Sunday, August 31, 2008

Trivia of Epical Proportions

Two of India’s most fascinating stories – Ramayan and Mahabharat – thrive on repetition. Right from the time we hear it from our grandparents to the time we are subjected to the Ekta Kapoor version, there is no suspense element in the stories. We know exactly what is going to happen, how, when and where. We are in it to track our favourite characters and their antics. And repeated viewings / hearings only make the associations stronger and lead to more layers being unearthed.

For example, my favourite story (sub-story?) of Mahabharat is the part about Abhimanyu. Here is this foetus who hears his father explain to his mother how to enter the Chakravyuha. Obviously, the technique was not breathtakingly interesting stuff and his mother falls asleep – and so does he along with her – and the unborn child never gets to know how to break out of it. As a teenager and a hero in the battle of Kurukshetra, he offers to break into the Chakravyuha. Inside the vyuha, he is trapped all alone and fights the seven Kaurava maharathis (Karna, Duryodhan, Duhshasan, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Ashwathama, Jayadrath) valiantly before being killed.

Now, there’s more to this story.
We know that Abhimanyu did not know how to come out of the Chakravyuha, but how come none of the Paandavs managed to follow him inside? Arjun was engaged in a battle elsewhere. But the other four brothers were thwarted by Jayadrath. And what gave Jayadrath such powers that he managed to beat them? Jayadrath had been given a boon by Lord Shiv that he would be able to defeat all the Paandavs except Arjun for one day. Just one. And Jayadrath encashed that boon on that day, when Abhimanyu was killed.
End of story? Not quite.
On hearing of Abhimanyu’s death, Arjun put the blame squarely on Jayadrath and vowed to kill him the very next day before sunset. Or else, he would self-immolate. Now this caused huge hope in the Kaurav camp. Dronacharya summarised that if they managed to protect Jayadrath for that one day, the Paandavs would lose Arjun and that would be the end of their campaign. So, Jayadrath was hidden inside a Shuchi-vyuha (eye of a needle) inside a Chakravyuha. And in a day of battle like no other, Arjun made a mad rush towards Jayadrath. However, when it became obvious that he wouldn’t reach him before sunset, Krishna did a trick and covered the sun. Thinking it was the sunset, Jayadrath jumped out of his chariot and ran up to Arjun, exhorting him to immolate himself. Seeing the defenceless jerk, Krishna uncovered the sun and there was still an over of play left. Arjun hit a six and chopped his head off in one clean shot of an arrow.
All’s well that ends well? Yes, but one twist was still left.
Jayadrath’s father had blessed his son once by saying that if any person causing Jayadrath’s head to fall to the ground would have his own head broken into a thousand pieces. Lovely. So what does Arjun do? He cuts off Jayadrath’s head with one arrow and with six more arrows, he transported the severed head several hundred miles away, where his father was sitting in meditation and dropped it on his lap. Jayadrath’s father saw his son’s head on lap and stood up in shock, causing the head to fall on the ground. And his own head shattered into a hundred pieces.
This one small plot has enough twists, turns, dilemmas, solutions, bravery and bravado to last us a lifetime. Is it possible to learn something from the mother’s womb? Was it ethical to for seven warriors to gang up against a teenaged boy? Why was it necessary for Arjun to make a promise that could have killed him? How could Krishna cover the sun when he promised not to interfere in the battle?

Bengalis are fortunate enough to have access to a brilliant man’s translation of the two epics. Rajshekhar Basu (also known by his nom-de-plume, Parashuram) had a lucid writing style and he transcreated the two epics wonderfully. Generations of Bengalis brushed up their childhood memories of the two epics with these two volumes and continuously returned to them for both the seamless narration and the gripping storylines held great appeal.

Recently, I bought two books on the two epics, which were summarised readings of the two along with a collection of trivia. Trivia is something that I am inexhorably drawn towards. On top of that, there are enough references in these two epics to our socio-cultural history to make them quite addictive.

For example, the dyansty of Ram is documented from 63 generations before him and had Harishchandra (he of truthfulness and Dadasaheb Phalke fame) among the earlier kings. It also had a king by the name of Mandhata (estd 3458 BC) and that is why, extremely old things in Bengali are referred to as Mandhatar aamol (the age of Mandhata)!

Raam and Sita got married when he was thirteen and she was six! They remained in Ayodhya for about 12 years before their exile and in exile for about 14 years. This means, Ram became the king at the age of 39 and ruled for about 30 years before he passed away.

Interestingly, the North Indian view of the world (as it existed beyond the Vindhyas) was quite partisan. The inhabitants of Kishkindhya (present day Bellary district of Karnataka) were monkeys and the inhabitants of Lanka were demons. Even if you are an Indian cricket fan and have seen this often enough, it does strike you as rather demeaning to the Lankans!

The geographical coordinates of Mahabharat are also firmly entrenched around the Delhi NCR. For services rendered in teaching the Hastinapur princes, Dronacharya was given a village on the outskirts of the capital. People started calling it Guru Gaon before DLF and Ansal made the Mall Mile and it became famous as Gurgawan!

In a last ditch attempt to avoid war, the ultimate do-gooder Yudhishthir asked for five villages for the five brothers (which Duryodhan rejected by saying he won't give "enough earth to cover a needle head" without war). The five villages were the eminently recognisable Indraprastha, Sonepat, Panipat and Baghpat while the fifth one is relatively unknown Tilpat.

The two most important parts of the two epics - the two wars lasted only about 18 days each. The Mahabharat war has been documented more accurately with a day-wise casualty list, while the Ramayan war is less accurate but now signposted with festivals. The first day of the Durga Puja (Mahalaya) is when Ram invoked the goddess for her blessings when the battle got really tough and ten days later, he KO'ed Raavan on Dussehra / Vijaya Dashami (before returning to Ayodhya couple of weeks later on Diwali).

And the details... the five Paandavs had codenames for each other when they were in exile (Jay, Jayanta, Vijay, Jayatsen, Jayadwal). The five brothers assumed names when they were hiding in King Viraat's court (Kanka, Ballab, Brihannala, Granthik and Tantipal). Even their conches had names (Anantavijay, Poundra, Debdatta, Sughosh, Manipushpak). Wow! Not to mention that each of them had one overwhelming sin, for which they were unable to reach heaven alive. Even the super-virtuous Yudhishthir had to go through a tour of hell for that one itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-yellow-polka-dotted sin that he did!

You know about that, don't you?

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