|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||16. Nr.||Mai 2006|
Evelyne Hanquart-Turner (University of Paris XII. E.A. 3958-IMAGER)
«The old is new again», Shashi Tharoor’s narrator declared, and indeed his 1989 novel, The Great Indian Novel, illustrates this point in more respects than one. Considered in its totality, the work is a giant palimpsest in which the sub-text still emerges clearly to the reader’s eye. As he willingly acknowledges in a preliminary disclaimer, the title of the novel does underline and give the key to the work:
The Great Indian Novel takes its title not from the author’s estimate of its contents but in deference to its primary source of inspiration, the ancient epic the Mahabharata. In Sanscrit Maha means great and Bharata means India.(1)
Hence the Mahabharata is the great story of the Indian race, the Bharats, the ancestors of present-day Indians. The last word of the title also deserves a brief comment. If indeed the text can be read as belonging to the polymorphous genre of fiction, it is «novel» also in so far as it offers new, and one may add contemporary material, about the story of India as told through the ancient epic. The visible text is that of Indian history from the birth of the nationalist movement under the British Raj to the situation of the country after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, that is, roughly speaking, the last century of Indian History. So it is essentially a vision of New (modern, colonial and post-colonial) India that comes to mind as the reader goes through the four hundred or so pages of the narrative, since the latter is done with even further hindsight.
In the opening chapter, aptly entitled «The Twice-Born Tale», the narrator claims his intention to have «The Song of Modern India» transcribed from his very words. Indeed, Ved Vyas, an old politician of the Indian National Congress dictates the whole story to Ganapathy a young scribe recommended by his friend Brahm under similar conditions to those imposed by Vyasa to Ganesh in the opening part of the ancient epic. This ploy is in itself the first instance of the whole frame of the novel. Like the Mahabharata, it consists of eighteen books subdivided into one hundred and twenty three sections. Though formally it is written in prose, the narrator now and then - and usually at crucial moments in his narrative - switches to verse in the telling, as, for instance, when he reaches the part assigned to the Bahgavad Gita in the epic.
Beside the formal resemblance with the ancient text, Ved Vyas’s narrative follows very clearly and precisely the plotline and the major episodes of the epic, and thus to its very, ambivalent, conclusion. The first ten books, just as in the original, leading to the fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, present the struggle from independence and culminate with the lethal rivalry between Hindu politicians after the country achieved independence on a democratic basis. The last eight books stage the ruinous consequences of the power struggle leading to a no-win, indeed to a detrimental situation for the country, a situation which is equated with the present state of India as the narrator ends his story (i.e corresponding to the late 1980s). The eighteenth book shows the main protagonists of History reaching an ambivalent paradise (fame) under the leadership of dead Yudishtir just as in the epic itself.
When one looks at the unwinding of the plot in closer detail, it becomes clear that faithfulness to the original is achieved through a variety of devices ranging from mere modernisation of the epic, like, i.e. Ved Vyas’s own family story (told as the seduction of a fisherman’s daughter by a passing Brahmin sage compared to Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges who married king Shantanu of Hastinapur), or again the great and crucial battle at the heart of the Mahabharata and the Gita, is transmuted into the struggle for power between Indira Gandhi’s Congress and the moral, traditionally Hindu Janata Front, itself emanating from the most conservative group of the Congress. Such transmutations clearly belong to parody and highlight the mock epic character of the novel in a fairly banal albeit entertaining way, as does the identification of each historical character with a mythic counterpart. This is done in a significant way for the narrator’s (and the author’s) comment on the person concerned, since his/her role in the well-known mythical tale is reflected in his/her part played in the History of modern India. Hence, Gandhi is assimilated to Bishma (which apparently means «of terrible resolve»), the only surviving son of the Goddess Ganga and Santanu, who renounced the throne of Hastinapur in advance to enable his father’s second marriage, renouncing as well all sexual life to ensure the succession for his younger half brothers. Like his epic counterpart, he is depicted as wise, ascetic and charismatic. Also known as Mahaguru -great teacher- (as opposed to the historical Mahatma), he will undertake the education of his half brothers Dhritarashtra the blind king (here Jawaharlal Nehru) also wise and learned, but cut off from everyday life realities and toils by his blindness, and Pandu (Subhas Chandra Bose) much more passionate, practical and down to earth. The trio represent the Kaurava dynasty, in modern times the Indian National Congress, who are the legitimate heirs to the ancient kingdom of Hastinapur, then symbolizing the whole of India. Of the marriages arranged for them by Bishma, the two younger half