The Mahabharata captures the reader's imagination perhaps in a way that is almost impossible for any other epic or work of literature to do so. One day, when I have read Homer's great works I could attempt to compare and draw parallels. For now, I claim nothing but a deep and abiding love for this story that I have in some form or the other, come into contact with since I was a toddler. There was Amar Chitra Katha, there was B.R Chopra's magnum opus dubbed into Tamil and then there was mom. Today, whatever hotchpotch of information and understanding that I have on the Mahabharata has come principally from my mother.
What really happens when you demystify the Mahabharata or the Ramayana? What happens when you take away the mountains giving way to Parashuram, when you take away the river parting for Krishna, what if there is no sea of divine milk, if Brahma was a figment of a long ago poet's imagination? What are you left with if you look at these men not as Gods, not as Vishnu, but as flesh and blood people who lived, loved and made mistakes just like the rest of us? The Mahabharata is every man's contemporary, it is every man's story and that is why it has stood the test of millennia and will continue to do so.
From the back of the book:
Born out of wedlock to Kunti and Surya, the Sun God, Karna is abandoned by his mother at birth. He deserves the fate of princes, but is adopted by a lowly charioteer and becomes one himself.
Uruvi, a Kshatriya princess, chooses him over Arjun at her Swayamvar, and theirs is a marriage of great social contrast. Uruvi must bring to bear all her love for Karna, and her formidable intelligence, to be accepted by his family. She eventually becomes Karna's mainstay, counselling and guiding him. However his blind allegiance to Duryodhana, the eventual cause of his downfall, is beyond her power to change.
Karna's Wife, told from Uruvi's point of view, unfolds against the backdrop of the epic struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Lyrical and inventive, it is a moving story of love against all odds.
There really is nothing for me to write here about the Mahabharata itself; Indians who happen to read this blogpost will undoubtedly know at least the basic outline and for the uninitiated, I will provide the wikipedia link at the end of my write up.
The novel opens with the archery tournament in Hastinapur and continues until after the battle of Kurukshetra and Karna's death. Among those present who witness Karna's humiliation at the hands of Guru Dhronacharya and Duryodhana's subsequent offer of friendship to Karna, is Uruvi, the princess of Pukeya and the much loved only child of King Vahusha, who falls in love with Karna on the spot.
There are two women in love with Karna; two princesses of royal households that are powerful and would mutually benefit through an alliance with the house of Kuru. Draupadi, the fire-born daughter of King Drupada of Panchala has seen little love in her father's household. She has been dubbed as the woman who will change the course of history. Then there's Uruvi, the princess of Pukeya, as loved and protected as Draupadi was neglected. Draupadi chooses to wed Arjuna as is expected of her and goes so far as to humiliate Karna at her Swayamvara, the repercussions of which shall resonate throughout her life and indeed, throughout Karna's. Uruvi on the other hand, also expected to wed Arjuna, chooses to defy all for love and picks Karna as her choice of groom. It is not for us to decide if Draupadi was right or wrong; one can only speculate if Uruvi would have done the same thing if she hadn't grown up secure in the knowledge of her parents' love for her and that no matter what decision she took, her parents would have ultimately given her their wholehearted support.
After her marriage to Karna, Uruvi finds herself not just an outcast's queen but an outcast herself, without and within Karna's household. Vrushali, Karna's first wife, treats her with polite detachment while keeping a reserved distance; Karna's brother Shona is openly skeptical about how well Uruvi, a Kshatriyan princess would settle into a Suta-putra household while Karna's parents don't quite know what to make of her and hold her in awe. The early days of Uruvi's life with Karna are checkered with pockets of happiness and despair as she struggles to find acceptance in a society where to marry "beneath" oneself is to commit "pratiloma", the practice of marrying a man of a lower caste and which is supposed to have been prohibited by the Shastras. In spite of their obvious differences, Uruvi and Karna come to hold each other with an abundance of love and regard which would be sorely tested as the events of the Mahabharata unfold.
Karna, misfortune's child, is a tormented soul, at once seeking acceptance from and deriding an unforgiving and capricious world. All around him tell him that he is certain to be doomed if he continues his friendship with Duryodhana but to Karna, he owes Duryodhana his dignity and therefore, his loyalty unto death. Strangely, I wouldn't call Karna's opinions of Durydhana blind; only his loyalty is blind and unreserved. He seems to know very well his friend's drawbacks; Duryodhana is another who grew up without a mother's love and one who was brought up to view the world with mistrust and his Pandava cousins with hatred by his maternal uncle Shakuni. Karna almost pities Duryodhana his lack of moral uprightness, his coarseness and his penchant for cruelty and revenge. Throughout the book one finds oneself identifying more and more with Uruvi in her frustration and despair from failing to pry Karna away from Duryodhana's clutches. From the moment of Draupadi's disrobing by Dushasana at the fateful dice game, Karna knows that he a doomed man. A man ready to die, a man who knows he is on the side of wrong or adharma, a side that cannot win, yet all he tells Uruvi is that he is willing to and will die by Duryodhana's side. A dialogue from a 1964 tamil movie called Karnan best exemplifies Karna's feels towards Duryodhana: "Ulagathirkku avan eppadiyo, enakku avan dhaane kadavul" (Whoever he might be to the world, to me, he is God).
This is a book of love and for love, one that could stand up to any other this world has seen since it's creation, fictional or otherwise. Karna's and Uruvi's plight is pathetic to behold and you leave the book, frankly, wanting to punch Kunti's face.
Kavita Kané can be proud of a wonderful first attempt. The flow of writing is natural and it is easy to forget that this novel is her first; not a mean feat, especially considering the subject matter. The book juxtaposes wonderfully, the failings of the Kauravas against that of the Pandavas and indeed that of Kunti, the queen mother whose moral responsibility it was to put many wrongs right. Could Karna's life have been different if his mother had willed otherwise? Undoubtedly so, instead fate took its course. I am tempted to write more, but I will let you discover this book for yourself.
I have tagged the wikipedia link for The Mahabharata here and for Karna here. In addition there's a wonderful write up on Suvro Sir's blog on the Mahabharata and you can access it here.
Kavita Kané is a senior journalist and theatre aficionado based out of Pune. This is her first novel.