Symposium 3: Reassessments

Until the Lions: Of Myths and Men

Battle Scene Between Kripa and Shikhandi from the Mahabharata
c. 1670, South India. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Until the Lions: Of Myths and Men

Karthika Naïr

When I was nine, my father overheard me bragging to friends, children of his colleagues in the army. Though he had not been injured in battle, he had fought in all three wars India had waged in the 1960s and 70s, and been recognised for his work – feats I had been flaunting to secure my glazed brick on our particular social pyramid. Our lot had rather grim measures of hierarchy: so, the classmate whose parent had lost a limb in a bomb blast easily held the capstone; the rest of us were scrabbling below.

After he walked into our vicarious contest, my father didn’t say much. That night, though, he quietly shared a few thoughts, memories, with me. First, that there were no altruistic battles, that countries engaged in warfare out of self-interest. There was nothing celebratory about military combat, he said: it was – at best – a necessary evil, all too often initiated in a show of political or national pride; once in a while, to defend land and freedom. Whatever the reason, it was undertaken at almost immeasurable cost.

There were, he said, few noble victors in war, seldom real ‘saviour armies’. Victory could stoke horrible reactions in human beings: it encouraged pillage and abuse even in ordinarily principled people. When men became conquerors, he said, they often paid for it by losing part of their humanity, only they didn’t know it immediately. He didn’t ever want to hear me boasting about his war record, because he had done what was necessary at that point, what many thousands of people had to. But it was not something one should want to relive, nor brandish as an achievement.

Most of what he explained did not make sense immediately; in fact, what I had felt then was a bewildered indignation that he would not let me crow about such exciting deeds. Yet, the words stayed close, sounding louder and clearer over time, as events around the world – in Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Manipur, closer and closer home – served to provide a brutal, ever-growing illustration.

By the time I began to write Until the Lions, those words had become as an ostinato inside my head, with fragments echoing in various keys. Those words were ones I heard no more outside memory, as my father (like much of the world around him) gradually shifted to hawkish convictions about national identity and army impunity, and a growing distrust in the need for dissent.

Each of the characters in the book views one or more of the triggers and upshots of war through separate vantage points, whose existence I learnt from my father’s earlier, farsighted self. Each brings a reminder of the moral and physical price exacted on and outside the battlefield – in victory and defeat – by the unnamed wellspring of warfare: militant patriarchy. A patriarchy which demands ownership, appropriation: of land, of wealth, of qualities like heroism and honour, and, inevitably, of bodies, especially those considered an inferior other. Indigenous communities, ‘lower’ castes, women.

Women. As another soldier remarked, throughout history women are among the first casualties of war and conflict. Their bodies become territories: possessed, ravaged, ploughed as though for produce, discarded, carelessly destroyed. But, unlike with land, the stigma of conquest is attached to their person; they become repositories of lost honour, individual and collective.

Salman Rushdie wrote most memorably on this in Shame, on the strange – and expedient – transfer of subjugation and dishonour from the men who’ve experienced defeat to the women who will suffer the consequences of that defeat and bear its scars on their bodies. Narratives across time echo this enduring practice of violence and violation inflicted on women, whether through Briseis and Cassandra in Homer’s Iliad, , Sita and Shoorpanaka in Valmiki’s Ramayana, or the daughters of El Cid in El Poema de mio Cid.

But why the Mahabharata: that is a question asked frequently. After all, this age scarcely has a shortage of accounts of large-scale conflicts and their aftermath. Why not write a brand-new story, anchored by the present, set in an identifiable place?

Perhaps because foundational epics remain instantly identifiable. They contain the essence of the human experience, whichever the era or continent they are (re)discovered in, and however different the civilisation. They reflect the richness and complexity of humankind, its capacity for betrayal, cruelty, enduring hate, and also for breath-taking generosity and love. They know the cadences of the human heart and can deliver them through universally recognisable, even familiar, chords. Ambition, greed, arrogance, envy. Tenderness, desire, loyalty, sacrifice. Foundational epics highlight them all, their conflicting presence, within the same characters – sometimes within the same chapter.

