Category Archives: History and Myths

Perseus with his sword hacked off the Gorgon Medusa. And then sprang forth….Pegasus.

Death? He has conquered it, certainly

I just finished Shivaji Sawant’s celebrated novel Mrityunjaya: The Death Conqueror, translated into English by P.Lal and Nandini Nopany. I acknowledge that this is one of the finest books I have ever read. And what I pondered was that there must be so many beautiful works created in many different languages and yet, we remain ignorant of them because we don’t know the languages, nor about the authors, nor about the translations. It may not be possible to know all languages, but I feel there should be some form of integration in regard to literature, so that such beautiful works do not just remain confined to the state of origin. More focus should be given on the art of translation.

Now I will come to what I liked in this book. Since it is about my favourite tragic hero, Karna, I knew the moment I started it that I would love it. Till now, I had known Karna as a mighty warrior from his position of the valiant commander-in-chief of the vast Kaurava forces, as a hero doomed to his destiny the moment Kunti abandoned him. He was a larger than life character. Sawant’s book ensures that he remains god-like, larger than life and yet, adroitly paints the more humane side of his character, bringing him closer to our heart. Sawant portrays him as a loving son of the charioteer Adhirath and Radha (who despite becoming Angaraj, applied sandalwood oil on the tired feet of his old parents and owed all that he was to Radha-mata), an ideal elder brother to Shon or Shatruntapa, a beloved husband to Vrishali, and also Supriya, but Vrishali remains his first and final love (after smearing his blood on her forehead before the war, he says “There are those who say that Karna made a mistake by gifting the flesh-ear-rings and skin-armour to Indra—but how will these people understand that had I possessed the impenetrable skin-armour I would have been deprived of the good fortune of being able to apply the auspicious tilak on Vrishali’s forehead?”) a caring father of his sons and a loyal friend of Duryodhan and Aswatthama. Now, I just look at the figure of Karna not only with awe and reverence, but also with empathy and love. Also, the fact that he remained the daanveer is sure to impress all. When he is on the verge of death, wounded by Arjun’s arrow, he strives to fulfil his role as danveer by asking his son Chitrasena to give him a stone, with which he smashes his gold teeth, washes it off with tears and gives it to the Brahmin who needs alms for performing the last rites of his son. A heart-wrenching scene.

Sawant’s masterstroke lies in not making Krishna an outright villain, which a lesser novelist would have done. (I would have done so if I had to write about Karna). He makes Karna a devotee of Vasudev Krishna, and the latter laments his death and admits that he has wronged this illustrious son of Surya. Yet, Karna is not willing to tread the easier path that Krishna shows him—taking the sides of the Pandavas because he is the eldest Pandava.

The dialogue is impressive, when Karna shows Krishna the difference and the similarities between them, saying, “Krishna, you have left Yashoda-mata, but I cannot leave Radha-mata. You have forgotten the cowherds of Gokula, but I will never forget the charioteers of Champanagari.”

When Krishna lures him with the bait of making him king with Draupadi as his queen, Karna launches a tirade, “As a recipient of the pure affection of Duryodhana, I have enjoyed for years the princely pleasures…how can you expect me to push Duryodhana inside the deep pit of betrayal, and side with the Pandavas out of sheer self-interest…will this bring lustre to the son of the Sun-God? Though the daughter of a mere charioteer, Vrishali has been my life-companion for with fragrant feeling and concern—more than Draupadi can ever be—and you expect me to discard her for the scented beauty of Draupadi?”

And when Krishna bids him farewell, Karna has just one request to him. To ask Draupadi to forgive him for the harsh words he told her when she was brought in the court after the gambling. Here Sawant makes him an ideal tragic hero, who falls and then after realisation, repents.

Just one glitch that I felt was the translation. It’s true a text can never be translated exactly as it is and the machinations of the English language often fail to translate the beautiful Sanskritised descriptions. I don’t know what Sawant wrote in Marathi, but lotus-eyed must be something like padmalochana and creeper-covered must be latabeshtito. The mellifluous lyricism seems to be lost in English. Yet, the vivid descriptions remind me of the descriptions of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s historical novels. Both Sawant and Saradindu are masters of their art.

So, overall, I would just say, Karna, my favourite character in Mahabharata, becomes my favourite tragic hero in all books that I have read.


