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Considerable control is called for while re-imagining myth so that it does not degenerate into fantasy. The first successful attempt at this with the Mahabharata was by the Bengal civilian Nabin Chandra Sen in his Bengali epic trilogy, Raivatak, Kurukshetra, Prabhas (1887-1896). Gajendrakumar Mitra did so in the novel  Panchajanya (1963), a trend continued today by Dipak Chandra. In Gujarati, K.M. Munshi recreated Vedic India and the Mahabharata in Bhagwan Parashuram and the unfinished octology Krishnavatara. In Hindi, Gurudutt, Acharya Chatursen and Narendra Kohli novelised Vedic and Puranic India. Marathi, Kannada and Malayalam fiction drew upon both  mahakavyas. In English, in the 1980s came Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s magnificent Mahabharata trilogy exploring the psychological quests of its characters. Ashok Banker started off a rediscovery of Indian myth as fiction with his Ramayana heptalogy. This stream has grown from a trickle in the late 1990s to a gushing river by 2015. What is particularly interesting is that now engineers and management executives are turning to this massive narrative heritage to create novels. Unfortunately, except for Krishna Udayasankar’s  Aryavarta trilogy and Rajiv Menon’s  Thundergod, the rest leave much to be desired in terms of language and style. Since most Indian publishers scrimp on editors, these flights of mythic fiction are riddled with errors of idiom, spelling and grammar.  

This is where Ramakrishna’s debut novel — the first of a trilogy — comes as a welcome surprise. A software architect with a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon, reading him is a rare pleasure. He re-imagines the events as occurring in 2000 BC. This is India north of the Vindhyas with a non-literate oral culture, bereft of iron, horses and chariots, with onager and cattle drawn carts, mud wattle cottages, bows, arrows and bronze weapons. There are no missiles, no aircraft, no huge gem-encrusted palaces and gleaming silken attire. But why are there no ornaments when archaeological evidence exists?

Beginning with the reminiscences of the dying Kuru patriarch Bhishma is not a new device. Pratibha Ray used it very dramatically, opening Yajnaseni with Draupadi’s life flashing before her dying eyes. In somewhat similar fashion, the dead Karna speaks to us in Shivaji Sawant’s  Mrityunjaya. The Mahabharata is a series of extended flashbacks at several levels, beginning with Dhritarashtra’s plangent lament over past incidents that presaged no hope for victory —  tada na shamse vijayaya sanjaya! However, Ramakrishna does start with a shock: Bhishma, ambushed by Shikhandin (his son by Amba), kills him and is shot by Arjun. Vengeful Amba drives the arrow deeper into him.

Ramakrishna creates the Kavi Sangha, a guild of bards, functioning as the memory of over 2000 matriarchal communities led by the Purus, trading with Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. Ramakrishna calls Egypt  Pitri-vihara-naad, the land of temples to ancestors, although its original name still remains “Misra”, a mixed people, harking back to the Bhavishya Purana which speaks of sage Kashyapa with his son Misra going to that country and Brahminising the people. As the Sarasvati basin dried up, the Purus migrated from Panchanad (Indus etc.) to the banks of the Yamuna and Ganga, establishing Hastinapur as a trading outpost to the east. In the process, they pushed out the slash-and-burn Naga culture and clashed with the hunter-gatherer Rakshasa tribes. A transition occurred from a matriarchal trading and forest-based life to a patriarchal urban society with an army of farmers. Ramakrishna is quite the geographer, drawing a clear picture of the how the changing courses of rivers brought about changes in prehistoric cultures. He is an ethnographer too, providing details of the matriarchal, matrilocal and matrilineal cultures at tedious length. He is also a linguist discoursing on the Phoenician alphabet used by the trading  Baoga (Sanskritised “Bhargava”) and the development of a phonetic, metrical script (Sanskrit) by Vaishampayana, who is prejudiced against writing. He is persuaded to dictate the memorised archives to a Bhargava scribe, as narrated by Bhishma to the archivist Lomaharshana in the presence of the Vyasa named Shukla, Satyavati’s brother.

