"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Despite the availability of various versions of the Mahabharata, on page, screen, and in live performance, I am assuming that it will be less familiar to the average American or European reader than the Iliad or the Aeneid, for instance. I have seen my task as one of trying to open the reader's eyes--as my own were opened--to the richness of a literary masterpiece they may hardly have heard of until now...
Carole Satyamurti, from her Preface

FIFTEEN TIMES THE LENGTH OF THE BIBLE, the Mahabharata is a sprawling saga of gods and mortals, demons and monsters, comedy and tragedy. It is the story of Kuruksetra, a cosmological war that ended the previous Golden Age and gave rise to our Age, the fallen Kali Yuga. On on side, divine beings incarnated in mortal form as Lord Krishna and the five Pandava brothers. On the other, demonic powers incarnated as Duryodhana and his ninety-nine Kaurava brothers. Disguised as a dynastic struggle between human cousins, it is actually a fight for the destiny of the Earth.

Composed around two thousand years ago, but with an oral tradition stretching back a millennium before that, the Mahabhrata is as familiar to the people of India and South Asia as the stories of Adam and Eve or Moses and Pharoah are to most Westerners. Usually compared to the Iliad and Odyssey, it certainly shares much in common with them; Sanskrit and classical Greek are close cousins, with vocabulary and grammatical structures strikingly similar. Both descend from an earlier Indo-European ancestor, and it is easy to see the linguistic and thematic relations between Greek and Vedic mythologies (a clear example is the god Uranus and the god Varuna, both lords of the night sky). But the Mahabhrata differs sharply from its classical Greek cousins in that for hundreds of millions it remains a religious scripture, and enjoys a position in Indian culture that is more Biblical than Homeric. The Bhaghavad Gita, the section Westerners are most likely to have heard of, is still a source of moral, ethical, and spiritual teachings to many on the subcontinent, and indeed has inspired people far beyond. Because it is such a significant text, people have been attempting English translations since the 19th century. The best known is probably KM Ganguli's, but despite being the most complete translation in English, its stilted Victorian prose is nearly as alien to modern readers as the Sanskrit. Several others, among them William Buck, R.K. Naryan, and C. Rajagopalachari, have published condensed versions also in prose. All seem to be missing something.

The problem seems to be that its very heart, the Mahabharata is a poem. Traditionally, audiences would have experienced it in song or chant (indeed Bhaghavad Gita means "the song of God"). The English retellings, concentrating on making it clear and comprehensible for modern audiences, have generally ignored this, opting for prose instead. This isn't necessarily a bad decision; any attempt to directly imitate the metrical form of the shlokas (the stanzas used in classical Sanskrit literature) in English would sound jarring anyway. But undeniably something is lost by changing it to prose, and these Mahabhratas all seem drier and dustier for it. So while there are certainly good translations to be had in terms of accuracy and keeping alive the stories, no one has really been able to make the epic sing in English as it must have sung to its audiences so very long ago.

No one until Carole Satyamurti, that is.

Mahabhrata, a Modern Retelling is glorious, and like so many brilliant ideas you are dumbfounded no one ever got around to thinking of it before. It starts with the realization that retelling the Mahabharata isn't a job for scholars, it's work that requires a poet. Satyamurti, an award-winning poet with several published collections under her belt, comes at the work not as a Sanskritist would--primarily concerned with hewing close to the original language--but as an artist who paints pictures with English verse. Since she does not, by her own admission, read Sanskrit, she allows herself to trust the most respected translations of those who do, soaking them up and respinning them in a way that sings to the English ear. The result is the Mahabharata I first longed for twenty years ago, when I read it in Sanskrit, and desperately wanted to share it with my English-speaking friends and family. It's the retelling you can hand to English speakers and say "this is why it has been loved for two thousand years."

This is no mean feat. Satyamurti has distilled 100,000 Sanskrit shloka couplets into 27,000 lines of English blank verse, keeping the structure of the original 18 books largely intact. Her choice of blank verse, with nine to eleven syllables per line and an average of five stresses, is perfect. The Sanskrit shloka, consisting of 32 syllables in two 16 syllable lines, was a widespread and well known form in ancient and classical India, just as blank verse--the meter of Shakespeare's plays and Milton's Paradise Lost--is for modern English speakers. Reading Mahabharata in this form is a subconscious cue that we are reading a classic.

It is also vibrant. With all due respect to Ganguli, his 5000 page retelling is often numbingly dull to even devoted Sanskritists and scholars. Satyamurti's poem by contrast is nearly impossible to put down, racing through the massive storyline with lithe, economical verse. On the crucial scenes she slows to focus attention, then picking up pace to speed through the less vital sections of the narrative. In addition to her story-telling skills her sense of character is pitch-perfect. Each of the twenty four or so principal figures she portrays in all their multiple dimensions, and the secondary characters are consistently distinct and memorable. This is the work of an artist just as devoted to her craft as she clearly is the Mahabharata, and the fact that this is a retelling should never detract from the fact that Satyamurti has composed one of the longest narrative poems In English history, and is it masterful.

I simply cannot recommend this retelling enough.

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