And the Mahabharata, specifically? Like many Asians, I would be hard-pressed to say just when this epic first flew across my consciousness, how it found a permanent perch there. Was it during intricate all-night kathakali performances where gods, heroes and villains – resplendent in ornate costumes and fiery masks – descended on stage to effortlessly own attention and memory? Through thunderous fantasy films? Nightly sessions in preschool years with a raconteur great-aunt? Was it a recital of Ved Vyaasa’s text, deemed the original, or a regional variation, Tamil, Bhil, Javanese…? Or Amar Chitra Katha comics – those early conduits to myth, legend and history for generations of Indians (region, religion, language no bar)?

As children, we each had our favourite: hypnotic Krishna, god incarnate; genial, gluttonous Bheema; brave, tormented Karna, caught between friend and family; beautiful, outspoken Draupadi…

Then, as we grow up, the Mahabharata begins to play tricks. It begins to resemble a kaleidoscope: shake the tube and patterns that emerge one minute will be nothing like what you saw an instant earlier. The bits and bobs inside will be the same – glass, feathers, leaves, thread… – but positions shift, the view alters. Those beloved heroes? We find they have feet of flesh and blood, skin and nerves. But here is the rub: they become more intriguing, fascinating even; protagonists that cannot be pegged into slots, ones that challenge definitions of integrity and fairness, others that infuriate with noose-tight codes of caste hierarchy and expedient social order.

There is another reason for choosing the Mahabharata as the source for Until the Lions, even over its illustrious sibling-epic, the Ramayana. In the Mahabharata, the enemy – to be destroyed at all cost – is not some distant, savage Other whose alienation, whose moral divergence, can be ascribed to convenient divides like race, creed, ideology… No, that mortal enemy is one’s own kin; the blood the heroes spill is all their own. And, seen from diverse angles, these antagonists are variously recognised as brave, generous and noble, even worthy claimants to the throne. Therein lies another rub. Right and wrong are not so easy to spot any more. Is duty, so central to the epic, a pretext for acts of unspeakable violence? Can hatred overtake all other emotions, reasons, to become the motor in a war allegedly for justice?

Persistent, irresistible questions. Especially when there are multiple sets of lenses to view them with, and a landscape with contours that could fit into almost any age or territory in human history, including the history we witness today.

Yet, the Mahabharata would have simply remained my favourite destination as a reader and viewer, with innumerable adaptations and variations to savour, from the sublime to the absurd, had it not been for two triggers in early 2010. The first – a novel that recast the equation between two protagonists, heroic and wilful – had exasperated with one-dimensional portraits of champions and villains, yet lingered, stoking a nebulous desire to celebrate the depth and ambiguity in those characters instead.

A month later, I read Sarpa Satra, the late Arun Kolatkar’s electrifying book-length poem which revisits the epic through the eyes of serpents massacred in the sacrifice bookending Vyaasa’s Mahabharata.Not only did Kolatkar train a savagely funny gaze on humanity’s perceptions of its own heroism and superiority, he brilliantly, casually, underscored how timeless the ethical questions raised by the epic are. Sarpa Satra tells of the ease and righteousness with which the most civilised of societies can unleash carnage that will only later be defined genocide. Without resorting to obvious devices like time travel, it provides a dismal snapshot of the directions in which a combination of narcissistic leadership, servile administration and corporate greed could take today’s democratic nation-state. All this in roughly a hundred prescient pages.

Strange things happened that day. Axons were galvanised, synapses broke apart, then rewired themselves. The pulse screamed. It was painful, visceral. Thrilling. So, it may have been in a state of biochemical inebriety that I met Karthika V.K., my first – and namesake – editor-publisher: my next book would be a re-imagining of the Mahabharata through the voices of eighteen women, I had told her, on that first day. Eighteen for the eighteen parva – the books – that constitute the epic. But also for the days of the war that forms its narrative crux. It would be in verse, I had added emphatically, and each voice would represent one parva. It would traverse time and place, I continued, and be located across various epochs and continents. (I am not sure how or why Karthika kept a straight face through this fearsomely convoluted proposal, but she did.)

