Somewhere around 330 pages on. The book has already won me over. Bhyrappa uses a monologue driven narative. You start off with the conversations between Shalya and his son, mainly to set the scene, before he moves to Upaplavya where the Pandavas are camping and building an army. You have already been told that it is the turn of the Monsoons around early June and there is no chance of war when it rains. So the expectation is around October-November. The time till that is given to building armies. Perspectives and reminiscences from Kunti, Bheema, Draupadi and Arjuna set up the story so far for you, all the way from Kunti’s marriage to Pandu, right till the killing of Keechaka. There is less of story flashbacks and more of perspectives. The characters are as human as you get. You read more of Kunti’s unfulfilled desires and her jealousy-tinged friendship with Madri than about the events that you already know from the Mahabharatha. Draupadi’s falling out of love with Arjuna and the start of a relationship with Bheema as she matures gets more pages than the stories that you read in any standard book. He even heads to Dwaraka to drive through the story of Krishna and the Yadavas through Yuyudhana Satyaki’s perspective. Balarama becomes an old man with falling teeth who is jealous of his brother.
And then just as suddenly, Bhyrappa shifts back to Karna. Karna, as it happens, is my favourite character in the Mahabharatha. It probably was a lot easier for Bhyrappa to humanize Karna. Given up at birth, growing up through hardships, struggling to find a proper tutor to train him on his one great passion, his is a character defined by the unfairness around him. Bhyrappa writes him with sympathy, but as a person with an anger at life’s unfairness simmering in the background. He has to reconcile with his caste being one that always serves the Kshatriyas. Even though living in a mansion, he still has to live at the edge of the city with others of his caste. His chariot passes through Kshatriya lanes where they look at him and smile, but don’t get up and salute like people of his own caste. Women of his caste are the servant class, always preyed upon by the Kshatriyas bearing them bastard children. Their husbands accept these as their own, having no way to ascertain who’s children they actually are.
Bhyrappa takes you in to a point where Karna is standing in the Ganges ready for his morning ablutions and prayers to the Sun, the main deity of his caste. He hasn’t slept the whole night. Krishna has spoken to him the previous evening telling him about his birth. The dilemma continues through the day. He struggles to piece together this revelation into his life. He is summoned to the palace while having lunch, where Krishna addresses the assembly as the messenger of peace from the Pandavas. Halfway through Karna can’t make out what he’s talking. At the onset of old age at 65, the lack of sleep starts telling on him. By the time the other elders – Bheeshma, Drona, Kripa and Vidura speak he falls asleep at his seat. He wakes up after a while to see that Vidura is still addressing the assembly in his ‘boring monotone’. Duryodhana seated opposite, looks at him and laughs, pleased at the ‘ideal response’ to the speeches of these oldies.
That night he continues thinking about his life and decides to retire to a forest. He finds sleep finally with a flute from somewhere playing in the background. He is led through a dream where he is the king and the Pandavas are fighting wars for him. The dream moves on till it throws up Draupadi. The Swayamwara, the rejection. His own identity as the Suthaputra comes to the front. He wakes up in sweat. He sees his devoted son sleeping in one corner and considers what his leaving would do to his family. The next morning he heads to the Ganges for his daily prayers.
He sees Kunti waiting to talk to him. Karna’s dog, faithful and loving, greets her with a massive growl. (His Karma and his past feeling hostile towards the birth-mother for what she did to him?) Karna observes Kunti properly for the first time and realizes that he is her own image, unlike the Pandavas who are built on their fathers’ images. The conversation lasts approximately 5 minutes – one page. They talk like strangers who suddenly have to confront a new identity and relationship which they can’t place in their lives anymore after all these years. There is no sudden outflow of maternal affection from Kunti. There is no sudden feeling of love towards his birth mother from Karna. If anything, confronting her clears his mind up. “There are many things that Radha did for me, which only a mother would do. To accept you or the Pandavas now would be a rejection of my former identity as the charioteer’s son and hence my own mother. After her death, it is Gandhari who has showered me with her own affection. Right from the first day when Duryodhana took me in, she has looked upon me as his brother, as her own son.”
She asks him not to kill his brothers. He asks her if she can get a similar promise from them. Bhyrappa cuts the scene at that point with other workers headed to the river and Karna sending Kunti off. Just as she leaves he bends down and holds her legs, his past and identity catching up with him. Leaving you with that paragraph: