The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor (long post)

great indian novelThe Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor is a retelling of the Mahabharata in the context of the Indian political scenario, roughly from before Independence till about the middle of the 1980s.

Incidents and characters in Mahabharata that appear: Jayprakah Drona (Minister of State for Adminstrative Reform) and his son, Aswathaman; shooting the target and other ideas as shown by Arjun (here, an English politician), Eklavya but refuses to cut off his thumb (“I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot destroy my life and my mother’s to pay your fee” (199)); Draupadi as Draupadi Mokrasi; the exile of the Pandavas (292 onwards), Hidimba, and Draupadi’s swayamvar, and game of dice.

English language by Sir Richard, “these native languages don’t really have much to them, you know. And it’s not as if you have to write poetry in them. A few crucial words, sufficient English for ballast, and you’re sailing smoothly” (37).

Vyas narrating to Ganpathi, “We Indians cannot resist obliging the young to carry our burdens for us, as you well know, Ganapathi, shouldering mine” (47). “Let us be honest: Gangaji was the kind of person it is more convenient to forget. The principles he stood for and the way in which he asserted them were always easier to admire than to follow. While he was alive, he was impossible to ignore; once he had gone, he was impossible to imitate” (47).

Bibigarh Garden massacre corresponding to Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919), dubbed the Hastinapur Massacre: “There was no warning, no megaphone reminder of the illegality of their congregation, no instruction to leave peacefully: nothing. Rudyard did not even command his men to fire into the air, or at the feet of their targets. They fired, at his orders, into the chests and the faces and the wombs of the unarmed, unsuspecting crowd”. “Historians have dubbed this event the Hastinapur Massacre. How labels lie. A massacre connotes the heat and fire of slaughter, the butchery by bloodthirsty fighters of an outgunned opposition. There was nothing of this at the Bibigarh Gardens that day. Rudyard’s soldiers were lined up calmly, almost routinely; they were neither disoriented nor threatened by the crowd; it was just another day’s work, but one unlike any other.” (80).

Similarities between Mahabharata and the real political history of India: the Mango Tax corresponding to the Salt Satyagraha and Dandi March (1930), Mohammed Ali Karna (“successful Bpmbay lawyer, London-trained, a little arrogant. … son of a driver” (139)) corresponds to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Priya Duryodhani (Duryodhan) is Indira Gandhi, Gangaji (Bhishma) as Gandhi, Manimir as Kashmir, Major Drewpad as Lord Mountbatten, Chakars as China, Tibia as Tibet, East Karnistan the Gelabins, Gelabi Desh (Bangladesh), Krishna and Subhadra, Yudhishtir as Moraji Desai (Deputy PM who formed his own Janata Party), Chaursta incident to real-life Chauri Chaura incident (in the Gorakhpur district), Dhritarashtra as Jawaharlal Nehru, Pandu as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (also INR and collaboration), Amba (Sikhandin the Godless) as Nathuram Godse, Sarah as Annie Besant, ved Vyas as Rajagopalachari, Vidur to V.P. Menon, kanika Menon as VK Krishna Menon, Vyabhichar Singh as

Descriptions of the Pandavas: mother Kunti, Yudhishitr (father: Dharma), Bhim (father: Major Vayu, of Hastinapur palace Guard), Arjun (father: Devendra Yogi), and mother Madri, Nakul and Sahadev (fathers: Ashvin and Ashwin).

“Few women, Ganapathi, fail to be excited by the thought* of producing children from different men; it is the ultimate assertion of their creative power. Fortunately for mankind, however, or perhaps unfortunately, fewer still have the courage to put their fantasy into practice” (86-87).

Narration: “Right Ganapathi, so have I caught up with myself? Filled you in on the rapidly expanding cast of characters? I don’t imagine this is particularly easy for you, is it, with so many dramatis personae to keep abreast of, so many destinies to pursue. But then what we’re talking about is the story of an entire nation, Ganapathi, a nation of 800 million people (and God knows how many more it has gone up by while I have been talking to you). It could have been a lot worse.