Five years later, when she finally had my manuscript in hand, Karthika V.K. gently, valiantly, forbore to comment that she had an altogether other beast to deal with.

For one, the book began with the birth of Satyavati (thereby eliding 6 of the 19 sub-books of the Adi Parva, and several dozen generations of ancestors), Vyaasa’s mother, who – with little heed for authorial blueprints and wishes – became the central narrative voice, the connective tissue that binds most of the chronicle together.

Then, the stories were not evenly distributed across chronology. The last few parva – recounting the Pandava reign after the great war, and their final journey to hell and heaven – featured nowhere.

There were nineteen voices, instead of the symbolic – and promised – eighteen, oh, with three belonging to male characters, one to a dog, and another to a serpent-queen.

(Time and space travel had vanished entirely, though that provided immediate, all-round relief.)

Until the Lions is nowhere near a comprehensive retelling of the Mahabharata that includes all eighteen parva or even a complete, linear account of the lives of the Kurus. The word echoes, thus, was added as subtitle to describe this assemblage of fragments. For these are the remains of the voices that clamoured most to me, some magnified, some refracted, some residual.

The book was not the only thing to have transformed ‘between the idea and the reality’. The world had, in startlingly swift, near-unrecognisable ways, between 2010 and 2015. Many widely chronicled, the horrific signposts that impale the first fraction of this century: Al-Qaeda, then Daesh; authoritarian rulers, backed by guns or the ballot; a tidal wave of majoritarianism. Other markers were quieter, perilously incremental – closer home, each time.

In 2011, painter M.F. Husain died of a heart attack, in exile, far from his native India: he had fled to Doha, and then London, following death threats, and multiple charges of obscenity and offending religious sentiment, all on account of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. (Why this should cause outrage in the 21st century when Indian iconography, ancient and otherwise, has been no stranger to divine nudes is a glaring – and distressing – question.)

A few months later, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation – the late poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan’s luminous, insightful essay exploring the journey taken by that epic across Asia over two millennia – was removed from the syllabus of Delhi University, this one too because of ‘protests from hardline Hindu groups and a number of teachers’1.

Around the same time, in a reminder that intolerance and opportunism are great global levellers, here in Paris the Catholic fundamentalist party Renouveau National staged violent protests (which included the hurling of stink bombs, eggs and oil at theatre-goers) outside Théâtre de la Ville where Romeo Castellucci’s performance ‘Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio’ was being staged. They claimed the sets – featuring the face of Christ that progressively became sullied – were covered in excrement, despite clarifications to the contrary from the director. The play, revolving around an ageing man and his caregiver son, poignantly, painstakingly, chronicles the frailty of the flesh and relationships, human or divine. Facts seldom interest agitators, optics do.

Of course, none of it was really new. And few regimes, few leaders – from emperors Augustus and Qin Shi Huang to the modern-day, democratic governments of Rajiv Gandhi, Sir John Keys or Barack Obama – unequivocally espouse the cause of freedom of expression, certainly not when it can make things difficult for them. Fewer nations react, as a people, to attacks against this particular fundamental right: there is a vague, uneasy idea that it is an elitist (sometimes called ‘first-world’) privilege, an optional requirement. Belief – religious, racial, national – is generally considered more fragile, more noble – worthier of protection – than individual expression.

By 2015, attacks were not limited to charges, removal from a curriculum, or stink bombs at shows.

