Classics & Cult Books / Reviews

Mythological Ecstasy: Bibek DebRoy’s Ten Volume Mahabharata

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Bibek Debroy Mahabharata Bibek DebRoy’s Ten Volume Mahabharata[/caption]

Mahabharata, in a sense, is somewhat similar to The Holy Bible. Every Indian knows the basic story. However, being the longest epic poem ever written (110,000 couplets – Whoa!!), few people, except the scholars, take the pain of going through the original text (which is not very reader friendly and written in Sanskrit). I was extremely excited when I came to know economist Bibek DebRoy has undertaken a project to translate a ten volume Mahabharata in modern English.

I finally bought the box set a few months back and I am half way through it. However, I couldn’t wait till I am done simply because I think this work is the best compromise between the original Sanskrit text and any other existing translation of the epic in English. Not sure if I am too fickle minded but Mahabharata has rekindled my interest in mythology.

[caption id="attachment_2358" align="alignright" width="114"]Ramesh Menon's Two Volume Mahabharata Ramesh Menon’s Two Volume Mahabharata[/caption]

I have previously read Romesh Menon’s 2000 page / 2 volume translation, which is a decent abridged work in modern English and would suffice as an introduction to anyone new to the epic. DebRoy’s work, quite obviously, is in a different league altogether.

If you are an Indian reader, Mahabharata needs no introduction. If not, imagine this: the Iliad and the Odyssey coupled with the Lord of the Rings and King Arthur’s tales – ah, yes; this might conjure up a fairly accurate picture of the epic. The magnitude of the Mahabharata ensures that it is virtually impossible to make a true-to-spirit movie that can cover even the basic plot.

This ancient Hindu epic narrates events that slowly lead to the buildup of a cataclysmic war between two royal families. The war claimed 10 million lives and it is widely believed in the Indian subcontinent that this epic is loosely based on true events. It is believed that the events may have occurred 3000 – 5000 years ago. The violence and tragedy delineated in the pages of The Mahabharata are unprecedented.

The magnificent cast of characters include humans, demons, gods and demi-gods. The Bhagavad-Gita, an intense part of the Mahabharata, is a classic book in itself.

The Storyline

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="202"]Exile of the Pandavas Exile of the Pandavas[/caption]

Without mentioning the lengthy prologue and infinite subplots that lead to the main event (which is the war) and span across generations, the Mahabharata can be summed up as follows:

Two group of royal cousins — Kauravas and Pandavas — from the same lineage grow up together but do not get along well. Sensing hostility, the elders divide the kingdom in two parts. The Kauravas, led by the anti-hero Duryodhan, want the entire kingdom for themselves and come up with a sinister plot. They invite their cousins for a game of dice and the stakes are the kingdoms. Aided by their uncle Shakuni, who is a champion dice player, Kauravas win the game. They send the Pandavas to exile for 14 years. After the exile is over, the Pandavas are supposed to get their kingdom back.

During their exile, Pandavas fight demons, villains, face gargantuan snakes. They are sons of divine creatures and one of them gets to meet the lord of destruction and visits heaven. He is bestowed with unearthly weapons and fights creatures of the netherworld as well.

On returning from exile, the Pandavas find that the Kauravas would not return the Kingdom to them by peaceful means. So preparations for a ghastly war follow. Kings across the globe start taking sides. Even demons, and supernatural creatures join camps. The Kauravas are backed by dark forces while an incarnation of God lends his support to the Pandavas. The war that follows throws the best of warriors against one another. Two greatest archers on earth fight each other to death. Magical and celestial weapons wreak havoc on both armies. The sacred laws of war are violated. Unforeseen twists follow.


[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="202"]Kauravas Try to Molest Pandava Princess During the Game of Dice Kauravas Try to Molest Pandava Princess During the infamous Game of Dice[/caption]

Weapons: The Most Curious Thing About Mahabharata

The variety of weapons used in this epic is incredible. There are weapons which can be described as voice controlled nuclear missiles.

Weapons like Brahmaastra would destroy an entire army but few could wield it. The weapon manifests one of the four faces of the lord of creation – Brahma – on its tip.

Pashupatastra is one of the most lethal weapons in the history of Hindu mythology. It can be discharged by the mind or eyes of the one wielding the weapon. It can be wielded by mantras or special bows as well.  Pashupatastra cannot be used against lesser enemies who have no knowledge of celestial weapons.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="202"]Lord Shiva Blessed Arjun with the Weapon Pashupatastra. Lord Shiva Blessed Arjun with the Weapon Pashupatastra[/caption]


Sudarshana Chakra or the discus of Lord Vishnu can behead anyone.

Nagaastra would take the form of a deadly snake and deliver a fatal blow.