Let me see now. There is still so much to say about Gangaji. There is always so much to say about Gangaji. Even if I am, God knows, no hagiographer, I mustn’t fail him entirely in this memoir. I have no intention of tracing every detail of his career here, you can take my word for it. Too many others have done that already, in print, ether and celluloid, for me to want to join the queue” (93).

Truth versus reality of the colonial enterprise: “the foetid slums; the dirt and the despair and the disrepair; the children playing in rancid drains; the little hovels without electricity or water in which human beings lived several to a square yard. This is now the classic picture of India, is it not, and French cinematographers take time off from filming the unclad forms of their women in order to focus with loving pity on the unclad forms of our children. They could have done this earlier too, they and their pen-wielding equivalents of an earlier day, but somehow all the foreign* observers then could only bring themselves to write about the glories of the British Empire. Not of the Indian weavers whose thumbs the British had cut off in order to protect the machines of Lancashire; not of the Indian peasants whose lands had been signed over to zamindars who would guarantee the colonists the social peace they needed to run the country; and not of the destitution and hunger to which these policies reduced Indians. Indulge an old man’s rage, Ganapathi, and write this down: the British killed the Indian artisan, they created the Indian ‘landless labourer’, they exported our full-employment and they invented our poverty” (94-95). “It is difficult for you, living now with the evidence of that poverty around you, taking it for granted as a fact of life, to conceive of an India that was not poor, not unjust, not wretched. But that was how India was before the British came, or why would they have come? Do you think the merchants and adventurers and traders of the East India Company would have first sailed to a land of poverty and misery? No, Ganapathi, they came to an India that was fabulously rich and prosperous, they came in search of wealth and profit, and they took what they could take, leaving Indians to wallow in their leavings” (95).

British administration: “Some of our more Manichaean historians tend to depict the British villains as supremely accomplished – the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent manipulators of the destiny of India. Stuff and nonsense, of course. For every brilliant Briton who came to India, there were at least five who were incapable of original thought and fifteen who were only capable of original sin. They went from mistake to victory and mistake again with a combination of luck, courage and the Gatling gun, but mistakes they made, all the time. Don’t forget that the British were the only people in history crass enough to make revolutionaries out of Americans. That took insensitivity and stupidity on quite a stupendous scale – qualities they could hardly keep out of their rule over our country.

The truth is that the average British colonial administrator was a pompous mediocrity whose nose was so often in the air that he tripped over his own feet. (It was just as well that so many of them had long noses, Ganapathi, for they could rarely see beyond them.) In the process, they made decisions that provoked visceral and lasting reactions. Don’t forget, Ganapathi, that it is to one British colonial policy-maker or another that we owe the Boxer Rebellion, the Mau Mau insurrection, the Boer War, and the Boston Tea Party” (116).

On Muslims and other groups, labelling, and minorities: “The Muslims of India were no more cohesive and monolithic a group than any other in the country. Until politics intervened Indians simply accepted that people were all sorts of different things – Brahmins and Thakurs and Marwaris and Nairs and Lingayats and Pariahs and countless other varieties of Hindu, as well as Roman Catholics and Syrian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Indian Anglicans, Jains and Jews, Keshadhari Sikhs and Mazhabi Sikhs, tribal animists and neo-Buddhists, all of whom flourished on Indian soil along with hundreds and thousands of other castes and sub-castes. Indian Muslims themselves were not just Sunnis and Shias, but Moplahs and Bohras and Khojas, Ismailis and Qadianis and Ahmediyas and Kutchi Memons and Allah alone knew what else. These differences were simply a fact of Indian life, as* incontestable and as innocuous as the different species of vegetation that sprout and flower across our land.

We tend to label people easily, and in a country the size of ours that is perhaps inevitable, for labels are the only way out of the confusion of sheer numbers. To categorize people is to help identify them, and what could be more natural in a country as diverse and over-peopled as India than the desire to ‘place’ each Indian? There is nothing demeaning about that, Ganapathi, whatever our modern secular Westernized Indian gentlemen may say. On the contrary, the application of such labels uplifts each individual, for he knows that there is no danger of him being lost in the national morass, that there are distinctive aspects to his personal identity which he shares only with a small group, and that this specialness is advertised by the label others apply to him” (133-134).

