand very well or perhaps are unaware of their full significance. A few of them are: the meaning of the name Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa and how the world was formed, rather how creation came into being - from darkness - when light itself did not exist. Tales of Jamadagneya, better known by another more fearsome name - Parashurama - Rama of the Axe (parasu), his slaying of the thousand-armed King Arjuna Kartavirya of Mahishmati - belonging to the Haihaya line of Kshatriyas, then returning home with his father's calf, dhenu - only to find his father's severed limbs and chopped body parts. Then recalling the sufferings of his Bhrigu ancestors over generations - at the hands of Kshatriyas such as the Haihayas and other enemies of the Brahmin varna, this son of sage Jamadagni then resolves to cleanse them from the world - wiping out every last person of the Kshatriya varna by traveling the earth twenty-one times. There are tales of gurus and shishyas and gurudakshinas, tales of Sarama - the celetial sarameya, tales of Uttanka and Raja Janamajaya (son of Parikshat) and their vow to destroy Takshaka - the king of serpents. Tales of Chyavana and Ruru and the latter's sacrifice for his beloved Pramadvara, tales of Astika - known by the name Jaratkaru and the great naaga Vasuki. Of Prajapati Daksha and his two beautiful daughters - Kadru and Vinata and of the latter's second son Garuda - king of birds. Tales of Ucchaihshrava, supreme among all horses, of Vasuki's brother Anantha, and those of samudramanthan; of valakhilyas and Shesha, the great Naaga. There are tales of Satyavati, and the (great sage) Parashara and the birth of Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa - the forebear of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. We also learn about what happened to the Kshatriya women and how the race survived and flourished after Parashurama's purge; we read about the campaign of the devas versus the asuras, about the sons of Brahma, about Shakuntala and king Dushyanta and their son Bharata ... and much, much more.

My two pence: The Mahabharata is a veritable treasure-trove. Apart from its poetic qualities, it is a comprehensive representation of ancient India. It includes history, anecdotes, the puranas, economics, warfare, philosophy, revenge, diplomacy, manipulation, the art and science of relationship and sex, morality and the idea of salvation, heroism, wisdom, narrative, characterization and so on and so forth. Because of its significance, while it is also known as the Fifth Veda, it is at once equivalent to all the Vedas. To my mind, it is also the comprehensive itihasa of the Dwapar Yug. As to why modern scholars and experts are so keen to classify the Ramayan and the Mahabharat as 'mythology' and 'epic', while trying their bestest to restrict them within the current landmass of India, with a reluctant reference to Sri Lanka and Gandhar (in modern Afghanistan) - my guess is as good as yours.

This towering itihasa dwarfs all of world literature, with its grandeur, its majesty, its wisdom, its knowledge, its horror, its heartbreaks and its wonder. It is in fact human history in its entirety. What is not within it is to be found nowhere else. And all that is elsewhere is here. It is timeless. Great authors/poets/actors/playwrights down the ages have mined it for material on which to base their own creative works: from Mahakavi Kalidas (Abhighnyan Shakuntalam) to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (Gandharir Abedon, Karna-Kunti Sambad) to Samaresh Basu alias Kalkut (Shamba) to Goethe to Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix).

If this immense treasure-trove of knowledge, wisdom, sacrifice and narration was meant to be a cautionary tale - to be passed on, across ages, eras and generations, it has yet to meet with success - since the human race is quite stubborn and refuses to learn and imbibe. We hear but don't listen, we see but lack insight and foresight. Echoes of events and characters (from the Mahabharata) can and have been seen and found - down the ages: great wars fought, the consequences of unleashing fearsome weaponry seen, untold miseries wrecked upon people and nations, families torn apart, palace intrigues and power games, maneuvers on the world chessboard, great strategists and evil geniuses, people and forces working tirelessly to ignite a war while some going to great lengths in order to avoid such misadventures; failings of great personalities, their consequences, and the rise of unlikely heroes, various chakavyuhs formed and broken, a great life cut down suddenly in its prime, risk-takers, people who are largely unknown, people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good - not unlike Abhimanyu ... and so on and so forth.

