My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A few weeks back, I was in a discussion with author Krishna Udaysankar on BlogAdda’s chat on mythological fiction. In general, I am of the view that a lot of the happenings in our epics are left open to interpretation and it is always refreshing to see someone go down an untraveled path while exercising their creativity. The author, in the discussion, mentioned that a lot of details differ in editions including critical editions, and we just assume that the popular version is the ‘correct’ one. I could not have agreed with the author Ms. Krishna on this more, and this perhaps is where the Krishna Udaysankar’s trilogy ‘Aryavarta Chronicles’ stands out. A retelling of the Mahabharatha standing in a very stable way in a very new realm, including a (fictitious) plot point that mostly works, Aryavarta Chronicles is a wonderful journey from start to finish. The focus of this post will essentially be on the third book of the trilogy ‘Kurukshetra,’ but there will be references to the first two books ‘Govinda’ and ‘Kauravas’ in a few places in the post.
For the fact that Mahabharata got me back to reading, I am usually keen on reading any interpretation of the epic that shows up. Upon hearing about the Aryavarta Chronicles and the author (and her credentials, I must say) my interest was piqued. With BlogAdda having this third book for review, it was no brainer for me to apply and ensure that I had read the first two books before the third one. I was tempted to try this one as a standalone, but a friend mentioned that flow and the understanding of the characters would be better if I read the first two books. (More on this a little later in the post.) I got the first two books, and it formed an integral part of my mornings for six days when I read it on the bus (my first time with continued reading on the bus).
Among the retellings of the epic Mahabharatha, I was most fascinated by two books for two different reasons: the character analysis in Irawati Karwe’s Yuganta: The End of an Epoch and general theme of M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Bhima: Lone Warrior (though I am tempted to add Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik to the list!). I can safely say that the Aryavarta Chronicles is going to feature in this list.
A portrayal of the lesser-known characters in a very new dimension, Kurukshetra starts at where Kauravas ended: a hint of the declaration of a war between the cousins. While many a version have written about the epic and the war in great depth, Krishna adds in a premise featuring a section of people called the Firewrights and a Secret Keeper. The reasons for many happenings in the epic are attributed to the Firewrights, and this includes the occurences of events including Dharma marrying Panchali and the empire expansion with the annexure of many a kingdom in Aryavarta (described in detail in Book 2).
Who are the Firewrights, what do they want, what is their ancestry and why is that the First borns are involved in the occurences along with the Firewrights? These are all the questions that Krishna tries to pose in the first two books and answer them (mostly satisfactorily) in the Kurukshetra. The fact that the Firewright theory stemmed from one of the first few people of the Kaurava family is indeed interesting and I quite liked how the author blended the happening in the last year of the exile of Dharma and his brothers to this.
There were many thing that had the book going great for me. Firstly, the writing. The author takes into account the intelligence of the reader and leaves quite a few things open for interpretation or for the reader to figure out himself. In an age, when story-telling can mean jotting down a screenplay lazily, Krishna makes a wonderful effort to introduce elements into the story which have meaning much later in the story, and it is up to the reader to connect those. Secondly, there was no God like stature to any of the characters, including Govinda. For example, the fact that the shaming of Panchali did not have a divine angle to it made you sympathize with the character a lot more. In addition, Govinda is shown as a selfish character for the most part (and there is a reason to it), and this I guess makes the character a lot more relatable. Thirdly, the main characters in this retelling included the characters that are mostly mentioned in the other versions to drive the story. With Dhristadymna, Shikhandin, Ashwattama, Sanjaya, Vyasa Dwaipayana, and Suka, forming a major chunk of the characters on who the story is focused on, it is refreshing to see the author not adopting the safe route for the epic. Even though a lot of the other characters including Pritha (Kunthi), Gandhaari, and Dhritarashtra, do not get enough screen time in the book, it doesn’t seem to affect the premise.
Two more things that I loved about the book were the innocent romance that Abhimanyu and Uttara had in the first part of the book including the days leading up to the war. I would definitely love to read a short piece by the author solely focusing on these two characters. One reason, she did not take Uttara’s love for Abhimanyu granted and two, Abhimanyu’s dignified (and perhaps awkward) behavior. The second thing was that in the book (and in the trilogy), a different side of Syoddhan is shown. One, he is not shown on the arrogant and angry cousin of Dharma. Two, his reason to declare a war of Dharma and his brothers is not for the kingdom as such. I would love to dwell on this for longer, but it would mean posting spoilers.
A couple of things that did not work for me in the third book was the identity of the secret keeper and in general, the (lack of) emphasis of the Firewrights. I was able to identify who the current secret keeper was in the first few pages of the book and perhaps that made me a little disappointed because I was waiting for the author to spring up a surprise and prove me wrong. Firewrights have been an intergral part of this trilogy with a major part of the second book focusing on the happenings involving them. Perhaps the author intended the third book to focus on the war more, and considering that the war was a result of the action of Firewrights, it is justified. A few minor typos, which do not matter in the larger scheme of things, could be corrected in the subsequent editions.
How does this book stand by itself and how is it as a part of the trilogy? I can safely say that for an enhanced reading experience and better background of the characters, especially considering the characters the author focuses on, the book is better read a trilogy. However, as a standalone too, the book is able to speak for itself, and the author provides sufficient background on a few of the key happenings the reader would need to know or remember from the first two book.
Overall, with some good writing which wonderfully compliments the reader’s intelligence, Kurukshetra (and overall the Aryavarta Chronicles) is a winner! I would love to see how Krishna Udaysankar’s next book turns out to be. And the TV show on this trilogy.
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