Bookmarked: The great Indian novel- An epic Blunder By Ramlal Agarwal

In this literary essay, Ramlal Agarwal talks about Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel and how text of the epic is twisted beyond recognition turning it into a disappointing experience for the reader.

Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel has come in for high praise in India and abroad, and is already in its fifth edition. Khushwant Singh called it one of the most significant books in recent times. Washington Port reviewed it on its front page and the Times London, called it a tour de force

Tharoor humbly explains why he calls his novel The Great Indian Novel. He further states, his primary source of inspiration is the Mahabharata. Since Maha means Great, and Bharat means India, he calls this novel The Great Indian Novel

Perhaps his second source of inspiration is the recent history and politics. Shashi believes that the recent history of Indian is a replay of the Mahabharat. Therefore, he recounts both, the epic and the history of modern India simultaneously. He carries the double task in the manner and style of Salman Rushdie. The extraordinary success of Rushdie’s Midnight’s children had encouraged Indian writers in English to get rid of high-seriousness of the modernist writers, to abandon all the concerns for the purity of form and assert their right over English left behind by the colonists.  Steeped in the spirit of the times, Tharoor starts the novel in the mock- seriousness by invoking Lord Brahma to provide him with an amanuensis to write his epic and accordingly, Lord Ganesha is made available to him. Since the Kaurawas and the Pandavas had left for their heavenly abode Tharoor reinvents them and starts with his own Mahabharat.  Gangaji, a brand-new version of Ganga Putra Bhishma reaches Motihari in Bihar to alleviate the suffering of badly brutalized and exploited farmers with his new weapon of satyagraha. With this start, the reader comes to know that it is going to be both Mahabharata and history.

In the epic Dhridrastra sits in a throne of burnished gold and total darkness but in his new avatar, he is educated at Harrow and Cambridge, is glib of tongue, gifted with charming looks, super intelligence and wit but blinded by excessive idealism. He has a way with masses and elites and favored by Gangaji in tricky situations. He became the first Prime Minister of India. His cousin Pandu is rugged, very practical, hard-headed realist but kept away because of mortal disease.

Dhritarashtra, though he has hundred sons in the epic, has a daughter called Priya Duryodhani. Pandu, incapacitated, has five sons from extraneous sources, the eldest being called Yudhistir. Dhritrashtra, in his excessive idealism believes that the Chakkars would help him in the development of the country but they betray him and attack and defeat India.   Krishna, Dhirtrashtra’s most trusted lieutenant, turns out to be supercilious. Dhritrashtra does not recover from the shock of Chakkar’s betrayal and eventually Priya Dhuryodhani becomes the Prime Minister.  Priya Dhuryodhani, unlike her father, holds power in her Iron grip and rules the country ruthlessly. When Yudhishtir puts a claim for the spoils of Independence, she invites him for a game of dice and manages to strip him of his claim even on his wife Mokrasi Draupadi. Duryodhani orders Dushasan to drag Mokrasi to the court and strip her naked. Fortunately, Mokrasi saves herself from the shame and humiliation by unfurling soft muslin sarees after sarees till Dushashan faints. After losing all at the game of dice, Pandavas take to the jungle where they meet Guru Drona. They request him to teach them the art of warfare. They also engage in good social work and when elections are declared, they emerge victorious.  All are happy. But all that does not last long. Yudhisthira was in the habit of drinking his urine. He becomes ridiculous in the eyes of foreign dignitaries and common people alike. Large graffiti appears on public urinals in large letters blazing ‘Yudhistir Juice Centre ‘.  Yudhistir, known for his truthfulness, equivocates about the death of Ashwaththama, who has turned a bitter critic of Yudhisthira. Yudhistir fears that if, because of Ashwathama, Drona turned against him it would mean the end of his rule. So, he equivocates that his son Ashwathama was dead. The news puts an end to Drona’s life and the Pandavas disintegrate and in the next election Priya Duryodhani returns to power. Shashi is heartbroken because he thinks that there seems to be no future for India as it cannot return better men to take its care.  

The reader, without being told in obvious terms, knows that stripping of Mokrasi is another way of writing about emergency and Yudhistir’s equivocation is the news of a false report of Jayprakash’s death in the parliament. The narrative produces a double effect very clearly.

However, the projection of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Jinnah, Indra Gandhi as Gangaji, Dhritarashtra, Pandu, Karna, Priya Duryodhani shows little understanding of the real worth and importance of these men. All of them were very deep, complex, profound and serious personalities and the issues they dealt with were very complicated, and intriguing and having far reaching effects on the future of millions of people of this continent. But they are treated in an off-hand, flippant and derisive manner. Similar treatment is meted out to the heroes of the epic Arjun and Bhim the two architects of the war of Mahabharat are assigned impersonal roles of journalist and army and are invisible in the novel. Moreover, the text of the epic is twisted beyond recognition.

As such, neither the epic, nor the recent history of India, nor the merger of the two finds full and effective expression and the novel turns out to be a totally disappointing experience for the reader. Fortunately, Tharoor too realizes this bitter truth and admits that “he has told his story from a completely mistaken perspective”. 

Author’s Bio

Ramlal Agarwal did his M.A. from Mumbai University in 1965 and Ph.D. from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in 1977. Taught English and also served as Principal (1995 to 2000), Chairman, Board  of Studies in English, Dean of faculty of Arts, Dr. B.A.M.U., Aurangabad. Reviewed Indian Writing in English for World Literature Today, U.S.A. and contributed articles and reviews to The Times of IndiaIndian ExpressQuest, Youth Times and other national papers and magazines. His work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was published by Sterling Publishers, Delhi (1990). He currently lives at Jalna ( Maharashtra ) and runs an NGO.

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