But have we been able to unlock the mysteries of this treasure-trove or decipher the coded texts? I would say no; even after the passage of many millenniums, we have failed and failed miserably in that direction. We are very good and getting better at intrigues with every passing day, but we lack even an iota of the wisdom of our ancients.

They (meaning: our ancients) knew how history and knowledge could be manipulated, altered or misused - in the hands of vested interests; and therefore did what they thought was best. Locked everything in coded texts - camouflaged as fantastic stories that most of us have heard sitting on our grandparents' lap; the key to which lies with each one of us - in our collective thoughts, by applying our collective minds. We do come across the usage of similar strategy in more recent times: clues left in paintings or even camouflaged within nursery rhymes and children's stories, that we hear and learn young, and are unlikely to forget. If we were to look at what has happened to our modern history, or even the history of the last millennium - wantonly destroyed and callously re-written by marauding hordes, aidly ably by vested interests - we can only marvel at the rich imaginative powers and the immense wisdom of our ancients. But unlock we will not, since we are too busy basking in our 'kupamandup' like existence and prefer to be spoon-fed instead. And if at all we choose to unlock or (mis)interpret them, we carefully select a few - the ones that help us to perpetuate, attest and reinforce the warped version of 'our ancient culture and tradition'.

The people of ancient times not only possessed the most vaulting imaginations but also very, very advanced technology - that to us seems like magic. They had much more sophisticated technology at their disposal than most of us moderns (enslaved by our arrogance and a linear view of history) - are willing to give them credit for. E.g., The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath, the Iron pillar of Chandragupta II Vikramaditya in Mehrauli, the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora, the Egyptian mummies, the drainage system, wells and water-storage system of the Indus-valley cities, Stonehenge - to name a few.

We are also stubborn in our refusal to learn and self-correct. How else do we let gruesome murders of women - mothers, sisters, daughters and wives - at the hands of their own husbands, fathers, brothers and relatives continue unabated, cleverly camouflaged as 'honour killings'? Parashurama committed a heinous crime (matricide) eons ago, but somehow has been given a fig leaf of greatness: that of his awareness that his father (the 'great' Rishi Jamadagni) could resurrect the dead, and for being clear-headed about the boon he would seek from him - after completing the cold-blooded and gruesome murder of his own mother, that is.

Her 'crime': accustomed to and leading a life of drudgery and austerity, she once chanced upon the amorous courting rituals and mating dance between the handsome King Chitraratha - the lord of the gandharvas, and his fair maidens. Innocent as she was of such activities and being totally unaware of this aspect of love - even after the birth of five sons, she is overcome by passion and feels the stirrings of emotions hitherto unknown to her; even fantasizing about participating in those acts. But the sound of her pot of water striking the ground as it fell from her hand cut into her reverie and she rushed back to her husband's ashram embarrassed, disheveled, breathless and unable to recount to him what she has seen, blurting out a feeble explanation for her state and appearance instead. She (Renuka), a Kshatriya princess of the Suryavanshi (solar) clan, one who had married Jamadagni - a Brahmin sage, out of her own free will and bore him five sons - is punished by that very husband for her 'transgressions'.

To my mind, a marriage or even a union between a man and a woman is not just for procreation or duty. It requires emotional, spiritual and physical connect and fulfillment. If the husband is unable to, does not or fails to provide that, why should the wife be 'punished'?

And how can a man who commits matricide be revered as one among the Dasavatar – one of the ten avatars (incarnations) of Shri Vishnu no less? Something does not feel right. Is this event a later day supplantation or addition to the texts, more precisely to Parashurama's character, so as to provide legitimacy to the work of sick minds and other vested interests? And why and how does sage Parashara - who fathers a child out of wedlock, with Satyavati (a fisherwoman) - considered as a great sage then? Never mind that the child went on to become Maharishi Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa; what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander too and vice versa, no?

Questions. Questions.