Maheshwarastra is backed the power of the third eye of the lord of destruction. It can turn anything into ashes. If wielded by Shiva himself, it can turn the creation itself into ashes.

Narayanastra: An absolutely fatal astra that showers a combination of weapons on the enemies once it is invoked. The power of this weapon will increase if resistance is offered. It can be used only once in a lifetime.

There is extensive description of futuristic concepts like aircrafts, inter-planatory space travels, biotechnology and innovative body armors. The weapons described have striking similarity to modern day missiles.

Brilliant Characterization: 

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="202"]Arjun Kills Karna When He was Off Chariot and Violates Sacred Laws of War Arjun Kills Arch-rival Karna When He was Off Chariot and Violates the Sacred Laws of War[/caption]

Sublime characters are the trademark of epics. However, the cast of Mahabharata stands out even by the lofty standards of the ancient poems.

The characters are endowed with remarkable depth. Instead of being motivated by pure good or evil, they are multi-layered human beings exhibiting intricate responses. You start developing feeling for the characters and when the war begins, you start getting excited as the titans clash.

Some characters like Krishna, Arjun, Karna and Bhisma have become legendary.

The Grand Plot:

Spanning across generations, the Mahabharata reaches a depth difficult to fathom. Though there are countless sub plots and sub quests, most of them are neatly tied up to the main story. The story of Arjun fighting the creatures of the netherworld, who have occupied part of heaven is breathtaking. The yearlong war is the main event but the events that lead to it are remarkable. Mahabharata does not follow “The happy ending” trend and it closes in the same spirit as it began — solemn, somber, and sublime.

Of course, like all ancient epics, it discusses philosophy, ethics, politics and management at length. Surprisingly, the lessons it teaches are relevant even today.

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Yeah, I said above no movie can cover even the basic plot. But someone has to make a movie with new age CGI. Oriental mysticism, esoteric mythology, epic characters and fierce violence can make an incredible combination.

[caption id="attachment_2361" align="aligncenter" width="610"]An Artist's Impression of the devastating Effect of Brahmaastra An Artist’s Impression of the Devastating Brahmaastra[/caption]
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Download ebook: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

A funny reviewer at Goodreads sums up Pride and Prejudice in a few darn good lines:

“Girls need to marry. Girls can’t get married. Girls are sad. Girls get married. Girls are happy.”

That’s an honest-to-god review of Jane Auten’s classic. The reviewer’s words are proven and undisputed as Kevin Bacon would put it (as he did in A Few Good Men). Yet there is something more to the story. Ah, actually there is a lot more.

The Usual Lovers

Pride and Prejudice is an unforgettable love story with some typical tensions and stumbling blocks found in most romantic novels. However, Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story has some deeper elements as well. Their journey is filled with irony.

Elizabeth says she is not someone who rejects a guy only to accept him later. But this is exactly what she does with Darcy. While the first line of the novel states that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, we find that a single woman needs a man of good fortune more desperately. Darcy detests the ill-bred behaviour of the Bennet family, but his own Aunt is no better. Elizabeth takes pride in her judgement, which results in her unjustified prejudice against Darcy.

Though there is no explicit symbolism in the story, the love story serves as a tool for social commentary.

Thou Art Proletariat

The importance of reputation and class in Victorian society is emphasised time and again. Though the middle class Bennet family socializes with aristocrats like Darcy and Bingleys, they are clearly treated as inferiors. The snobbish Mr. Collins is another product of the class system.

Do you think class is still a decisive factor today when it comes to relationships? Of course, a Paris Hilton is not going to marry a loser, but then how far can someone go beyond his own league?

Comedy of Wits

Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice against him make an intelligent story supported by lots of quotable quotes.

“I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.” — Elizabeth on Darcy.

Well said Liz.

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Classics Revisited: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Franz Kfka Metamorphosis

What if you wake up one morning to find yourself transformed into an enormous insect? What if your life suddenly takes a frighteningly different turn?

Alienation of the Condemned

Kafka’s classic is a dark fantasy with some absurdist humor. Metamorphosis is an apparently simple but bizarre story, which works on so many levels that no one’s too sure how to interpret it. But the primary theme is alienation of an individual in a society that is too afraid to accept changes. Metamorphosis would remind you Camus’ The Outsider, which deals with the same theme.

Gregor’s (The protagonist) metamorphosis isolates him from the rest of the society, and he is no longer a part of the established system. A psychological barrier separates him from his family and the people around him. However, it’s later revealed that his metamorphosis and consequent alienation is an extension of a long term feeling.

