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.