Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Great Indian Novel

I actually ordered this book following the Twitter controversy of its author Shashi Tharoor and it made me realize that there is indeed a positive side to negative publicity. :)
The Great Indian Novel is an ingenious attempt at narrating the recent Mahabharta of the Indian Freedom Struggle. Tharoor has assigned all the key characters of the Indian independence movement a Mahabharata equivalent. Dictated by Ved Vyas to Ganpathi, this novel is both satirical and equally moving. The characters are named and described so well that within lines of introducing a new character you immediately get the real people behind the character. Tharoor's Vyas seems a like a pipe-smoking-toddy-drinking old English chap but that does not stick between your teeth like an annoying bit of corn. In fact, this modern Vyas gives the whole narrative a crisp humorous style.
In the beginning I was a little cross at this humorous opening, especially when he tried to describe Mahatma Gandhi. However, as the book progresses Tharoor unfolds a deep respect for the leader in a sincere and moving description. His respect is refreshing in ways that are completely different and human to the usual rhetoric dedicated to Gandhi in Indian politics. He presents Mahatma and his work as an experiment and very carefully defines the scope of Gandhian methods. He talks extensively about the psychological effect that the Gandhian methods had on the masses, essentially making them work. This insight keeps you glued to the book although it is sprinkled here and there with long poetic interludes, something I thought did not match up to the prose.
What is remarkable is the ease with which each of Tharoor's characters fits with it's counterpart in the epic Mahabharta. Tharoor has not just classified the characters according to the epic but he has been able to translate for his readers what each of these represent psychologically.
Another aspect that comes forward in this book mostly because it is a modern take on the epic is the role of women. Tharoor's Kunti and Madri make you wonder if any of the later victories would have been possible at all without the liberties given to these women. Women in India have always enjoyed a place of power which is still evident. However the Indian woman very rarely comes out in the open about the powers she holds and it requires a careful study of every great battle to know which unsung woman hero really controlled it with her bejeweled petite hand. Sometimes, in India this passive control takes an ugly form too and makes me wonder if manipulation should be renamed as "womanipulation" for India. :)
The one woman that later came out in the open with her good and bad powers has been popularly hated all over India still for her actions. It makes you wonder if the reaction would be different had she been a man!

I think this book is a must read for anyone following Indian politics. It gives you an idea of how Indian politics has evolved and decayed from the Gandhian"politics of the conscience" to the modern day "politics of blackmail". I don't know how effective Shashi Tharoor will be as a politician but for this book, he gets full marks. It also gives an explanation for his constant tweets. For someone who is full of so many ideas, not expressing them for a long time must be hard! :)


Raj said...

Interesting review. Will try to read it.
Mahabharat is one of fav stories of all times.
Btw there is one guy on Twitter who is reciting Mahabharat twwet-by-tweet. :)

Saee said...

@ Raj
Wow..I must follow him!!
Thanks for the comments. :)

मकरंद said...

hey review is gr8. I just bought tht book a month ago but couldent get time to read it. Now i will read it.

Pipa said...

that was his only good book though :-0

Mirza Ghalib said...

The first thing about this book is the fact the less you know about the history of India from 1920 onwards, the less sense it will make to you. So if you don't know much about post independent India or the struggle for independence, consider reading up on those first.
That said, this is a brilliant effort at drawing a parallel between the greatest Indian epic and our recent history, and at places it is amazing, how a scene from Mahabharata can be transposed into chapter from Indian history, and how it all fits in ...
there are lot of dull patches in the book. At lot of places the parallels seem forced and labored, lot of chapters are too long drawn and soporific and the fact that you're always looking for the major events from the epic being depicted in some form leads to some disappointments. The humor is good most of the times, but there are patches of what you can call - cheap comedy.
Overall it is a book with a very different taste. It takes for labored reading at places and there will be points when you'd want to quit, but at the end, most of it seems to make sense. There are subtle areas where Tharoor's views on certain historical events have crept in, if you know our history well, and you watch out for these, you can spot them.
Takes an effort to finish, but on the whole, worth that effort.