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The Story is the Thing

Pradip Bhattacharya

Translated by P. Lal
Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005, pp. 1218, price not stated.

By Meera Uberoi ; Mahasweta Devi
Penguin Books ; Seagull, Kolkata, Delhi, 2005, pp. 472; pp. 49, Rs. 300.00; Rs. 120.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

Shells were exploding over Leningrad. Enemy bombs were falling on the streets stirring up clouds of dust. On one of those spring days during the siege, Sanscrit language was being heard in the building of the Academy of Sciences on the Neva River embankment, in a room overlooking the side that was safer during the artillery strikes. First, in the original, and then in translation, Vladimir Kalyanov, a specialist on India, was reading Mahabharata, a wonderful monument of Indian literature, to his colleagues, who remained in the besieged city. He had started the translation before the war. He translated during the hard winter of 1941, with no light, no fuel and no bread in the city. Two volumes of books—one published in Bombay and the other in Calcutta—were lying on the table in the room. In the dim light of a wick lamp, he was comparing these two editions of Mahabharata, trying to find the best and the most accurate translation of the Sanscrit into Russian…The translation of the Indian epic into Russian was never interrupted.1   What is it in this epic-of-epics, eight times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—denounced as “a literary monster” by Winternitz, and as “monstrous chaos” by Oldenberg—that appeals so irresistibly to the modern man in search of his soul, when the audience for which it was composed—the enthroned monarch and the forest-dwelling sage—has long sunk into the dark abyss of time? Vyasa, master raconteur, weaves together a bewildering skein of threads to create a many-splendoured web from which there was no escape for the listener of those days and there is none even for the reader of today. The thousands of years that separate us from Vyasa have not, surprisingly, dimmed the magic of his art that had entranced Janamejaya and Shaunaka.   We find here a storyteller par excellence laying bare, at times quite pitilessly, the existential predicament of man in the universe. If, later in the epic, Vyasa shows us what man has made of man, here, in the very first book, he plumbs the depths of the humiliatingly petty preoccupations of the Creator’s noblest creation. Indeed, the dilemmas the characters find themselves enmeshed in cannot even be glorified as ‘tragic’. Perhaps, that is why we find the epic so fascinating—for, how many of us are cast in the heroic mould? We do not ...

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