The Mag This Week

By which I mean, the reviews from, er, last Sunday.

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R. Krishna wrote a review of Thunderbolt: The Ascendance of Indra, in which Indra is blonde and slaying dragons and poised to make friends with Manu. He enjoyed it.

I wrote a review of The Last War by Sandipan Deb, which is a retelling of the Mahabharat set in present-day Mumbai. I didn’t love it. The text of the review is below, right after the unedited version of the combined review of Sita’s Ascent by Vayu Naidu and Seeing Like A Feminist by Nivedita Menon. For those interested in modern versions of the Ramayana, I highly recommend reading Arshia Sattar.

She’s Not All That

The Ramayana is familiar to most of us in one form or the other. The epic has had many retellings, from folk to television, but the barebones of the story stay the same – the hero of the epic is a man, usually Rama (there are some versions in which Ravana is the protagonist), Sita is kidnapped, there’s a war, Ravana is defeated, Sita goes through a trial by fire to prove her purity and once she’s done this, Rama accepts her as his wife. Only in a few modern versions does Sita get top billing.
Sita’s Ascent is one that tries to privilege Sita. Author Vayu Naidu shuttles back and forth in time to tell stories – many of them from folk retellings – that piece together the story of the Ramayana, all the while focussing on the characters’ feelings rather than events and plot points. It opens with Rama as king of Ayodhya, having returned after vanquishing Ravana. When Rama overhears a civilian sneer about his decision to accept Sita as queen despite her time in Lanka, Rama orders Lakshmana to abandon the heavily pregnant Sita at Valmiki’s ashram. Lakshmana’s remorse at having to carry out this command pushes him to crash his chariot (it’s like an ancient Hindu take on drunk driving). Urmilla, Lakshmana’s wife and Sita’s sister, sneaks out of the palace and joins Sita in the ashram where Rama’s heirs, Lava and Kush, are born. Naidu tries to give Sita a happy ending by ending with Lava and Kush all grown up, Rama chanting Sita’s name in hope of a reconciliation and Sita thinking, “All would be well for a while.”
Naidu’s novella attempts to cast Sita as the star of the Ramayana. It’s the kind of reorientation that leads to the assumption that Sita’s Ascent must be a feminist retelling. But as Nivedita Menon explains in Seeing Like A Feminist, patriarchy is sneaky business. There are numerous occasions when women are apparently valorised by projects that actually strengthen the mechanisms that keep them disadvantaged.
Menon defines feminism as a perspective that notices the power dynamics that are the foundation to patriarchal society. “When one ‘sees’ the world like a feminist,” writes Menon, “it’s rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formatting’ function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.” In a little more than 200 pages, Menon presents the concepts that underpin feminism without either simplifying them or getting entangled in academic language.
She analyses social structures like the family and the idea of gender to show how many of our widely-held norms are oppressive. The effect is to not just to disempower women but also to systematically erase the diversity of Indian society. There’s only space for north Indian patriarchy. All other systems, particularly those which even nominally favour women (like matriliny), are to be weeded out. Menon also explores complicated issues like sexual violence against women, prostitution and the problems of labelling someone a “victim”. Intelligent, lucid and engaging, Seeing Like A Feminist should be essential reading for everyone. If not for anything else, then to understand how synthetic most of the notions we consider “natural” actually are.
Significantly, Menon shows that feminism isn’t a rabid, bra-burning, man hating programme. It’s about being aware of a skewed power dynamic that marginalises people on the basis of gender. Rather than wanting to muscle men out of society, feminism seeks to include those who are being sidelined unfairly. Which means a man who opposes oppressive, gender-insensitive systems may be a feminist and a woman who upholds the same – most of us do, consciously or unconsciously – is patriarchal.
It’s interesting to consider Sita’s Ascent with Menon’s insightful treatise in mind. Seen through the feminist lens, it becomes clear that the novella shackles Sita as much as the traditional versions. Naidu may have placed Sita at the centre of her narrative, but her characterisation doesn’t unsettle the idea of the Ramayana as a story skewed in favour of the patriarchal world order.
Sita in Sita’s Ascent is very much the victim. Not only do things happen to her, the quintessence of her seems to be her ability to endure. She is first seen as a grief-struck, abandoned woman who swoons because her husband rejected her. In flashbacks, she is the good wife whose fidelity doesn’t waver even when she is mistreated by her husband and this is what makes her virtuous. Then she is given the halo of motherhood and as a mother, her aim is to raise her sons to be worthy heirs even though she has been abandoned by her husband whose lineage these boys continue.
Naidu doesn’t point out that Rama’s obsession with Sita’s fidelity establishes her not as an equal partner in a relationship, but a sexual object upon which Rama wants an exclusive claim. Not just that, Naidu suggests Lakshmana was the only one who actually empathised with Sita because just as her time with Ravana was wrongly interpreted by many, Lakshmana was misunderstood by Sita when she accused him of coveting her (when Rama went after the golden deer). That’s perilously close to trivialising Sita’s trauma.
In her author’s note to Sita’s Ascent, Naidu explains she wanted to write yet another retelling of the Ramayana to explore “the psychological dimension that reveals Sita’s human condition.” Naidu goes on to say that Sita’s Ascent “allows identification and empathy with Sita, instead of viewing her as a victim. Had Sita been a victim she would not have survived.” On the contrary, victims do survive. After all, Indian women, victimised by patriarchy for generations in varying degrees, have managed to do so. And as Menon’s real-life examples of feminisms show, the victims have often wrestled with the system to become survivors, unlike Naidu’s Sita.
The beauty of the ancient stories is that the best of them encourage us to hold them up to the changing light and see what catches one’s eye. Perhaps what is most disappointing about Naidu’s interpretation of Sita is that it dulls the edge of Sita’s chief quality in the Ramayana: she disrupts status quo. Whether it is by appearing at the tip of a Janak’s plough or choosing to leave the palace with her husband, or her refusal to return with Hanuman, her public self-immolation, her decision to remain in Valmiki’s ashram or be swallowed up by the earth when Rama asks her to prove her virtue again, Sita constantly challenges the established order. Her actions try to make space for a woman as an individual — rather than as a mother or a wife, whose value is connected to a man — in the world of men. Given she ends up effectively committing suicide, some may argue she wasn’t particularly successful. On the other hand, we’re still talking about her and the way she stood up, alone, for what she believed was right against her husband and her king. Thousands of years later, there are still groups trying to find ways of depicting Sita in a way that doesn’t seem unsettling and there are others drawing strength from Sita’s defiance.