brothers have issues, and it is from the rivalry between the cousins that the great war for power over Hastinapûr will eventually arise. Pandu has five sons; the Pandavas of the epic, Yudishthir, Bhim, Arjun and the twins, Nakul and Sahadev, are here equated respectively with Morarvij Desai(2) and the Army, the Press, the Administration and the Foreign Office. Unbeknown to Pandu, his first wife Kunti had previously had an illegitimate son who had disappeared Moses-like fashion as soon as he was born to re-emerge as a golden boy with a crescent moon scar on his forehead: the Karna of the epic becomes Mohammed Ali Karna (that is M.A. Jinnah all too significantly). Blind king Dhrishtarashtra of the Mahabharata has one hundred sons, the Kauravas, by his wife Gandhari .His counterpart the modern blind king of the Kauravas (in other words Nehru the leader of the Indian National Congress) has one single daughter Prya Duryodhana whose birth, similarly to what happens in the epic for the birth of her namesake Duryodana, the eldest of the hundred, is greeted with sinister omens of violence foretelling hate and destruction to the country. (3)
In other words The Great Indian Novel is a roman à clefs easily deciphered by those who have a summary knowledge of the plot and main episodes of the epic, as well-known to Indians educated and uneducated alike, thanks to the oral tradition of story-telling, and of recent Indian History. Indeed, so far, the ploy used by Tharoor can appear rather straightforward and unsophisticated. It is in fact much more elaborate, since the novel has to integrate not only the rivalry for power among diverse but closely related Indian political factions and parties into the ancient frame of the epic, but also the struggle to free India from its colonial masters, without which the former would have been impossible. Thus borrowing exclusively from the Mahabharata would not have made the telling of Ved Vyas’s story possible.
The foreign element in the plot is then tackled through multicultural sources; to the weft of the Indian antic myths, Tharoor adds the warp of colonial and postcolonial fiction which echoes throughout the first ten books of the novel. These echoes are much more distorted than the fairly clear-cut delineations between the Indian epic and the historical events depicted. The English actors of the story are usually identified to fictional characters or Anglo-Indian novelists, sometimes to both at once, and the use of such names, for people or places, evokes not only the character or place in question but brings in the whole background of the original novel which then reverberates through Tharoor’s narrative.
Take for instance Ronald Heaslop, who is presented first in the tandem he makes with his superior officer sir Richard, as the embodiment of the young liberally minded Indian Civil Servant. Just like his namesake in A Passage to India, he deteriorates in the course of the novel, and his lack of understanding, of imagination and generosity, visible during his recurrent appearances on the forefront, is then representative of the whole Civil Service of the pre-independence years. The use of this complex multicultural blending to give substance and wit to the material of the novel is made clear from the table of contents, as the eighteen books offer a variety of titles that echo this hybrid origin and at the same time give a key to the contents of the book itself. We have already elaborated on the first book’s title ("The Twice-Born Tale") which not only suggests the repetition of the story told, but also its Brahmanic origin, the following chapters enlist British and American literature as well as Indian folk tales and the Bible itself to shed light on the «epic» of the national struggle, and do so in an ironical way through puns and plays on words not devoid of relevance to the episodes concerned. From «The Duel with the Crown» (read Paul Scott’s first novel of the Raj Quartet ‘The Jewel in the Crown) evoking Hastinapur’s dodging British encroachment and preparing the future of its dynasty, we move to «The Rains Came» (see Louis Bromfield’s novel and subsequent 1939 film) when everyone shapes up towards the fertility of the foundation of this dynasty (read the Indian National Congress), to «A Raj Quartet» with the Hastinapur Massacre (read Amritsar Massacre) and annexation (read the annexation of the kingdom of Oudh which led to the Indian Mutiny), followed by «The Powers of Silence» (see Paul Scott’s third novel of the quartet); then comes «The Forbidden Fruit» of Biblical fame which describes the Gandhian Salt March dressed up as the Mango March.(4) «The Son also Rises» introduces Karna (in other words Jinnah) to the political scene in Hemingway’s terms, whereas the subsequent «Midnight’s Parents», stages the much debated relationship between Nehru (Dhritarashtra) and Edwina Moutbatten (Lady Georgina Drewpad) as the secret parents of Draupadi (as we shall see the allegory of Indian Democracy), The ninth and tenth books deal with the most difficult period of the second world war, and Tharoor’s verve in punning seems to highlight this complexity: «Him or The Far-Power Villain» presents the unfortunate choices made by Pandu /aka Subhas Chandra Bose, in his relation with Hitler and the Japanese to their fatal conclusion in terms of the not so unlikely alliance of Kipling and M.M. Kayes (Kim and his part in the Great Game are bracketed with The Far Pavilions), whereas the Koestlerian «Darkness at Dawn» evokes the harshness of the transfer of power and the horrors of Partition.
