Author: Mt Vasudevan Nair
Published by Harper Perennial 2013
Translated by Gita Krishnankutty
Pages:373, Price Rs 350
An unlikely hero/A tragic hero
If you conduct a quick survey among friends and familyabout the most memorable characters of the Mahabharata, in all probability, Arjuna or Karnawould top the list. Some may mention Yudhistira and a handful, Duryodhana, but the least likely to get a shout would be Bhima. And therein liesthe story behind this book.
Author, screenplay writer and journalist MT Vasudevan Nair found it interesting that a character as important as Bhima gets the short shrift in our memories. He believes that this is because Bhima was extremely different – in his size and appearance — from his brothers and was always relegated to the second spot (to Yudhistira by birth order and to Arjuna when it came to Draupadi’s and Krishna’s affections). Even his mother, hints this book, treated him less favourably than her eldest and younger sons.
Bhima’s story is lost in the twists and turns of the lives of the other characters. But MT, as the author is popularly known,takes on the role of asootatosing about Bhima’sacts of valour, his compassion and his unrequited love for Draupadi. The result is that we get to hear a fascinating tale that would otherwise have been buried in the silent spaces of the Mahabharata.
The author does not conjure up anything new nor does he add new characters to the epic. All he does is present us with a different perspective.For instance if we look at the story of Bhima and Hidimbi; for most of us it is minor episode in the journey that the Pandavas undertake after their palace of lac is burnt down. But when we look at it through the eyes of Bhima, the characters of the heroes and their mother are revealed. Yudhistira is weak, petulant and ungrateful. Kunti appears thoughtless and even insensitive to her son’s feelings. Bhima who gathered his mother and brothers on his back and walked with them when they were fatigued, fetched his mother water when she was thirsty and found his love in a woman who his brothers called a demoness and sorcerer was not given his due. Yudhistira warns Bhima, ‘Be careful. These people know sorcery. Don’t let her come near you, especially at night.’ And then when their belongings are stolen, he says: ‘It’s her, the tribal woman. She’s a demoness.’ And when it is time to move on and Bhima finds out that he will have to leave behind not just his new wife but also his unborn son, his pain goes unacknowledged.
MT also brings out the relationship between the Vedic race that was dominant at the time and the adivasi tribes. Hidimba and Baka(whom Bhima kills in combat) are Nishadas which is a forest tribe. In several popular renditions of the epic, the two have been called Asuras or Rakshasas, but this book helps us appreciate the nuances of the relationship between the races. Baka, for instance was believed to have been a cannibal who demanded a human for his meal every week. But the story as Bhima tells it was that Baka collected men on behalf of the king who wanted to conduct the Purushamedha or the human sacrifice festival. These are revelations that make one want to go back to the epic; take a torch to its dark corners, dig up the obscure references and read it afresh.
The book also deals with the two strong women of the epic in an interesting manner. Kunti is shown to be the master planner who, perhaps driven by grief and bitterness at the hand dealt out to her, manipulates everyone – even her own children to get her eldest son on the throne. Draupadi is ambitious and vengeful and in Bhima’s eyes, heartless as she uses his love to get her work done. An interesting facet of Draupadi’s character as fleshed out in this narrative is her love of a good battle. She is aroused by violence and gore, asking Bhima for detailed descriptions of his bloody fights with his opponents. The book also reveals several lesser known characters. We get to know Bhima’s wives, his charioteer and Dhristadyumna, all of whose roles were not as elaborately sketched out in the epic as they are in this book.