BY Vani IN Book Reviews, Guest post
Beyond the Mahabharata You Know: Iyengar Imagines a Life, After [Quint]
It was my grandmother who first introduced me to the story of Ashwatthama, the son of Guru Dronacharya in Mahabharata. “He had a gift of immortality and might still be alive after all these many years,” she would often say, making my imagination go wild.
As I grew up, I was surprised to see that there isn’t much written about Ashwatthama in the texts, leaving much room for speculation. Among the many stories that still abound, including those about haunted temples and forts where people have sighted his apparition, there is one that is going to leave you enthralled.
Coming from the pen of Aditya Iyengar, Palace of Assassins, is a tale of revenge, passion and redemption that recasts the events in the aftermath of the great war of Mahabharata and presents one of its most misunderstood characters, Ashwatthama, in a whole new light.
“The battle of Kurukshetra has come to its catastrophic end after eighteen days,” says the blurb. “As Ashwatthama, the lone survivor of the Kaurava camp, regains consciousness, he realises, to his horror, that he has been condemned to a life of immortality and leprosy by Krishna.”
Leprosy?!— why that, one would ask, and here is the answer. After the death of Duryodhana in the war, Ashwatthama mercilessly slaughtered five sons of the Pandavas and three other warriors in their sleep. A cowardly act, no doubt! and coming from one of the best warriors of Bharatvarsha, it angered Lord Krishna so much as to place a deadly curse on him…
“…and since there isn’t much written on Ashwatthama after this, I thought it’d be interesting to see how he dealt with his guilt of killing the Pandavas’ children, and living with the effects of the curse,” Iyengar says of his book, adding how he had to imagine most of Ashwatthama’s life after the war. “Except the characters from the Mahabharata like Ashwatthama, Kripa, Krishna, etc. every other character and every incident in the book is fictional,” he says.
Iyengar’s prose is strong and his narrative flows effortlessly across two hundred pages as he describes the journey of Ashwatthama from the moment he awoke in the middle of a desert to the time he finally found a cure for his leprosy. Now whether he was redeemed of his sins in his lifetime or had to wait several thousands of years is something the reader will find out only after he has finished reading the book. “The novel is set up to a larger series I’m writing that brings together many mythologies from around the world with Ashwatthama as one of the main characters,” says the author.
Iyengar, whose other noted work, The Thirteenth Day, is a retelling of the life of Abhimanyu, writes with great panache, especially as he describes the innermost thoughts of Ashwatthama. I quote here from the book: “…he (Ashwatthama) mused as he often did, during sleepless nights, about life. Its impermanence defined its nature. People broke their lives down into small boxes of time to allow themselves the opportunity to do as many things as possible. Now, faced with an endless length of time to live through, there was no need for him to impose the harness of discipline on his life. Every possible structure he could make for his life seemed artificial and meaningless…”
…and the only person who lends some “meaning” and a semblance of normalcy to his life is Kasturi, a woman he dearly loves. She is the one who guides him to a merchant caravan of Samsaptakas (the oath sworn), who were all a part of the Kaurava camp during the war. It is with their aid then that Ashwatthama hatches a conspiracy to kill all the Pandavas, including the last of their bloodline, a small boy called Parikshit. A part of the plan also includes reclaiming the Syamantaka gemstone from Pandavas that will not only restore his mortality but also cure his leprosy. And while he is determined to go to any length to implement the plan, at the very last moment, he finds himself facing an impossible choice, for his quest could result in the death of the woman he loves.
So, even as I love the structure and the pace of the novel, I am questioning myself why the author chose this particular category of fiction which is so crowded these days. Noticed how so many authors are offering their own demythologised version of Ramayana or Mahabharata from the perspective of a lesser known character? “True, there are a lot of authors writing novels in this category, but I always believe that more perspectives broaden a reader’s vision. It’s good that there are so many interesting perspectives out there,” he says, adding a word about the epic of Mahabharata and how there is always something new to discover in it! True that, I would say!
This article is also available to read here.
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