More revealing of this multicultural creative blending, and more sophisticated certainly is Tharoor’s handling of the Amritsar Massacre and its fatal consequences on Indo-British relations. The fourth book with the mixture of history cum legend and literature makes for an almost surreal reading. In a dozen pages or so it manages to stage the actual events of the Amritsar massacre of 1919 in the context of the annexation of Oudh (1856), both all too real with their aftermath in India and the consequent assassination in London in 1940 of Michael O’Dwyer, all staged here in a completely fictional geography borrowed from the Mahabharata and other fictions. Hastinapur (standing not only for Oudh but also for the whole of traditional India) is thus located in the Presidency of Marabar (shades of Passage to India !) with its famous Bibighar Gardens as the stage for the tragedy, just as in Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown, and described with all the attributes of the real Jallianwallah Bagh.(5) The English actors of the tragedy are also a motley cast, since the Civilians in authority happen to be, again, sir Richard and Ronald Heaslop (A Passage to India). The latter, having had his car stoned by a mob, has thus suffered a similar incident to what befell the much more sinister Ronald Merrick in Paul Scott’s second novel(6). As for the commander of the disastrous police operation led in real life by the infamous General Dyer, he is here a certain colonel Rudyard ! As for the revenge taken in London by Indian nationalists some twenty years later on Sir Michael O’Dwyer who as Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab had given his orders to General Dyer -notice the two names similarity - Tharoor’s twist is to make of him a certain Professor Kipling, the mistaken target of the murder:
... when they got to Blighty, and made inquiries about an old India hand with unsavoury Hastinapur connection, they found their man and, with great éclat and much gore, blew him to pieces;
Do not rejoice, Ganapathi, for it was not Rudyard whose brains they spattered over High Street Kensington. No, not Rudyard, but a simple case of mistaken identity; to a sturdy Punjabi one British name is much like another [...] and it was not Rudyard, but Kipling they killed.(7)
But the playfulness is gone when comes the narrator’s comment:
Or perhaps he was not the wrong man: perhaps Fate had intended all along that Kipling be punished for his contempt; perhaps the Great Magistrate [of the Last Judgement day] had decreed that the sentence of death fall not on the man who had ordered his soldiers to fire on an unarmed assembly but on he who had so vilely insulted an entire nation. (8)
This vivacious and ironic mixing of historical facts with literary allusions and distortions together with moral and philosophical comments from the narrator who is visibly endorsing the author’s own judgement on the event highlighted as a specific episode in the plot, is revealing of the method used by Tharoor throughout the novel. It is also combined with other well known literary figures of styles, such as allegory, caricature and evidently satire.