Anarchy in the Universe 

The cause of Gregor’s predicament is never explained. A seemingly fair, dutiful fellow turns into a giant insect for no apparent reason. Kafka strongly suggests the existence of a chaotic universe, which functions in an illogical and chaotic manner. The absurdity of life is highlighted with surprisingly effective symbolism.

In Search of an Existentialist life

Pre-metamorphosis: Samsa’s  life is miserable because family, society, and duties are most important to him and in the process he neglects his own existence. He is little more than a machine.

Post-metamorphosis: Samsa focuses too much on himself and is cut-off from the society. His life lacks purpose and becomes absurd.

The poor fellow struggles to live a meaningful and balanced life; so eventually he ceases to exist. The existentialist philosophers would say Samsa was not an an acting, feeling, living individual but someone with confused priorities in a world that might look frighteningly meaningless.

You, Me & Samsa

Readers can easily identify with the trapped, estranged, and lonely Gregor Samsa. If Dostoevsky had written an allegorical work of speculative fiction, he couldn’t have portrayed a more embittered protagonist with a more realistic agony. At the end of the day, are we not feeling a bit like Kafka’s Samsa or Camus’s Meursault?

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Forgotten classic: La Morte Amoureuse by Théophile Gautier

theophile gautier la morte amoureuse

Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was a French poet, novelist, and critic who profoundly influenced French literature of his time. He was an ardent supporter of Romanticism and was blessed with fantastic poetic imagination. This is best exhibited in Gautier’s gothic fiction — La Morte Amoureuse (Clarimonde), The Mummy’s Foot, and Avatar to name a few. He was held in high esteem by prominent literary figures like Gustave Flaubert, Baudelaire, Balzac, and Oscar Wilde. Gautier was the director of Revue de Paris from 1851-1856.

La Morte Amoureuse is a classic Gothic vampire tale with numerous references to Orientalism. It delineates the story of a priest named Romuald, who is seduced by a beautiful woman — Clarimonde. With time, it becomes clear that Romuald’s beloved is a vampire, who thrives on his blood. While alive, she was a courtesan living in Palace Concini — a place of great debauchery. Romuald, however, lives with no regrets. He ends up being a two-face: a priest during day and a lover to an undead at night. Finally, an older priest becomes aware of the situation, digs out Clarimonde from her grave, and turns her to dust with holy water. Clarimonde comes back to Romauld one last time that night and tells him he would regret this all his life, but won’t get her back. The vampire’s prophecy turns out to be true as Romuald lives with a broken heart for the rest of his life.

This novella is an established classic and is bound to leave an impression on the lovers of gothic literature.

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Classics & Cult Books / Reviews

Book Review: On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev

A forgotten classic. A masterpiece by one of the best novelists of all time. A deliciously chewy book from the golden age of Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev’s On the Eve is a memorable experience that introduces you to a transcendental and aching tale, which touches the deepest part of your soul.

What’s it about?

Friendship and love, sacrifice and loyalty, idealism and philosophy

This is a love story with a historical background, told with consummate skill, moving inevitably to its sad conclusion. A small group of young Russian aristocrats deal with intellectual issues on the eve of the Crimean War. The protagonist — the twenty year old Elena — and two other men in her social circle search for answers through earnest philosophical discussions. The arrival of the fourth element — A Bulgarian revolutionary — to this friendly triangle suddenly makes everything unpredictable and life takes unexpected turns. You suspect a tragic ending all along, you feel a melancholy tone throughout and your apprehensions turn out to be true. “I sought happiness, and I shall find—perhaps death.” says Elena. But hope somehow remains alive and you don’t feel vanquished when the journey is over.

What’s so good?

This is not a spider web in terms of plot. But Turgenev’s flowing, seemingly artless prose keeps you mesmerized. You would recognize a faint atmosphere of rose water. On the Eve is not too passionate, yet it is beautiful in form and full of emotion. Even though the pace is not too fast, the story keeps you hooked right from the beginning.

This novel is rich in brilliant characterizations. You may not identify with the characters (who may seem a bit strange in 21st century), but you do feel for them and you do recognize their sad sentiments. And this is perhaps the only Russian classic with a Bulgarian revolutionary — Insarov — as a hero. He is a head-strong champion who wants to liberate his motherland from the Turks and eventually meets a tragic fate.

A historical fact

On the Eve is now considered as one of Turgenev’s major works. Surprisingly, it was not warmly received by the critics at that time and Turgenev’s reputation suffered a feedback after its publication. Being highly sensitive to the opinion of his friends and critics, Turgenev didn’t write much in the years that immediately followed.

Is it a “must read” novel?

On the Eve was written almost 150 years ago. But it hasn’t become irrelevant, nor has it lost its charm. You shouldn’t skip this book particularly if you admire vintage Russian novels. Continue reading