P.S. Another thing that I forgot to mention. The detailed sense of geography of the author when he describes the conquest of Aryavarta by Karna. It retraces the map of ancient India with an amazing accuracy.

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Posted by on September 15, 2011 in History and Myths, Uncategorized


On the banks of Styx

Dear Mother,

The snow has melted away. The once-frosty River Styx is flowing again. The radiance of the yellow sun is being reflected by everywhere. Yet, why isn’t spring coming to the Underworld? The trees stand all bare, without a trace of green leaf on them. So are the Asphodel Meadows. It lies barren, no flowers bloom here. No birds chirp, all that I hear are the sighs of the spirits gliding past me. I didn’t dare to look into Tartarus. The anguish and pain of the sufferering spirits send shivers down my spine.
Mother, I am sitting by the Styx as I write this to you. I can’t cross it. Cerberus’s mouth foams with a poison so noxious, whenever I try to call Charon to this bank, that it stifles my breath.
Hades says I must get used here. He says I am the Queen of the Underworld. But Mother, I want to be away, far away from Underworld. I would better be a peasant girl in a kingdom of bliss, rather than the Queen in a kingdom where suffering is the only thing I witness. In fact, I had always been so. You had always kept me away from the machinations of the gods and goddesses, I grew up in my own way. Like a wandering river nymph. So why suddenly would I have to be the Queen of Underworld?
Mother, take me back to Olympus. To the meadows of Arcadia. Mother, please. Where I would pluck flowers again with the nymphs. Where I would sing in joy with the birds. Where the deer graze and green leaves bloom. Where the aroma of the rain-moistened earth  makes me smile. Where there is bliss.
I wish the air of the Underworld has not become heavy enough, so that these balloons may reach you. Take me back, mother, as soon as you read this. I shall wait for Hermes by the bank of Styx till then.
Your loving daughter,

Demeter read the letter. Shed a tear. Salty drops of water rained on to the earth. No green, no grain. The earth had become a desert. The Spring winds were heavy with the sighs of a mother and a daughter.

Written for POLO and


Posted by on May 30, 2011 in History and Myths, Tales Conjured


Serendipity calling!

History never ceases to amaze me. She eternally races with the river of Time, with her swift feet gliding along. Sometimes grim and sombre with wrinkles on her brow, worrying over the fate of her child, Future. Sometimes laughing diabolically like a witch as Time’s henchmen indulge in a mad game of devastation. Sometimes she is gently caressing the river’s surface, as a mother nurturing her child. And sometimes, she is a playful girl, flinging pebbles from one shore to another.

I happened to pick up one such pebble. Where the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal lash against a small island. And as I closely looked into, I was astonished to find that the pebble was flung from my own land. I didn’t come to the island to look for it. Yet it was there, a discovery by a chance. Had I not just clicked for fun in a link, the pebble would have been unknown to me, perhaps forever. Was it an accident? No, it’s serendipity. And it’s another coincidence that serendipity has to take place in this very island. Perhaps, Walpole guessed right. The soil of Serendip must be prone to serendipities.

Serendip. I scrutinised the pebble, closely looking at its smooth surface, trying to fathom its depth. This pebble made me feel the island to be very own. A place I had known for ages. Inhabited by my kin. And I was astounded. That 2,500 years ago, some people of my own land had traversed across the sea and settled down in this island, making it their home.

Maybe you all know the story. Yet, it was a discovery for me. I wasn’t in quest for it, so not exactly a discovery. Rather, serendipity.

This is the story of Prince Vijaya.  The Prince of Singhapur in Vanga.

Vanga wasn’t Bengal then, the Left had not held their red sway here, nor it was the glorious Bengal of the nationalists. Neither had the Iliyas Shahi dynasty ruled. The Pala and Sena kings were still in the womb of Future. Sasanka’s conquest was still in the dark recesses of Future. Vanga was someplace else then. Unchronicled. Unrecorded in history. A whiff of it passes by at times, touching the ornaments of the maiden called history. Sometimes as a breeze that rustles past her lock of hair. Sometimes as a tinkle in her anklet. So trivial, that she never cared to look deeply into it. That’s why only the name is known, not of the people, the land. And History did fling a pebble from Vanga to Serendip. Unknown to many mortals like me.