Two allegories dominate the novel and are instrumental to the plot, Democracy and Dharma, showing once more the intended multicultural approach in a novel that so firmly asserts it Indian-ness. Democracy is embodied in Draupadi, the mythical heroine married equally and simultaneously to the five Pandavas (Yudishtra then represents the judiciary, Bihm the army, Arjun the press, and the twins the civil and diplomatic services). Since Draupadi is the secret daughter of Lady Drewpad and Dritarashtra, her very name appears to blend her Western and Eastern heritage. But to make things even clearer, albeit facile, Tharoor gives her as adoptive father a certain Mr. Mokrasi, thus enabling her tutor Prof. Jennings to describes her progress as a growing child:(9)
To her exquisite looks, he said in a self-consciously passionless tone, as if he were describing an English breakfast, «she added an open manner, an ability to learn and adapt to the conditions in which she found herself, and a willingness to play with all the children in the neighbourhood, irrespective of caste, creed and culture .
If Miss D. Mokrasi had a fault; he went on, knowing that he was expected to be aware of one, ‘it was that she spoke a little too readily, in a voice that for a young girl was somewhat too loud, and in terms that ought to have been more self-constrained [...] She might not always perform brilliantly, she knew; but she could always muddle through.(10)
And the narrator to conclude this condescending appraisal: «A true daughter of India, little Miss Mokrasi. With her, we felt that we too, could always muddle through».
Draupadi is then shown to be in dangerously wavering health following the various hazards of Indian political life after her «biological» father’s death and the ensuing strife among rival politicians. She is at her worst when her half-sister Prya Duryodhani is in power, as Books fifteen and sixteen («The Rigged Veda» and «The Bungle Book») underline repeatedly.
Dharma, this most complex of Indian concepts is also allegorised as an intermittent character throughout the novel. It, however, comes into its/her own in the last book entitled «The Path to Salvation», where everyone of the main characters gets his/her deserve under the perplexed eye of Yudishtir who wonders about the justice of it all and is chided by Dharma, as a beautiful woman, precisely for that reason.
This is sacrilege [...] If there is one great Indian principle that has been handed down through the ages, it is that of the paramount importance of practising dharma at any price. Life itself is worthless without dharma. Only dharma is eternal.(11)
When for the first time in his life, Yudishtir who has always practised dharma and has therefore to be granted this ascent to Paradise and this vision, rejects it ("India is eternal[..] but the dharma appropriate for it at different stages of its evolution has varied.»(12), thus showing the necessity to shake of the shackles of constraining tradition, he sees «to his astonishment that the resplendent deva beside him was "changing slowly back into a dog.»(13)
This apparently disrespectful treatment of «Dharma» by Tharoor’s pen is not particular to allegorized concepts, as must be already clear by now. His depiction of historical characters, albeit under cover of their mythical counterparts, is mostly caricature. Given the constant hagiography to which the figures of the freedom fighters in general, and of Gandhi, the Mahatma, the Father of the Nation, have been submitted during the last half century or so, Tharoor’s cheek and political un-correctness is particularly striking and refreshing. In fact, the caricature of Gandhi/Gangaji/Bishma is the literal transcription fitting most of the cartoons of the period:
Picture the situation for yourself. Gangaji, the man in charge of Hastinapur for all practical purposes, thin as a papaya plant, already balder than I [ Ved Vyas, aged 88], peering at you through round-rimmed glasses that gave him the look of a startled owl. And the rest of his appearance was hardly what you call prepossessing. He had then burned his soup-and-fish and given away the elegant suits copied for him from the best British magazines by the court master-tailor, but to make matters worse, he was now beginning to shed part or most of even his traditional robes on all but state occasions. People were for ever barging into his study unexpectedly and finding him with nothing but a loincloth. ‘Excuse me, I was just preparing myself an enema’ he would say, with a feeble smile, as if that explained everything.(14)
A nation was rising with a small, balding, semi-clad saint at its head (15)
.... Ganga returned [from the Round Table talks in London] having bared his chest on the newsreels and taken tea in his loincloth with the King-Emperor (‘Your Majesty, you are wearing more than enough for the two of us’ the Mahaguru had said disarmingly) but won no concessions from the circular and circumlocutions conferees.(16)
Less saintly figures are treated with even less reverence: The Aga Khan easily becomes "that overweight sybarite, the Gaga Shah". Lord Drewpad/Mountbatten appears thus:
Viscount Drewpad was the right man to give away a kingdom. Tall, dapper, always elegantly dressed, he wore his lack of learning lightly, cultivating a casual patter that impressed everyone he spent less than five minutes with - which was almost everybody. It helped of course that in their ruling class the British valued more height than depth. (17)
Lord Drewpad [..] delicately trimmed the black moustache which, along with his tweezered eyebrows framed an aquiline nose like the two bars of the capital letter I. (18)
[Georgina Drewpad was married to a] man shallower than the River Punpun in drought, vainer than a priapic peacock in heat and less sensitive than a Kaziranga rhinoceros in the summer.(19)
Sarahbehn/ Mrs Moore (i.e. Mirah Behn) is «this English bourgeoise with the complexion of an under-ripe beetroot and over-ample forms towering over Gangaji»(20).