The problem is one of verisimilitude. Nowhere in Indian myth are the Nagas depicted as matriarchal. Ramakrishna could easily have kept to the original Nishada descent of Satyavati without any problem. The Nagas were an ethnic group living in and around the original kingdom of Yayati at Khandavprastha which the Pandavas reclaimed as Indraprastha. Ramakrishna creates a siege of this city by Suyodhan who cuts off the water supply, foolishly allowing the Pandavas to escape into the forest. He goes to great lengths to set up Bhishma as the dynast of a trading family who builds an army to establish a comity of communities along the Himalayan foothills against Saka inroads. The proposition may not be difficult to swallow for readers unfamiliar with the  Mahabharata.

The Kavi Sangha’s chief is called “Vyasa”. Anachronistically, Ramakrishna makes Vasishtha and Vishvamitra precede Bhrigu as Vyasas. This guild functions as the Chanakya-like advisor to the ruler, imposing a one-child norm on migrants from Panchanad to the Kuru habitation and upon the Nagas who are the crop-growers. To set an example, Shantanu has to do away with all his sons from Ganga born after Devavrat. Ganga commits suicide in despair. Devavrat, though taken with Satyavati of the Meena-Nagas (also called “Matsya”), sacrifices his desires for his father’s sake. Satyavati’s brother Shukla spins the plot whereby her sons get the throne instead of Devavrat-an interesting twist. Another innovation is in the death of her son Chitrangad, rashly attacking marauding horse-riding Sakas. Ramakrishna paints a gruesome scene in which Devavrat, finding that the Sakas have blinded Chitrangad and torn out his tongue, secretly cuts his throat to spare him further agony and spreads the tale that he was killed by Gandharvas. Devavrat acquires the sobriquet “Bhishma-Terrible” because of his horrific torture of captured Saka families in revenge. From the Sakas he rescues the Naga maiden Amba, falls in love with her and brings her with her two sisters to Hastinapur. Satyavati constantly upstages her co-regent Bhishma, even forcing him to have the widowed queens live in his palace so that they imbibe the true Kuru aura, pleading that physicians have so advised! Bhishma is shown to be clueless about what was happening within the palace, always busy with constructing water-works and building an army to establish an empire. There is no mention of the levirate custom. Amba, driven away Satyavati when pregnant with Devavrat’s child, delivers Shikhandi among the Panchals, the traditional foes of the Kurus. Ramakrishna’s Panchals are a standing Naga army set up to tackle the rogue Naga band led by Takshaka. Draupadi is the matriarch of the Panchals, Krishnaa Agnijyotsna, the Dark Lady. Whatever happened to King Drupada and what is gained by naming Drona “Kutaja”?

Unaccountably, Ramakrishna makes Dhritarashtra the son of the younger Ambalika instead of Ambika, whose son he names Mahendra, called “Pandu” being an albino. Disagreeing with Bhishma’s policies, Mahendra exiles himself. Duryodhan repeatedly shouting “Shut up!” at his father jars because in the Mahabharata he does not insult Dhritarashtra, as he draws all his authority from him. The grand heroic scale of Devavrat’s vow is diminished drastically. There is an incongruous reference to the Roman deity Saturn as arbiter of fate on page 415.

The novel ends with Bhishma’s shock at discovering from the Vyasa Shukla that Dhritarashtra and Pandu were not of Vichitravirya’s blood, but are progeny of the son of Parashara, the earlier Vyasa, and Satyavati. This is a signal departure from the original where it is Bhishma who advises resorting to levirate by an eminent Brahmin and assents to Satyavati summoning her illegitimate son Vyasa. However, Ramakrishna’s insight is correct, that neither of the contending cousins had any Kuru blood in them. At least Dhritarashtra was Satyavati’s grandson, while the Pandavas are not her grandchildren, each having a different, unknown father. Thus, the Kavi Sangha, guild of bards, came to wrest the throne from the trading dynasty of Purus. Ramakrishna may have drawn inspiration from the Brahmin Pushyamitra Sunga wresting the throne of Pataliputra from his Mauryan master.

The book has an excellent map, a helpful family tree and a descriptive glossary of names. For a welcome change, there are practically no typos and the novel reads very well, except that it could have been tighter by omitting the excursions into geography, linguistics and ethnography which the appendices cover in detail. We certainly look forward to the sequels.