Singhapur in Vanga is modern Singur. Again it’s another irony. All know this place for the tussle between the Left and the opposition for a Nano factory, the cheapest car. What all don’t know is that Singur has a more illustrious history. More glorious. More worth listening to. Singhapur was the kingdom of King Singhabahu and Queen Singhasivali.

And their son was Prince Vijaya. Notorious for his misdeeds, the king exiled him, along with his 700 followers. A daredevil that he was, he set sail from a port, nothing other than Gadiara (now, a popular weekend retreat). After sailing across the sea, he landed in the eastern port of Sri Lanka. On the very day, the biggest saint of the country attained Nirvana. Buddha. And who would have known then, that Buddhism will die in the land it was born, but it would still be nurtured 2,500 years after in this island. That too, by the machinations of a king, not very far from my land. Again, Serendipity.

I will get back to Prince Vijaya. King Asoka and Bhikkhu Mahendra can wait. The river of Time hasn’t traversed to their spaces yet. And History, too, is not in a mood to hurry.

With his followers, Prince Vijaya conquered Serendip from the tribes there. Married and intermarried. A new race was born. From the Vanga blood and perhaps, the blood of the Vedda tribes. A race that dominates Serendip still today. Sinhalese. The lions.  Prince Vijaya became the first monarch of Serendip. After him, his brother Sumitta’s son became monarch.

And the blood of the Vangiyas carried on, though the Sinhalas. A new language was born, Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language borrowing from Pali and Sanskrit. You may check the credentials in the documents. Let me just wonder at this pebble.  Bemused. Mesmerised.

Till now, I had known this place was inhabited by the descendants of the rakshashas. Of Ravan. Had I not discovered History’s trick, I would have known my kinfolk to be descendants of demons.

Even a few days ago, I had laughed mirthfully after India defeated Sri Lanka in the world Cup cricket final. Forwarded jokes that said it was Ramayan- Part 2, and it’s time to defeat the kidnappers of Sita. Never knew that I was laughing at my kin. (Well, you may think calling them kin is a bit too much, but if I think all mankind in this earth is a neighbourhood, with all the races in them, then the races of the subcontinent definitely constitute  a big extended family. And after this discovery, no serendipity, the Sinhalese must be my nearest kin).

And suddenly, Serendip becomes familiar. All I wish to do is now visit the place. Experience in the shady ruins of Anuradhapura the glory of our forefathers 2,000 years ago. Retrace their path. May be I will pick up more pebbles with more astonishing unearthings. It’s Serendipity calling.


Posted by on April 23, 2011 in History and Myths


Of my heroes and villains

I have loved hearing the stories of both Ramayana and Mahabharata from childhood from elders. The admiration for the characters of Ram and Lakshman soon faded away when I was just six. Dad told me about the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta who had lamented the death of Indrajeet and how the heroes of Ramayana had killed the brave warrior in Meghnadbodh Kavya. May be from that time onwards, I developed a soft corner for the villains and tragic heroes of all stories.

Mahabharata fascinated me with its myriad characters, and it still fascinates me. And after hearing it very carefully from elders (who always tried to project the Pandavas and Krishna as epitomes of virtue) and reading the children’s version and seeing the TV serial, I felt Krishna was a Machiavellian, shrewd, cold-blooded politician and all that he preached to Arjun, which is revered as the Bhagvad Gita, was not really something worthy of a god to do. As I felt Arjun was right when he said that he couldn’t hurl weapons at his kin. (Puritans may argue that my understanding of the Mahabharata isn’t correct. But I have reasoned with myself and couldn’t come to any other conclusion.)

Hence despite all that books and elders said, my support is for the Kauravas. And I often feel Duryodhan’s claim was justified. Dhritarashtra was the elder son and the rightful owner of the throne, he couldn’t become king since he was blind. Hence, Pandu became king. So shouldn’t the eldest son of Dhritarashtra succeed, rather than the eldest among all cousins? If Dhritarashtra hadn’t been blind, wouldn’t the kingdom have passed down to Duryodhan? So why would Duryodhan not get the kingdom only because his father was blind?

And moreover, the Pandavas were not really the sons of Pandu. They were sons of the gods. So by what right should they claim the kingdom?