But in the case of Prya Duryadhani/ Indira Gandhi the portraits are definitely more vitriolic
She was a slight, frail girl [..] with a long thin tapering face like the kernel of a mango and dark eyebrows that nearly joined together over her high-ridged nose, giving her the look of a desiccated school teacher at an age when she was barely old enough to enrol at school [....] Her eyes [...] shone from that pinched face like blazing gems on a fading backcloth, flashing, questioning, accusing, demanding in a manner that transcended mere words.(21)
Even at the age of twelve, overkill was already her problem. (22)
Prya Durayadhani stepped into my room wearing an elegant shawl and an inelegant scowl [...], my dessicated grand daughter‘s schemes had misfired.(23)
Duryodahani’s thin lips bared a chilling smile of contentment (24)
Clearly, when one keeps in mind the emblematic image of «Mother India» depriving Prya Duryadhani of all female attributes, insisting on her barrenness, definitely makes of her a unnatural, demonic, creature. «In Prya Duryadhani they had a Frankenstein’s monster that was assuredly growing out of control»(25)
From the mere physical caricatures implying more or less profound individual psychological and moral distortions, the novel is driven to an extended social and political satire etched at the whole of Indian society during its colonial and post-colonial days. This is obviously the whole gist of the novel and the lampooning of more or less serious episodes of History through the apparently triviality sometimes the grotesque of their fictional counterparts («The Mango tax», the negotiations with Manimir (Money-)/Cashmire for the latter’s accession to India f.i.) is reminiscent of Swift’s techniques in Gulliver’s Travels (with the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians). By stressing as well the pettiness and the relative irrelevance of so-called «great men», including Gangaji/Gandhi’s, Tharoor’s is following a very classical path of denunciation while also adhering to the traditional convention of the moral satirist and showing the gap between deeds and words. For which purpose he enlisted very successfully plays on words, spoonerisms and puns - Britannia waives the rules, cow dung/bullshit, Sir Francis Younghusband/Oldwife, British civil serpent for British Civil Servant, Lahore/Laslut, Manimir/Cashmir - appearances and reality, idealism and Realpolitik (Gandhi soaking his hearers in their own emotions).(26) Stressing the inanity of hagiography(27), he is again, in a very classical way cutting them down to size, appealing to common sense and common decency.
Perhaps more than any other genre, satire implies a close complicity between writer and reader as it requires a good amount of shared cultural presuppositions for the explicit as well as the implicit qualities of the text and the sub-text set in action. In the present case, the sub-text is plural and thus makes the reading of the text itself require an even deeper complicity than most satirical works. Even if the novel can be appreciated and enjoyed without it - and this is certainly a sign of its intrinsic originality- it relies heavily on multicultural knowledge to come fully into its own.(28) Tharoor expects his reader to share with him a knowledge of Indian culture involving the ancient and the modern as well as a familiarity with Western, Anglophone literature. Thus clearly, the book is aimed at an educated, westernized; Indian readership in the first place, and only in the second place at a no less educated western audience interested in India. This elitist position is particularly interesting in the on-going debate about the legitimacy of English medium literature in India, as it seems to me to assert the Indian-ness of the enterprise rather than a selling-off to the West. While Tharoor writes first for an Indian readership, he also places Indo-English literature on par with any other Anglophone literary masterpiece, and thus justifies the claim made by his mouthpiece, Ved Vyas, that India is not an underdeveloped country.
