One of the first questions I am often asked at book launches is why I am writing a series based on the Mahabharata. When I first told my agent four years ago that I was thinking of doing something like this, his advice for me was: ‘Don’t do it.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘It has been done to death. Nobody wants another version of the same story.’
Along the same vein, my best friend burst out laughing when I told him that my latest book was a re-telling of the Mahabharat. ‘You’re already running out of ideas, aren’t you?’ he said. Maybe I am or I am not, only time will tell, but I understand the sentiment here. ‘It has been done so many times before you by authors, movie directors, researchers, historians, poets and singers before you. What can YOU bring to the table?’ In other words, how can I make an old story ‘fresh’?
That question led me into reading a lot of work based on the epic, and though I cannot say that every book advanced my knowledge, I came away with one telling insight: all derivative work that has come out based on the Mahabharata dealt with masculine issues. By that I don’t just mean that the main characters are male, but also the themes and motifs are male. War, property, heroism and valour are given much importance. Even in the occasional female point-of-view retellings that we’ve had (Palace of Illusions being the most famous one), the underlying themes are all masculine, and the main character often weak and self-loathing.
This is where I saw I could wedge myself in. Is it possible, I asked myself, to not just switch viewpoint in name and tell the same story again, but actually transform the whole mood of the tale into something softer, something more emotional, where the main characters don’t think as much about war and property as they think about things such as love, happiness, contentment, motherhood, sexuality and the like? Sure, the overarching milieu will still be Hastinapur where the final act will be an epoch-ending war, but can we make war a result of our character’s emotional conflicts rather than just a blind race for wealth and valour?
I began writing with this in mind, and after a few false starts, the characters of Ganga and Satyavati began to take shape. Motherhood plays a big role in both their lives, and so does sexual union. Their goals and motivations are not grand, but their journeys are. They wrestle with their emotions, they don’t settle, they persist, they argue, they fight; in their own small ways they unwittingly sow the seeds of the Great War that is still three generations away.
In the second book, there will be three more characters that will take the story forward, and in following their emotional journeys they build the first foundations stones on which the path to Kurukshetra will be laid.
That was my answer to how to add freshness to the Mahabharata. No doubt you will have yours too. If you had the budget to make a movie today, or the time to write a novel or short story, how would you go about making it fresh? What do you think is missing in most current re-tellings of the epic, and what do you think is overplayed to the point of nausea? I will be very interested to know your thoughts.