‘This book,’ I said to a friend, ‘doesn’t have stories from this century nor from any of the centuries that you read about in the history books.’
‘Really?’ he was confused and appeared reluctant to know more.
‘However,’ I persisted, ‘ this book has stories that still have the power to connect with your present and even tell you a lot about the secrets of managing your professional as well as personal life.’
My friend was clearly getting interested now and so I continued, ‘You can call it a war poem, a battle epic with devas and asuras, and with a lot of dev astras deployed and maha-mantras and fantastical creatures and faraway lands.’
‘Hmmm,’ my friend closed his eyes for a second and said, ‘Tell me more and only then will I decide if the book is worth reading or not.’
I told my friend that I’d write a review of the book and give it to him to read before it was read by anyone else.
I had read the book and I knew that this one was only the first in a series that I would now naturally wait for. The Mahabharata is indeed a compelling story and this book in the series retells the stories that will ultimately lead to the one that most of us know in bits and pieces. The three hundred and fifty odd pages are divided into nine Pakshas leading from the ‘book of creation’ to the story of ‘Shakuntala and Dushyanta’.
Ashok banker, the author, introduces the book to us in his own inimitable style and writes:
As I said in the beginning, it’s not a fantasy retelling. It’s not a sci-fi rendition. It’s not an attempt to gain literary fame and fortune.
It’s just a great story that I wanted to retell all my life.
The author also goes on to raise the crescendo that must rightly come before any tale that is a mix of intrigue, fantasy, mythology, bravery, idealism, solutions, philosophy, and creative imagination by telling us:
I’m the voice in your head, the omniscient narrator of the ‘movie’ you’re about to experience, the singer whose rendition of a great classic evergreen you’re about to hear.
But ultimately, it’s the song that matters.
The grandeur, the majesty, the horror, the wonder.
Turn the page. Start the journey. Discover the impossible. Remember the forgotten.
Yes, even today when we’re surrounded by so much technology, these stories take us on a journey of the impossible… where the themes, plots and the characters talk of time travel, use the most awesome weapons, and are also completely at ease with the tenets of Dharma, Arth, and Kama! You read about mothers who give birth to fierce snakes who dream of ruling the universe and birds who have the strength and guile to fool even the Gods. You read the story where Bhrigu places a curse on Agni (fire):
‘For your betrayal, I curse you,’ he cried to Agni. ‘Henceforth, you shall be an omnivore and shall devour anything that is fed to you with no regard or respect!’
There are characters flying all across the universe before you can blink your eye, eggs that take hundreds of years to hatch, and distances that are thus described:
Now, Mount Mandara is a great peak among mountains. It rises up 11,000 yojanas, which is the length equivalent to 44,000 kroshas, or 99,000 miles! This is only the height of the mountain – its foundation descends many more thousands of yojanas into the earth.
The mountain that you read about in the above quote is the one that the Gods want to be uprooted for they want to use it as a churning pestle to work the ocean. The Gods seek the help of Vishnu, who deputes Anantha, the great Nagaraj, to do the job… and so the story moves on!
There are stories in the book which are connected to each other though they are separated by time, place, and sometimes, even the physical nature of life as it existed then. An interesting connector here is the language of the original text. Ashok banker has been able to bring in the same fluidity of expression in his rendition of the stories in English. The book does mention the way Sanskrit had the mesmerizing power to tell stories and I instinctively felt I should have been more attentive in my Sanskrit classes in school… then maybe I’d have attempted reading these stories in the original language. However, not much seems to have been lost as Banker has done a pretty job here.
For here in the extremes of civilization, they followed the old ways. News of a death was to be stated in a particular fashion. Sanskrit was a precise, poetic language. Within its paradoxically simple yet complex grammar, there were no movements that were not dance, no phrasing that was not lyrical. All was precise and aesthetically balanced, beauty and precision perfectly entwined.
Ashok Banker goes on to praise the value of these stories:
No person hearing it and imbibing its virtues will ever be found wanting in spiritual prowess. While it is called the Fifth Veda, it is at once equivalent to all the Vedas. Indeed, it is an education in itself.
I would agree with the author here. By the time you finish reading the stories here you’ll be thirsting for more. You’ll tell yourself how you’ve missed reading all this stuff and would go on and start your own search for more stories. I’m sure you will take the next logical step and try and get the subsequent volumes as soon as you sight them in a book store.
Details of the book:
Title – Mahabharata Series Book one. The Forest of Stories.
Author – Ashok K Banker
ISBN – 978-93-81626-37-5
Price – Rs 295/-
Publisher – Westland
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23 March 2012