However, the novel is not only a complex and evolved satirical re-reading of contemporary History, of the mores of the time and of the psychological make up and more or less conscious motivations of public figures, it is also a mock epic. From this point of view it may seem to be oxymoronic, in its aims. While its satirical bend does reduce its protagonists, if not to Lilliputian dimensions, at least to very human ones, while the flippant tone and the very playfulness with which language is handled stress the comic inherent in the «mock» component of the expression, the second term «epic» pulls at the same time towards aggrandisement. Indeed, the use of the Mahabharata as the frame story together with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity demonstrated by Ved Vyas in his own comments on the events and the characters examined also invest them with a certain magnitude.
The struggle for independence appears as both an epic and a mythic fight directly for what it achieved and indirectly for what it stood for in terms of ontological morality.(29) Its actors, despite their all too human foibles, then appear as mythical heroes themselves: their final apotheosis as they stand exposed to the judgement of Time, testifies to it. So much so that Tharoor’s tour de force is not only in the fireworks of his witticisms, style and oblique extensive and sophisticated use of well established literary sources in a new way, but also in this novel combination which finally does not deny his characters the magnified dimension, the greatness of the mythic. In this revised sense, India’s struggle for independence from the British Raj, is really the modern «epic of a nation» built anew, and the parallel with the Mahabharata a way to create a new past and promote the values of a new age. The association with the ancient epic then stresses that the process is a renewal of an ageless cultural tradition and not indeed underdevelopment as uninformed outsiders may mistake it for.(30) If the India in which Ved Vyas narrates this glorious past is indeed «the land of computers and corruption, of myths and politicians and box-wallahs with moulded plastic briefcases», it is also eternal, and its past, present and future are but facets of a same being whose History is always re-invented both by the narrator Ved Vyas and the author cum UN-diplomat Tharoor who, under this ironic disguise, exposes his disillusionment for the present situation and his hopeful faith in the future.
In the concluding lines of the narration Ved Vyas suggests to Ganapathy, the scribe, the necessity to start again from a different perspective. We can indeed see that "the old is new again", that innovation and reproduction are inherent in historiography whatever form it takes. But, as Kipling said «This is another story», or, to use Tharoor’s words: «as the Bengalis say when offered cod, we still have other fish to fry.»(31)
© Evelyne Hanquart-Turner (University of Paris XII. E.A. 3958-IMAGER)
(1) Shashi Tharoor The Great Indian Novel. London: Viking, 1989.
(2) Morarvij Desai (1896-1995), a Gujarati and a Gandhian , the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India from March 1977 to July 1979.
(3) GIN. 73
(4) We are then given a blending of the Bible with the mythical episode of Paris and the three goddesses. It seems difficult indeed to be more multicultural than that !
(5) GIN, 70 sq.
(6) P. Scott. The Day of the Scorpion, 1968
(7) GIN. 83
(8) See also , 42 .
(9) Ivor Jennings, constitutional lawyer and educationalist who took great interest in post-war India.
(10) GIN, 261-2
(11) GIN. 418
(13) GIN. 418
(14) GIN. 35
(15) GIN, 51
(16) GIN. 115
(17) GIN. 211
(18) GIN. 212
(19) GIN.228 The river Punpun, in Bihar, only becomes navigable during the rains. The Kaziranga, in Assam, is now a national park.
(20) GIN. 102
(21) GIN. 151
(23) GIN. 311
(24) GIN.382. See also 355, 357
(25) GIN. 341
(26) GIN. 23, 105-6.
(27) GIN. 46-7
(28) See the epigraph taken from the Mahabharata: "what follows is the tale of Vyasa,/great Vyasa, deserver of respect/ a tale told and retold, that people will never cease telling;/ a source of wisdom/in the sky, the earth, and the lower world; a tale the twice-born know; a tale for the learned, skilful in style, varied in meters, devoted to dialogue human and divine." (P. Lal, The Mahabharata of Vyasa )
(29) Mircea Eliade. "Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the "beginnings." Myth and Reality . New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Pages 5-6.)
(30) Again, bearing in mind the epigraph, the beginning and the end of the book return to the same theme .
(31) GIN . 55
9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
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