Monday, June 27, 2016

Arjun: Without a Doubt - brilliant book on the Mahabharata by Dr Sweety Shinde

It is rare for a book to captivate me so much that I write a long review on it, much less give it a second read. Dr Sweety Shinde's Arjun: Without a Doubt is one such. Disclaimer before getting into the review proper: the author provide me with a review copy.
I first read the book a few months ago. Having read many “remakes” of the epics, did not have much hopes from this one either, more so since this was about a much explored – exaggerated – reviled character of the Mahabharata: Arjuna. However, the book surpassed all such expectations. I devoured the book in two sittings. A book with such refreshing thought deserved a well considered review after a slower second reading. That didn’t happen for a few months. So, here is my review while reading the book a second time, stopping over passages, spending the time and attention the book deserves.
Overall, the literary style of the author strikes one as amateurish, even unpolished. By literary style, I mean the sum total of language, vocabulary, verbiage, style of writing, phraseology but excluding narrative style. The sentences are simple, far too simple and one wishes the author would have used more polished/nuanced language (not to be confused with flowery language, which I abhor). To give a crude comparison, it is like setting a sparkling diamond in crude brass inlay. The diamond sparkles irrespective, but the overall package in a gold setting would have been that much more enjoyable.
The narrative style deserves mention – it is striking, arresting. First, the author does not start with the usual chronology – birth of the Pandavas, death of Pandu, arrival at Hastinapura, subsequent intrigues etc., Instead, the author assumes a basic knowledge of the epic on the part of the reader (refreshing to find an author who does that!) and intelligence on part of the reader (a very rare approach from an author in the age of “remakes”. Again, very refreshing.) The first chapter opens with Draupadi’s swayamwar, narrated by Arjun. From here, the story is narrated alternatively by Arjun and Draupadi. Draupadi’s narratives are marked with an “**” – simplistic, too simplistic in fact and could have been done better, but the reader gets used to it so we will ignore that.
On the topic of narrative: the author does not find it necessary to explain every single incident of the epic. That shows a lot of maturity: don’t explain every single incident and do a shoddy job with half of them; rather, do a swell good job of explaining select incidents. That is precisely what the author does. I am sure the author researched the epic in-depth before embarking on writing the book. However, she does not find it necessary to show off her knowledge. So we are spared a complete listing of each of Duryodhana’s 99 brothers, for instance. That is again a refreshing change.
Back to the narrative per se. Across these narratives, it is Draupadi’s personality that blazes through, far more strongly than Arjun’s. Indeed, the book should have been titled “Draupadi, who else!” rather than “Arjun: without a doubt”. Drapuadi doesn’t take too long to cast her stamp on us: she does that two pages into the book, in the very first page of her narrative when she says: If seduction was my weapon number one, should I not be taught its antidote? Survival, weapon number two? Teaching me one without the other left me too independent on men… A man! What a way to start! And the gems continue. Consider this conversation between Draupadi and Krishn just a page later, when to demonstrate Arjun’s prowess Krishn gives the example of his shooting the eye of a bird. Draupadi is not impressed. She says:
D: A motionless wooden bird. In war, on a battlefield, the target will not sit still. There will be no time to ponder, think and reflect. What kind of tutor bases his tests on motionless objects?...
Straightaway questioning not only the skill of the archer, but the ability of the teacher as well! And that too one as well renowned as Dronacharya! It doesn’t stop there. In response to Krishn’s earlier statement that Arjun is well suited to be her soul-mate because of his prowess with the bow, Draupadi cuts him with:
D: How does his skill qualify him to be my soul mate? [Reviewer’s comment: Wow!]
K: It doesn’t. It is merely the means to get you.
With this small conversation, the author carves out the personalities of both Draupadi and Krishn. And Arjun too. Draupadi: not a woman to be taken for granted, one who is self assured, is independent in thought and spirit and doesn’t hesitate to let that independence and fierceness show. Krishn: always playing his larger game, moving the pieces as to achieve his larger goal; doesn’t get cowed down even when defeated (clearly, Draupadi had him in the conversation, but he just doesn’t accept defeat! When all else fails, Krishn simply says that Arjun is the perfect match for Draupadi because he “is a nice person!”) And Arjun: he is the piece that is skilled, valuable but without a will / mind of its own. He is the piece that his master moves at will, to achieve his ends: here, Krishn wants him to wed Draupadi and Arjun does the needful. Later in the epic, he does the bidding of Yudhishthir, Krishn.
The author casts her characters in a particular mold – clear, unambiguous definition of personality with a sense of finality – no flitting about here. And the characters stick to that mold throughout the book: a tremendous consistency in characterisation throughout the book – commendable for a debutante.
The conversations are a high point of the book: they sparkle with original thought, wit and intelligence. Continuing the aforesaid conversation, Draupadi declares that if Arjun has to marry her, he better be extra-ordinary. In response, Krishn asks her if she is so perfect? Look at Draupadi’s reply: Obviously. You would not need to marry so many women if you found the perfect woman…
That is a woman who knows herself and is confident of her own personality. Head strong may be, but not one to be cowed down. She might still be bound by the then prevalent societal and cultural constraints, but even within those confines, she is not one to be messed with. Now take this character definition and pass the events that follow – a better understanding of Draupadi emerges: why she did what she did (pardon the language).
Here is where a clear distinction between the characters of Arjun and Draupadi emerges. Arjun is a blade of sharp steel – a blade that never fails to cut its target – a sharp blade that can be wielded as per the will of its master, while the blade itself is passive. Draupadi on the other hand is fire – fire that can be a weapon but one that will burn the wielder himself if not careful. For all its explosive character, fire can be contained, by one who knows how to use. Contain it too tightly and it sputters and dies out; contain it too lightly and it explodes in a conflagration. Krishn, is the wielder – of both the steel blade and the fire, the master’s master!
And that's only the first three chapters! Overall, the author has handled with topic with a lot of maturity, insight and credits the reader with maturity, knowledge and intelligence. That is what makes the book brilliant. Of course, this book will not sell millions of copies, but it will sit on the bookshelves of many readers as a cherished telling of Draupadi's story. For that is what it is!