Book review: ಪರ್ವ (Parva)

A link to a review by Arvind Adiga[1] from Ashwin put Parva on my radar earlier this year. Once I started digging in about it there was more. There was the meticulous research Bhyrappa had put in. There was the Mahabharatha that had been humanized, the heroes not having any resort to divine weapons, nor the incarnate God fighting on one side as a charioteer without weapons. This was supposed to be the Mahabharatha as it might have happened. A friend who had read the book even suggested I take a look at an ancient map. It was almost like I was going to be getting a lesson in Indian geography and history.

I was more or less right. The characters are humanized, the research is meticulous. But I was widely off the mark too. This is Bhyrappa’s own work. His own interpretation of the Mahabharatha. He could easily have included the divine weapons, made Krishna the Lord Almighty and it would still be his own work. In one scene, 6 months before the war as the Pandavas are building an army, Draupadi who has retreated to be with her five sons is asked by one of them “What is this Aryadharma on which we are fighting this war? Are we on the right as we claim or on the wrong as Duryodhana is claiming?”. Draupadi stays silent for a while and cannot come up with an answer. Indeed, this is a dilemma even Bheeshma cannot resolve and eventually retreats to the forest when faced by a eunuch and embraces death. After much thought, Draupadi, from her own experiences can only laugh and answer “Aryadharma is nothing but drinking, daasis(servant-women), hunting, gambling and fighting wars”. Her sons laugh with her. But throughout the narrative from Kunti, Draupadi, Drona or Bheeshma this stands out as the unfortunate truth about the rulers, the Kshatriyas of that time. The concept of Aryadharma is resorted to in a “It’s just not cricket” manner, with different people providing different explanations, while appearing to strive to adhere to the one they believe in. When it comes to righteousness people stay self-righteous till the end. The only thing that seems to bind everyone is the adherence to the code of Daasis, drinking, gambling, hunting and wars.


Bhyrappa’s men are weak, reserving sympathy only for Krishna – who is willing to question blind courage or the constant impregnation of Daasis, Bheema – who believes only in blind courage and a you-deserve-what-you-get attitude with no time for ambiguous Aryadharma and its double-speaks, Karna – growing up in a lower caste and trying to reconcile the injustices meted out to his caste against his friendship with Duryodhana, and to some extent Bheeshma – well learned, at all times wondering if he’s doing things right, but never able to resolve any dilemmas, eventually taking his own life to get out of it. The women, like Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari are the stronger ones shaping the flow of the narratives in their own way. Kunti resolves to bring up her children without the Daasi infatuation, and stung by Duryodhana claiming that the Pandavas were Kunti’s sons and not Pandu’s and hence with no right to the kingdom, asks them to shift their target to Hastinapura instead of Indraprastha. Draupadi grows out of love with all five of her husbands, having had to be shared against her will. After many such sacrifices until Subhadra walks into the house marrying only Arjuna she starts asserting herself. Bhyrappa gives her the best lines in a way. Note the part where she cries out loud over her five children after promising to be strong over their death. On being asked she says “when Abhimanyu died Arjuna wept and promised to kill himself if he couldn’t kill Jayadratha by the next evening. When Gatotkacha died Bheema carried the huge Rakshasa all the way from the battlefield and wept by his side all night. When these sons have died, none of their fathers have shed a single drop of tear. They lived and died fatherless even though they had five of them.”

Unlike his other works like ನಾಯಿ ನೆರಳು or ಆವರಣ, ಪರ್ವ is a lot more visual. This is one work that will stay in your mind as Bhyrappa creates vivid landscapes and images in your head. In recreating the war and its atmosphere, he engages every one of your senses – the sounds of horses neighing, the smell of shit, urine and sweat from the soldiers, horses and elephants, and later on from rotting corpses, the circling vultures, scavenging dogs and jackals, the pain from different wounds, the tiredness from not getting enough sleep, the hunger after the flow of food from the capital stops – no war has lasted for 18 days and the entire kingdom goes hungry. In one scene blind, insecure and frightened Dhritharashtra cries out that the oil is running out and the lamp is going to turn out. A servant maid asks him why a blind man would need a lamp glowing in the dark before telling him that was the last drop in the palace and everything has gone to the war. The deaths of Drona and Bheeshma leave you chilled. After killing Drupada, Drona realizes that he had no anger on him as he had been avenged earlier. He remembers that the half of Panchala he won as Guru-dakshina was usurped by Bheeshma promising a pension and refuge for the rest of his lifetime in return. He feels angry and decides to attack Duryodhana, before Dhrishtadyumna jumps into his chariot, holds his hair and swings his sword… . Bhyrappa stops there as this is Drona’s stream of thoughts right till the point of his death. Bheeshma retires from the war on having to face Shikhandi to a forest resolving to die without consuming any food. The scene of his death is one of the best composed ones in the book and I’d rather not spoil it!

The war is recounted through multiple perspectives, some parts from Bhyrappa’s own narrative, some from Sanjaya who shuttles between the war and the palace to report the news to Dhritharashtra and some from the characters themselves. Less of heroics, more of tragedy and black comedy – points where it approaches Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He goes more into the hand-to-hand ones – Bheema tearing out Dushasana’s chest to drink his blood, Karna walking to Gatotkacha to slit his throat in one swift action while he’s fighting someone else while a fallen breathless Bheema watches helplessly while no voice escapes his lungs as he screams – and consigns the bow and arrow ones to Sanjaya’s narratives or to passing mentions of a sudden arrow taking someone down. Death comes suddenly with no attached theatrics or drama.

The last chapter is one gigantic paragraph of prose that spans over 9 pages, in a scene right out of a Mani Ratnam movie. A pregnant cloud bursting out into a pouring hailstorm, a still-born child from Uttara, Abhimanyu’s wife and Draupadi refusing when Kunti asks her to get pregnant again to save the race. “Being a daughter-in-law of the Kuruvansha, how can you say this?” Kunti asks her. “Being a daughter-in-law of the Kuruvansha, how can you ask this of me?” Draupadi asks her back. Yudhishtira sits on the throne trying to convince revolting farmers to take up farming again, promising that no matter what he wouldn’t take more than 1/6th of their produce. A huge crowd of women pregnant from being raped by the soldiers during the war turns up and asks Yudhishtira in court who would be their father. He sits there on the throne, looking at the rain pouring down outside with no answer to give them.

[1] The Arvind Adiga review.


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