“So we Indians are open about our differences; we do not attempt to subsume ourselves in a homogeneous mass, we do not resort to the identity-disguising tricks of standardized names or uniform costumes or even of a common national language. We are all different; as the French, that most Indian of European peoples, like to put it, albeit in another context, vive la difference!

And, yes, when there are such differences, we do discriminate. Each group discriminates against the others. Your lot were free to be themselves so long as this did not encroach on my lot’s right to do the same.

Mutual exclusion did not necessarily mean hostility. This was the prevailing social credo of the time, but there was a high degree of constructive interaction among India’s various communities under these rules. It was, of course, Gangaji who taught us that the very rules were offensive. As with much else that he tried to teach the nation, we did not entirely learn to change our prejudices. But we became most adept at concealing them” (134).

She prayed to Shiva, Jehovah, Virgin Mother of her adoptive parents, Allah of the Muslims, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, all of who answered her prayers, resulting in five husbands (316)

British rule: ““Friendship?” he interrupted me again. “Don’t be stupid. We are not here to be your friends, black man; we are here to rule you. There is no friendship possible in this world between the likes of you and such as me; not now, not here, not yet, not ever” (161).

Post World War I: “The war was over. The destruction, the fire-bombing, the rocket blitzes, the lingering deaths on the battlefields, all ended with a bullet in a Berlin bunker and a thousand suns exploding over Japan. But in India, Ganapathi, the violence was just about to begin.

It was clear that this was one victory which would cost Britain as much as defeat. The old Empire had been brought to its knees by the effort of self- preservation, like a householder crippled in his successful resistance to a burglar. At the moment of victory, as he was sharing his triumph with his allies, the Prime Minister who symbolized John Bull’s indomitable will was unseated by an electorate that wanted eggs rather than empire and valued indoor gas over imperial glory. When Labour came to power it was evident even to the purblind members of the Society for the Preservation of the Imperial Connection (SPIC) and its marginally more progressive rival the Society for the Promotion of an Anglophile Nationalism (SPAN) that the days of the Raj were numbered. Wearied by war, Britain no longer had the stomach for colonial conflict. His Majesty’s grasp on the reins of his Indian Empire was now noticeably feeble” (209).

Direct Action: “Several thousand cadavers, burning vehicles, gutted homes, looted shops and rivulets of blood later, everyone except the Mahaguru began thinking about the unthinkable: the division of the motherland” (211). Reactions, “And those of us who saw it as madness, who saw it destroy everything we had lived and struggled for, were powerless to stop it. We tried, each in our own way, where we could, but found it too strong for us. Like Gangaji, we walked rather than wept, preached and prayed rather than giving up in despair. But each time we opened our eyes it was to a new anguish, a new despair, which ground its heel into the already unbearable torment of our nation’s suffering” (227).

Reference to Midnight’s Children: section titled “Midnight’s Parents” and “Children being born at inconvenient times of the night who would go on to label a generation and rejuvenate a literature” (240).

On history: “History, Ganapathi – indeed the world, the universe, all human life, and so, too, every institution under which we live – is in a constant state of evolution. The world and everything in it is being created and re-created even as I speak, each hour, each day, each week, going through the unending process of birth and rebirth which has made us all. India has been born and reborn scores of times, and it will be reborn again. India is for ever; and India is forever being made” (245).

India post-independence: “The India of those early years of Independence was a state of continual ferment. It was constantly being rethought, reformed, reshaped. Everything was open to discussion: the country’s borders, its internal organization, its official languages, the permissible limits of its politics, its orientation to the outside world” (246).

Kanika Menon

Arjun’s successive women: “In Manipur, source of a story about the great indigenous school of classical dance, he found Chitrangada, a skilled danseuse who performed startling duets to his percussion instrument. At Khajuraho, from where he mused in print about the nation’s most sensuous tourist attraction, he succumbed to the dusky Yaga, who practised on him the results of her extensive study of temple sculpture. At each halt he left behind something of himself, but he grew immeasurably as well. He moved on, driven by an urge he could not describe and did not fully comprehend, knowing only that he had not yet found what he was seeking.

