Friday, September 16, 2011

In which we wonder about crimson phalluses and dark-skinned beauty

A very long time ago, The Bride and I decided on a reading project--The Mahabharata. I think she, like the good girl she is, finished it and wrote about it at length. I, however, didn't, partly because the unwieldy hardback translation I had required bedtime reading, and once I started travelling and going out at night I never did read it.

At the book fair I found Rupa selling the Ramesh Menon's modern rendering, as it's called, and it being paperback and two volumes, and eligible for publisher's discount, I bought it. I'm progressing in leaps and bounds. The prose is lucid and chatty, and retains enough strangeness and Sanskrit to remind you that it is an ancient epic. There is none of the awkward syntax that so annoyed my friend who also read Kamala Subramiam's translation. I'm about 260 pages in, and the Pandavas have reached Kampali for Draupadi's swayamvara. Apart from the fact that I love that they have their South Indian names--Arjunaa, etc--here's what I find interesting so far.

Menon's prose is very luscious--descriptions are vivid and evocative, but sometimes make me flinch a bit because they seem OTT. There are some pieces of description that certainly appear to be superfluous to me, especially considering this is an abridged version and, even if this is in the original, there really isn't too much need to translate it. My favourite example, while describing Bakasura sneaking up behind Bheema:
His head was in the trees, as he stood quite naked and motionless, only his strange phallus twitching with the lust of the hunt. He saw what Bheema had done to the food. The rakshasha's hairless body quivered. His crimson organ subsided like a distraught serpent, and rage replaces excitement in his tiny eyes.

Really? Is the 'strange twitching phallus' really necessary? Or its deflation as it were? My friend says it's a deep mellu obsession with sex, so Menon can't fight it.I wonder if his editor at Rupa tried to stop it...something tells me no.

The ideal of beauty is dark-skinned. I wonder if this is so in the original! Here's a quote describing Draupadi:
The burning stillness assumed a human form. There were long, dark arms there, a perfect head flowing black tresses. As Drupada, his wife and the rishis watched, stunned by her incredible beauty, her skin dark as night, her face and body so perfect they were from a more pristine time, a young girl stepped out of the light.
Then, earlier on, talking of Hidimbi:
...she had turned herself into a dark human beauty...Dark as night, and as enticing...
There are more, but I can't be bothered to dig them out...

There's no gray in his characterization. Again, I don't know about the original, but I know Kamala Subramaniam, or atleast the part I read, definitely had positive and negative sides to characters. As Jai puts it, Duryodhana is a tragic hero with a fatal flaw, not a psychotic evil motherfucker (my words, not Jai's), which is how Menon paints him. I kind of want to slap whiny bitchy Arjuna, and am immediately suspicious of Duryodhana's evil, because there's no cause! Why does Dritharashtra turn gleefully evil in the twinkling of an eye? In every other rendering of the Mahabharata I find I am always drawn to Bheema, but here even he is annoying cos he's just so fucking perfect, especially the way he's all rowf rowf command me o master and I shall destroy for you. My personal favourite Bheema is in Palace of Illusions. The only mildly human character so far is Vidura. More updates once I meet Draupadi and Krishna!


  1. Okay: 1. I did not finish. Pregnancy nausea made me associate the book with pukeyness so I stopped, and seeing as I'm pregnant again, I don't want to even risk that association.
    2. I was using the Ramesh Menon version. Now that we're on the same version tempted to start.
    3. I think those characters were dark-skinned in the 'original'. At least Draupadi has been cited before as an example of how dark was beautiful once. Even in Chitra Bannerjee's retelling, she is dark.

  2. hhehehehe ok. lets do it! i was rereading your posts about it and you were saying one bog book a year. i am adopting that too, but maybe more than one.

  3. Hey surely talking of the phalluses and lengthy descriptions gives you a true flavour of the epic. It isn't only action.
    Also Draupadi's other name is Krishnaa, which means dark one, just like the guy with a similar sounding name. So yep dark is beautiful.

  4. heheh i suppose, but its not being used in a particularly phallusy way! actually krishnaa IS draupadi's name, she's called draupadi and panchali cos her dad loves her so much. the dark one angle thrilled me when i found out, making it suddenly appeal as a name heh