By 2015, casualties were not statistics anymore, reported with increasing urgency by PEN or FreeMuse. They were names, faces, voices you knew, had read, watched, heard. Some, those first met when young – in the flesh, or through words, chords, images – and dearly loved. Artists, writers, activists: some whose work, whose life had powered your own, from near or far. People who had merely gone out one day to celebrate art and debate, laughter and sport. Narendra Dabholkar. Ahmed Rajib Haider. Gulnar (Muskan). Bernard Maris. Govind Pansare. Avijit Roy. 21 visitors to Bardo National Museum. H Farook. M M Kalburgi. Francisco Hernández. 89 music-lovers attending an Eagles of Death Metal gig at Bataclan.

The living are targeted in other ways. With book bans. Prison. Exile. Fatwa. Smear campaigns. Accusations of sedition… Kamel Daoud. Oleg Sentsov. Perumal Murugan. Atena Farghadani. Fatima Naoot. The 50-odd Indian writers (followed by film-makers and artists) – who had returned awards and honours as protest against the spate of murders of intellectuals and minorities – hounded as anti-nationals by several media houses and right-wing politicians.

By 2015, it was happening in cities as far-flung as Pune and Peshawar and Paris, Tamazula and Tunis. Closer and closer home. Close enough to turn and touch.

What does all this have to do with Until the Lions? There’s that old proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. To state the obvious, books are like that: the entire world pours into them, in different ways. Not just through the author as s/he fashions it, but the reader too, whether lay person, academic, critic or jury. This book received more love and attention than any of us expected. And the questions came fast and, sometimes, furious.

How dare you suggest Krishna acted unjustly in the war? Could you write this book in India? Aren’t you projecting feminist aspirations on these characters? And my favourite: Does a modern political sensibility or subaltern/minority narrative have any validity when interpreting a sacralised worldview with a unique epistemology?

There have been less polite, more, well, rhetorical ones too.

Here is the thing: this book is the mutant, happily illicit child of many ancestors, with varied provenance. Vyaasa himself, whose Mahabharata contains something as radical as an entire book – the Stree Parva – chronicling the laments and tirades of the grieving mothers and widows of both warring clans in the wake of the final carnage. Ovid, with his millennia-old Heroides, where the women from Greek and Roman mythology own their stories in passionate, eloquent epistles.

Amir Khusrau, who could sing to his spiritual master in Persian and Braj, alternating languages within the same couplet. Andal of the fierily sensual poetry for her beloved deity, Perumal.

Bhâsa, who – almost two thousand years ago – adapted plays from the epics, ones where the motives of the gods are openly challenged, ones imagining alternative scenarios, including a pacifist King Duryodhana who loves his enemy’s son as dearly as his own. The 9th century Tamil poet Perunthevanar, whose telling of the Mahabharata, Parata Venpa, highlights the life and ultimate sacrifice of Aravan, Arjuna’s snake-prince son.

Subaltern narratives? A political sensibility? They are as ancient and new, as valid, as the human imagination which can be ascribed neither to the 21st century nor the First World nor any religion or ideology. All these writers – and innumerable others – told and retold, questioned and changed the stories, the narratives they had inherited. They reshaped the old, they crafted the new, and whatever the environment – often encouraging, often unforgiving, for resistance to invention is just as ancient as the creative act – they continued, however they could. They knew that there were no small freedoms, and that the imagination would be the most priceless gift to give up. For how else can we attempt to understand what it is to be another, god or soldier, woman or wolf? What else can allow us to sense the many ways there are to inhabit the earth? To envision a better reality?

Until the Lions begins with a proverb Chinua Achebe quoted widely. There is one more that comes to mind now. The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.

from Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata
(Archipelago Books, USA, 2019, pages 2-9).
Reprinted with permission.

1 Soutik Biswas reporting for BBC World:

Poet and fabulist, dramaturg and librettist, Karthika Naïr is the author of several books: the latest is the collaborative A Different Distance (Milkweed Editions USA, 2021), renga written with American poet Marilyn Hacker. The performances she has scripted and co-scripted have been staged at venues across the world, including Sadler’s Wells (London), Esplanade (Singapore) and Lincoln Center (New York).