 The reviewer retired as additional chief secretary, West Bengal, and specialises in comparative mythology.

Source :- http://www.thestatesman.com/news/8th-day/re-imagining-the-mahabharata/146552.html

The Last Kaurava #BookReview

The Last Kaurava Book Cover
 The Last Kaurava
 Mahabharat
 Kamesh Ramakrishna
 Mythology
 Leadstart Publishing, www.leadstartcorp.com
 2015
 Paperback
 533
 The publisher provided me a copy for review.

 The Last Kaurava as the name suggests is again the Mahabharat retold from a different point of view.  In this case,  it’s the story being told by Bhishma / Devavrat lying on his deathbed during the Kurukshetra war.

The book is treating the story in a very different manner.  It has been stripped of all mythology, gods and supernatural powers.   It is also of stories told as in popular culture,  and the stories untold.   The author Kamesh Ramakrishna,  has spent lot of time on researching the history and geography of Hastinapur.  He has put forth scientific reasonings for the settlement of people in India.  He reasons that the original inhabitants of Indraprastha and before that Hastinapur were Nagas.  Unlike the mythology,  here Nagas are a tribe of people and not literally snakes.  They are nomadic tribes who keep shifting to the east to find new lands for cultivation.  The land they are leaving behind is occupied by tribes coming in from the west due to a drought caused by an earthquake.  The author scientifically proves that an earthquake caused the rivers to change directions especially the Saraswati river which dries up on its original path, thus affecting the lives of many villages.  They start migrating following other river paths.

The story begins with the cult of Kavi Sanghas who have written the Mahabharat.  Initially,  Mahabharat had an oral tradition.  So,  Devavrat, on his deathbed narrates his life story to Lomaharshana who is a memoriser from the Kavi Sangha.  He has the blessings of sage Vashishta.   But due to another flood and dying of many people,  the rulers of Kurukshetra want the Mahabharat to be written down.  But, it is a difficult task.   The oral tradition ensures that the story changes in every narration.  As the Kavi Sangha do not have their own writing skills,  Bhargava who is a trader from Persia comes to write for the Kavi.  I really loved the way,  the creation of scripts for writing the Mahabharat is explained.  It ensures that all the sounds are captured and can be repeated in exactly the same manner similar to the current Devanagari script.

The author dispels every myth and gives it a truer color.  So, there is no story of the eight Vasus who were cursed to be born on earth with Bhishma being the eighth one.  Even Ganga,  is not the river here.  She is just a lady named Ganga which is more believable than having rivers giving birth.   But here, we have to understand why the Mahabharat is written in this manner.  It was a Jaya or a victory song written post the Kurukshetra war as was the norm in those days.   As expected, it is written by the winner.  He can decide to write only good about himself and can cast everyone else as evil.  Just to make the story interesting,  mythology and fan fiction is added.  So, Krishna becomes a God and Kunti gives birth to children fathered by Gods.   He explains how the Nagas were having a matriarchy.  But, the Kauravas take over and patriarchy is instilled.  He explains how Kings came into being.

It just sounds too probable and close to the truth.  I was gearing up to read another Mahabharat with the version of Bhishma.  But, quite liked the way the book builds up.  Initially,  I felt the book is a bit slow with too many details about the workings of the Kavi Sangha.  But, later realised it is essential to the story.  It helps to understand how or what factors have influenced the Mahabharat.  I loved the realistic background to many mythical aspects of the story.  The book is well-written,  excellent language.   Just wish,  it could be shorter by about 100 pages.