Despite the women, Arjun’s travels were not all pleasure. He saw the range and immensity of India and all its concerns” (322).

Krishna, party secretary, from Gokarnam: D. Krishna Parthasarathi. “the Ottamthullal is normally a dance that illustrates songs from our Puranas, especially the Ramayanam and theMahabharatam. But what this man is doing is a very good parody. A very good dance, with very good lyrics written by T. Chandran, a Malayali immigrant in England. It is all about learning English manners and ways of behaviour. Very funny.’ The man chortled. ‘But, ah, of course, you do not understand Malayalam. Naturally, naturally. How foolish of me. But wait – if you listen carefully, you will find it is not so difficult, after all.’ “(326).

“In Krishna he found qualities he had never seen in any man nor sought in any woman. He was irresistibly drawn to Krishna’s almost magical combination of self-possession and extroversion, mischief arid maturity, joy and judgement, and his rare gift of the common touch. Days after he should have filed his story and left, Arjun stayed on at Gokarnam as Krishna’s guest and disciple” (328). “Krishna, though always warm and candid, was a master of the art of being elliptical without sounding evasive” (329).

Sisterhood between Draupadi and Subhadra: Subhadra’s son, ABhimanyu and Yudhishtir’s heir, Prativindhya.

Shakuni Kumar Dey: Bengali lawyer, closest advisor and hand-picked President of the Kaurava (R) Party, Duryodhani’s Kanika.

ON elections: elections, as you well know, Ganapathi, are a great Indian tamasha, conducted at irregular intervals and various levels amid much fanfare. It takes the felling of a sizeable forest to furnish enough paper for 320 million ballots, and every election has at least one story of returning officers battling through snow or jungle to ensure that the democratic wishes of remote constituents are duly recorded. No election coverage is complete, either, without at least one picture of a female voter whose enthusiasm for the suffrage is undimmed by the fact that she is old, blind, unlettered, toothless or purdah-clad, or any combination of the above. Ballot-boxes are stuffed, booths are ‘captured’, the occasional election worker/candidate/voter is assaulted/kidnapped/shot, but nothing stops the franchise. And for all its flaws, universal suffrage has worked in India, providing an invaluable instrument for the expression of the public will. India’s voters, scorned by cynics as illiterate and ignorant, have adapted superbly to the election system, unseating candidates and governments, drawing distinctions between local and national elections. Sure, at every election someone discovers a new chemical that will remove the indelible stain on your fingernail and permit you to vote twice (as if this convenience made any great difference in constituencies the size of ours); at every election some distinguished voter claims his name is missing from the rolls, or that someone has already cast his vote (but usually not both). At every election some ingenious accountant produces a set of figures to show that only a tenth of what was actually spent was spent; somebody makes a speech urging that the legal limit for expenditure be raised, so that less ingenuity might be required to cook the books; and everyone goes home happy” (390).

Mahabharta and Kurukshetra:

‘I hope not,’ I barked, ‘because there were no victors at Kurukshetra. Except in the childish popular versions of the epic. The story of the Mahabharata, young man, does not end on the field of battle. What happens afterwards is tragedy, suffering, futility, death. Which underlines the only moral of that battle, and that epic: that there are no real victors. Everyone loses at the end.’

‘But – but what about the great conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the battle between dharma and adharma, between good and evil?’

‘It was a battle between cousins,’ I snapped back. ‘They were killing each other’s flesh and blood, shooting arrows into their own gurus, lying and deceiving their elders in order to win. There was good and bad, dishonour and treachery, betrayal and death, on both sides. There was no glorious victory at Kurukshetra.’

I saw his bewildered expression and took pity on him.

‘Young man,’ I said, my severity relenting, ‘you must understand one thing. This election is not Kurukshetra; life is Kurukshetra. History is Kurukshetra. The struggle between dharma and adharma is a struggle our nation, and each of us in it, engages in on every single day of our existence. That struggle, that battle, took place before this election; it will continue after it.’ 391


Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel. Viking, 1989.

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