There are very few books, whose very title tells a story. The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor is one such rarity. It is based on our GREAT epic Mahabharta, is very INDIAN in character and indeed a NOVEL (though not so noble) attempt by our cattle-class-conscious, suave, charismatic, yet ever controversial politico Shashi Tharoor.
Ever since I learnt that Tharoor has presented his own version of Mahabharta in this novel, I was dying to read this classic and expected it to be a fantastic mix of mythology, history and politics in Tharoor’s witty urbane style. And, for once, my expectations did not suffer a set back.
The novel is loosely based on the Indian politics of Pre and Post Independence era. The book is written in the style of Mahabharta with a veteran Kaurava leader, V.V.Ji (a take off on Ved Vyas of Mahabharta fame) dictating the story to a quiet but intelligent gentleman, Ganeshan.
The author very cleverly begins the story with Mahabharta as reference and then juxtaposes our prominent freedom fighters and leaders in his story. Though, he describes almost all the events that happened during the freedom struggle in a chronological manner, taking poetic liberty, he presents the facts in a cheeky style with innovative explanations behind the decisions made by the characters, be it the Mango Tax Yatra or the Manimir annexation, thus giving the bland tale of well known events, a new charm.
The main protagonist of the Great Indian Novel is, of course, none other than Bhishma Gangaji, a lethal combination of Mahabharta’s Bhishma Pitamah and the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. And, as is true of our country, the story progresses smoothly till Gangaji is on the stage.
However, the story that showed great potential in the beginning seems to loose its momentum as soon as Gangaji dies. And, it seems not just the characters of the novel, but also the author gets a bit direction less, jumping from one character to the other, desperately attempting to find a worthy substitute and in the process, the novel falters a bit, with the author, concentrating more on the nocturnal activities of the leaders, producing a never ending tale of steamy affairs and a row of illegitimate kids.
Thankfully, Tharoor checks himself in time and finds a worthy villain in the form of Priya Duryodhni and is able to make good use of the circumstances of the Emergency era and the novel becomes interesting once again.
In short, the novel traverses a zig-zag path, very much like the political scenario of our country, metamorphosing from a Colony to Anarchy to Democracy to Anarchy again, with V.V.ji himself declaring at the end of the novel, that perhaps, he has told the story in a wrong way, and it should be retold from a new point of view.
The narrator may not be satisfied, but I found the novel to be a heady concoction of mythological meanderings and political ploys, in the brilliant tongue-in-cheek style of the author and was more than impressed by the deftly used tetrameter verse to highlight the important events. And, most importantly, the novel reaffirmed my belief that our mythical stories are so versatile that they can be retold in hundreds of ways, and are capable of entertaining us for centuries to come, be it The Great Indian Novel or The Immortals of Meluha or The Palace of Illusions.