Source : http://www.kaapitimes.com/2016/01/the-last-kaurava-bookreview/

Be True Re…View: The Last Kaurava by Kamesh Ramakrishna

Mythology is built on archetypes. Jung would call it the foundation stones of our conscious. The Mahabharata is one such story that has shaped, reshaped and changed the identity of every Indian, regardless of their religious fidelity. Its popularity is also down to the malleability of its stories. The Mahabharata legendarily began from a 14 stanza sonnet named ‘Jaya’. Its eventual avatars transformed it into the gigantic 18 chapter epic, as it is known today. Kamesh Ramakrishna with his first novel, The Last Kaurava, joins the list of authors who have attempted to reshape parts of the epic by looking at it from a different perspective. Considering the list includes names like Ved Vyasa, C Rajagopalachari, KM Munshi, he should consider himself privileged.
For any retelling of an epic, a prominent narrator is a necessity. Devavrat Bhishma, as the narrator, accomplishes the task. The novel is a series of conversations that occur parallelly between two groups of people. The first is the horse himself, Devavrat Bhishma, narrating the origin of the events on his deathbed to Yudhishtira in the enemy camp. The second group is Veda Vyasa and his scribe, Bhargava. The conversations vary in nature, but it does not change the tempo of the novel. Having read variations that focus on the action of the events, the glorious battles, the heightened deceit and the malicious villainy, a discussion on the politics and the reasons behind the battle seems a little placid. However, it does manage to create a very imaginative background for the battle. I say imaginative since the epic itself can hardly be proved to a fact.If the context is the highlight of the book, its flaw is the conversations. They follow like Eliot’s tedious arguments, but without the insidious intent. The background of the two groups of narrators feels unnecessary and a plot diversion. I read somewhere about dialogues being the bane of a good plot. It seems to prove true here.The author, Kamesh Ramakrishna, is a software engineer turned writer. His first book accomplishes his immense ability at research, analysis, and imaginative thinking. Where it fails is in its ability to generate a more healthy pace in its narration. For a seriously interested reader, the book opens a new line of inquiry from a different environmental perspective into the epic. But for someone looking to jump into the book expecting battles and brazen dialogue, stay away. This is serious stuff!
Source :-  http://houdini-aboutnothing.blogspot.in/p/be-true-review-last-kaurava-by.html

The Last Kaurava by Kamesh Ramakrishna – Book Review

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November 28, 2015   Book Reviews

The Last Kaurava

BY: KAMESH RAMAKRISHNA

Synopsis:

The last Kaurava is a novel set against the background of a crisis circa 2000 BCE caused by the drying up of the Saraswati. Hastinapur on the Ganga is a frontier town that is overwhelmed by immigrants. Social policied set to manage the crisis fail and set the stage for the great war that destroyed one civilisation and established the first empire in the region.

A frame story, set in 850 BCE (over a thousand years after the great war), reimagines the meta episode in the epic of how God Ganesha agreed to be Vyaasa’s scribe, subject to unusual conditions.

In the words of the author “I imagined a highly evolved, non literate and orally based culture in 850 BCE, utterly unlike its ‘literate’ Western (i.e.) Persian, Assyrian, Greek etc.) contemporaries. I followed some ground rules. Nothing fantastic – no gods, goddesses or demons,; no magic, no magical weapons, no miraculous conceptions, no karmic explanations. Situating the Great War in 2000 BCE limited the technologies available – for instance, no nuclear weapons but more to the point, no horses or iron or million man armies. Iron was scarce or unknown; armies were small, horse drawn war chariots would not exist for another 200 years. Transportation was by carts drawn by oxen or onagers (the “Asian wild ass”). The people were not all that different from us – they loved, they hated, they were kind, they got angry, they acted without thinking, they plotted, they lied, they demanded the truth etc. Not better than us and not worse either. They were just like us. The result is this novel.”

Book Review:

The Last Kaurava is a work of fiction which is the imagined version of Mahabharata. Involving the characters of the great epic, the author has tried to create his own version of Mahabharata, where the stories and events follow the imagination of the author. It took me a while to get into the concept and thus into the storyline as this version is quite different from the original one; but once the flow was taken, I started enjoying the story.

The characters are same as that of the Mahabharata, but the incidents are very much different from the original. However, it follows a very strong and crisp storyline which is highly engaging. The characterisation is also very good.

The research being done before recreating the epic is impeccable and the narration style is very good and highly descriptive which adds to the beauty of the novel.

Overall a captivating and enjoyable read. Those who love mythological fiction will enjoy the novel and they must give it a shot.

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Source :-   http://mybookshelf.in/book-reviews/the-last-kaurava-by-kamesh-ramakrishna-book-review/