Again, all my sympathy was for Karna. For me, he was the real hero of Mahabharata. Doomed to his destiny and an epitome of generosity of which the gods took advantage of, including Krishna and Indra; Karna, glowing with the glory of the sun, was a figure  I couldn’t resist falling in love with. Arjun may have won the battle, but Karna won the hearts.

May be since Duryodhan offered his friendship to Karna at a time when there was no one to support him, it made me revere Duryodhan more. I hated all those who sneered at Karna for his low caste. If even Yudhisthir (so virtuous as everyone says, though I don’t think a person to be virtuous who can gamble with his wife, nor does he prove to be virtuous when he uses deceit to slay Dronacharya) said that good conduct alone makes a Brahman and not birth or learning, it seems the Pandavas didn’t practice what they preached.

Tagore’s Karna-Kunti Sambad increased my admiration for Karna, who accepted defeat rather than changing sides. I loved it when he rejected Kunti and emphasized Adhiratha and Radha were his parents.

There are two major allegations on Karna. But I have even justified them according to my humble reasoning. First, Draupadi’s vastraharan. Well, didn’t draupadi insult him for his low caste during her swayamvar? (And I also felt if Draupadi had chosen Karna, he alone had all the five virtues that Draupadi wanted in her husbands)

Second, killing of Abhimanyu. But why does the epic not mention the killing of Karna’s sons in the war by Arjun and others? His eldest son Vrishasen was killed by Arjun. Shatrunjaya and Dvipata died in the Kurukshetra war at the hands of Arjuna during the days when Drona commanded the Kaurava forces. Sushena was killed in the war by Bhim. Satyasen, Chitrasen and Susharma died at the hands of Nakul. So isn’t it natural for him to take the revenge by killing Abhimanyu? Though Vrishasen was killed afterwards, his other sons died before. And wasn’t he generous when he spared the lives of Nakul, who had killed three of his sons and Bhim, who killed one?

Krishna had always cited ‘karmafol’ as a reason for Karna’s doom. Why didn’t Arjun face the same karmafol? It’s because the gods decided to favour Arjun, rather than Karna, as it was their whim.

Also, deceit used by the Pandavas outnumbered that of the Kauravas. The Pandavas had killed all the commanders of the Kaurava army by hook or crook. For Bhisma, they used Shikhandi. For Dronacharya, Yudhisthir’s ‘Ashwatthama hoto’. For Karna, I need not say more. Even for Duryodhan, Bhim had to hit on his thighs, which is against the laws of duelling with the mace.

And I have another grudge against the Pandavas. The war was over and Karna had died and they had already known that Karna was their eldest brother. Karna’s only surviving son, Vrishaketu, came under the patronage of the Pandavas. Arjun soon grew fond of Vrishaketu, made him a great archer. Now wasn’t it time to crown Vrishaketu the king? Why Parikshit? And even if I consider that Vrishaketu had died when the Pandavas left for heaven, Vrishaketu must have had a son. (He had married the daughter of king Yavanatha during the ashwamedh campaign.) So why Abhimanyu’s son and not Vrishaketu’s son was crowned the king?

Well, I felt the same sympathy for Cassius when I read Julius Caesar. I never liked Mark Antony though; too shrewd, just like Krishna.

Again, it was Macbeth whom I favoured. And even Lord Voldemort. (About why I feel a strange pity for this archetype of evil, some other time).


Posted by on February 2, 2011 in History and Myths


A city that had cradled culture

The news headline ‘Bombings Kill 32 in Peshawar’ caught my eye. And my mind delved deep into history. History of Peshawar. Many grains of sand have rolled down into the hour glass of History since the famed Purushapur or city of men had turned into a city of barbaric militancy. The capital of the great Kushana king, who had been a daring conqueror and yet a peace-loving Buddhist at heart. Kanishka had ruled long ago, from Kabul to Tamralipta, operating his controls from this city. Isn’t it an irony on the part of History that the capital of the King who had organised the Fourth Buddhist Council turn into a city full of violence and bloodshed. Again leaving aside Kanishka, this capital of North-West Frontier Province had been the famed city of Pashtuns, famous for their upholding of honour. The city which had swelled with the typical Pashtun culture and poetry is now reduced to a battlefield of carnage where hidden bombs kill children. If this is the case, have we really progressed or have we really become civilised??

Because when we see the case of Peshawar, History says it is otherwise.

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Posted by on February 6, 2010 in History and Myths, Life and Times