The Mahabharatha, India’s most famous epic has spawned a number of books and movies each focusing on a definite aspect or a character in the epic in a modern and inquisitive manner. M.T Vasudevan Nair, the famous Malayalam author had produced a seminal piece of work, ‘Randamoozham’, literally meaning second chance, based on the epic. Prem Panicker, the well-known journalist, has recreated this text in English in serialised form and now has collected them all into an e-book titled ‘Bhimsen’. The book according to Panicker is not a translation of the original work by M.T but a re-telling of ‘Randamoozham’ in the Queen’s language.
Prem Panicker is a well-known journalist who writes mostly about cricket. A founder member for rediff.com, Panicker read M.T’s book in his youth and went on to encounter many other books and plays dealing with the Mahabharatha. Inspired by some and ‘pissed off’ by some shoddy works based on the same myth, Panicker started writing his version of ‘Randamoozham’ in a serialised form on his blog, Smoke Signals. Panicker says he was amazed by the different dimensions the epic could take depending on the viewpoint an observer took, “like a kaleidoscope, where every time you gently flick your wrist, strange and wonderful patterns emerge from the same broken bits of glass”.
”Bhimsen” is an innovative take on the Mahabharatha from the point of view of Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers. At the outset Bhimsen is a demystified version of the Mahabharatha. The characters are made out to be a lot more human rather than mythical. Hastinapura, Indraprastha and Dwaraka are medium-sized kingdoms, almost to the point of the ordinary. The battle at Kurukshethra could easily have been one of the many skirmishes of those times and definitely not an event the human race would have stopped to watch, as is the general impression. In a way, much of the grandeur and supernatural we are prone to associate with the epic has been removed in the book. Not that this approach towards the epic is in any way a new discovery but it contributes to the text a realistic nature that warms the soul. Take for instance the episode where Yudhisthira, supposedly sticking to his dharmic virtues proposes to share Draupadi among the five of them. Whereas classic interpretation sites it as an example of the dharmaputhra following his mother’s command to the letter, Panicker, preceded by M.T, detects the luster of lust in his eyes.
The most striking, and probably the most important aspect of Bhimsen is the way Panicker has portrayed Bhima. Popular imagination sees Bhima as a glutton, an oaf, a huge man who is good in combat but with negligible intellect, a bumbling fool. In fact, Bhima very often comes of as comic relief amidst the high-brow deliberations of Yudhishtira or as a foil to the excellence of Arjuna’s archery. But in Bhimsen, Bhima is none of those. All characters in the book have been stripped of any godly nature they had and are portrayed as raw humans with the good and bad that is a part and parcel of the species. Thus Bhima is a normal human being who is capable of sophisticated thought, tender emotions and quite a bit of common sense. He questions the actions of his elder brother which are all based on dharma found in the obscure ancient texts his brother reads and explained by the sages his brother courts frequently. However, those actions lead, more than once, to danger and a deprived life full of hardships.
These instances are re-told usually as examples of Yudhishtira willingness to go through anything for the sake of dharma and justice. However, Bhima is brought in almost as a pragmatist who thinks that what is most relevant and useful for him and his family is the right path. At times he even questions his brother, only to be rebuffed by lectures on dharma and karma. We are often told how the Pandavas are sons of gods and thus pre-ordained for success through divine intervention. But in his brusquely pragmatic way Bhima shows the courage to grow out of what he himself has been told and to question how the impotent Pandu begot five sons. He dismisses the bards’ songs as fanciful public relations exercises. To quote the book, Bhima says “I could never listen to balladeers sing of my battle against Bakan without feeling the urge to laugh out loud. They called him an asura and invested him with all kinds of magical powers… but the battle itself was merely a matter of killing someone who needed it – a quick, clean kill with nothing to recommend it in terms of strategy and tactics”. Towards the end of the book, his mother Kunti even tells him about the human men who fathered her sons.
The book progresses almost exclusively through the senses of Bhima. Thus we get to read only the events at which Bhima was present in person. Thus the Bhagvat Gita barely gets a mention and the glorious battles fought by illustrious warriors are not to be found in full glory. Panicker, however, uses the end of the day discussions in the Pandava war camp to furnish some details about the exciting duels and gruesome fights fought by Arjuna, Dhrishtadyumna and the ilk so that we readers do not miss out entirely on the action. The policy of approaching events exclusively through Bhima is applied to all the characters as well. Thus, Karna whom we see as the ultimate tragic anti-hero is just an arrogant, cruel, sutaputra who ingratiates himself with Duryodhana to achieve his personal ends and destroy the Pandavas in the process. The Pandavas and their many allies are shown in different lights according to the various situations in which Bhima is involved. But the Kauravas are all villains, snakes of the first water. There is no attempt to glorify or justify the deeds of the Kauravas as that would never be the view of Bhima.
‘Bhimsen’ the book is not based on gods and goddesses, the book is realistic and thrives on it. Unlike in the old scriptures where Duryodhana attempts at drowning Bhima after reciving nectar from a magical kingdom. Instead The book suggests that he trains to heal and strengthen himself with a tribe of Nagas.
Bhima’s wife and son are portrayed as humble tribal folk. Karna’s Shakti, an arrow devised by the Indira is described intricately. The arrow is a one time use only weapon that is fuelled by the venom of live snakes. It can kill anyone and cannot be replaced.
Arjuna does not receive his special weapons as gifts from various gods as our grandmothers would have us believe, but they are the fruits of long and arduous hard work with the bow and arrow. Yudhishtira is not blessed with his qualities from birth. All the knowledge he has gained is through hours spent in front of ancient texts and devotedly listening to various sages.
The book, however, does not portray Bhima as perfect or infallible. His failings are only too apparent. This especially shows in his dealings with Draupadi. He has an almost unconquerable lust for her and he has to fight his inner animal constantly to avoid breaking the rules regarding the business of Panchali being a wife to the five brothers. At the same time, Bhima completely forgets about Hidimbi, his first love and Balandhara. Both women have borne him able sons who turn up to fight for him despite his indifferent attitudes to them and their mothers.
The book is extremely well written, as one would expect from a writer of the stature of Prem Panicker. He manages to convey in full pomp and glory the magnificence of the original work in Malayalam. The writing is simple and lucid and cruises along smoothly. Panicker captures the essence of M.T’s original work and still maintains a distinct and original quality in his work. The book initially appeared in serialised form, so each chapter is an episode and so is more or less self contained and a story in itself. Many notable books and plays in this vein have been written in all the major Indian languages – Shivaji Sawant’s ‘Mrityunjay’ (Marathi), Pratibha Ray’s ‘Yajnaseni’ (Oriya) and P K Balakrishnan’s ‘Ini Njan Urangatte’ (Malayalam) being just three among them – but unfortunately for the English-language reader, hardly any of these are available in high-quality translation. This makes Panicker’s ‘Bhimsen’ a landmark effort worth the praise it has got. The book is definitely worth a read and can be downloaded for free in PDF format from Prem Panicker’s website.
Aju Basil James