There must be hundreds of versions, interpretations and retellings of the Mahabharata already in circulation, but where are the ones penned by our great scholars who also happened to be women, like, Khana, Gargi Vachaknavi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra, Tilottama? Have they been lost, destroyed, or hidden - deliberately? Or have our scriptures, itihasa, etc been adulterated in order to cater to vested interests, who in turn then used them to gradually deteriorate the position of women apart from stratifying society along gender lines?

I somehow do not believe that the best of our ancestors were really good, leave alone great human beings, no matter what awesome technical/military/scholarly/polemical skills they might have possessed. Simply because being pure as the driven snow is an impossibility, while being the very incarnation of evil too is ruled out. Everyone has various shades to their character - based on the circumstances of their birth and action; even avatars are not above this. But matricide cannot and should not be condoned, no matter what.

My rating: The Forest of Stories makes for a very interesting read indeed, it also feels good to hold and the cover art is very attractive. I must say that the author is very crisp, precise and informative in his narration, adding a dash of his own colour and flavour too. But if you want to know more, go ahead, get hold of this book and read all you can.

Do I agree with any of the interpretations of the events and characters from the Mahabharata that we come across today? Well, I would like to reserve my opinion on that one.

Is this book informative? Yes, it is. Interesting? Yes. It also holds your attention, makes you think and you may end up providing your own perspective to the events, stories, symbols, rituals, characters and aspects that have been our staple diet for generations but of which there perhaps cannot be a single answer or interpretation.

I am going with a 4/5 for Ashok K. Banker's latest offering.

Details of the book: The Forest of Stories/ Author: Ashok K. Banker/ Publisher: Westland/ Edition: 2012/ Language: English/ ISBN: 9381626375/ ISBN-13: 9789381626375/ 978-93-81626-37-5/ Bookbinding: Paperback/ Price: Rs. 295 (Rs. 221 on
Flipkart)/ No. of pages: 351.

Picture: The book jacket cover of The Forest of Stories. Courtesy

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  1. I will check this book out. I plan to start reading Hindu "mythology". In earnest. Starting with the Bhagwat Gita. Can you suggest a good English Author for the same? Some have recommended Chimayananda Swami's version to me. What say?

  2. @ Choco: Welcome back!

    ‘Mythology’ and ‘epic’ are words that have been coined much later – after we were colonized. Before that, these were known as ‘itihasa’.

    Do read them, ‘coz we ourselves know so little about our own culture and history - including our ancient history.

    I haven’t read Chimayananda Swami's version of the Srimad Bhagavat Gita, so I cannot really put forth my opinion on it. Frankly, I prefer reading them in my mother tongue; since the English-language does not have adequate words and is not deep enough to convey the meanings appropriately.

    It is best to read them in your mother tongue. There may be some books that also include some English-language translations, keeping the core in one of India’s many languages, including your mother tongue. That way you will understand it better. But don’t just read them, ponder over them too :)

    1. Thanks :) I am one of those people who cannot read their mother tongue. So English it is for me. Lets see. Hopefully I will pick up the best translation; for me :)

  3. This one was one-amazing-review! Intrigues you, and makes the book irresistible. Your viewpoint about Mythology being our Itihaas is my viewpoint too. I would love to read a good interpretation of our itihaas. Can you refer some good one in Hindi too? How do you rate Devdutt Pattanaik vs Ashok K. Banker?

  4. @ Choco: "I am one of those people who cannot read their mother tongue."

    Oh! Must be one of the languages from the south of the Vindhyas then :)

  5. @ Hope: Thanks! :)

    But you see, I do not think there is any one book that is a good interpretation of our itihaas. We have not made much progress on that front, unfortunately.

    However, while reading various books we may want to ponder and wonder and then may come up with our own thoughts and perspective about the events, stories, symbols, rituals, characters and aspects – mentioned in our various books. But there perhaps cannot be a single answer or interpretation.

    Devdutt Pattanaik and Ashok K. Banker cannot be compared, since they have different writing styles, thoughts and perspective; but frankly I found the latter’s style quite breezy.

  6. congrats on being chosed..this book is receiving all good reviews..must read it soon.