The Mahabharat Comes To Town

According to legend, the Gandiva, last wielded by Arjun of the Mahabharata, was a very special bow. Created by Brahma, it is said that just plucking its string caused a thunderous rumble that made hardened warriors quake. Given the aura of power that this legendary weapon carries, it’s a little odd to read of a gun that is affectionately nicknamed “Gandu” and realise that this is the modern-day version of the Gandiva.

Gandu and its owner, Jeet, appear in Sandipan Deb’s The Last War. Deb sets the story of the Mahabharata in contemporary Mumbai and casts the Kauravas and Pandavas as two rival gangs vying for the position of top dog of the underworld. Abuses fly as do bullets. There are car chases, cricket bookies, cell phones and all the other staples of the seedy underworld as we know it from Bollywood. Much like a masala flick, The Last War has lots of drama, many cliches and very little logic.

In 1955, a Parsi smuggler called Rustom Pestonjee spots a street performer on Marine Drive whose trick is to place apples on the heads of three small boys only to knock them off using a bow and arrows. The archer is Yash Kuru and the three boys are his nephews: the frail Shiv, the blind Shankar and Satya, who is the smartest and least privileged because his mother was a maidservant. Pestonjee hires Yash as his hitman when the archer’s aim with a gun proves to as sharp as with bows and arrows. Soon enough, Yash becomes Pestonjee’s right hand man and on his deathbed, the Parsi inexplicably leaves his business to Yash.

Eager to establish a line of continuity, Yash gets Shiv and Shankar married off to women who are considered suitable for various reasons. Shankar’s wife comes from a family that is in dire financial straits and whose businesses Yash wants as a cover for his illegal activities. For Shiv, whose heart is too weak to handle the exertion that is part and parcel of the sexual act, Yash finds a young woman who is considered unmarriageable because she had a child out of wedlock. To Yash, this past proves her childbearing potential . Also, because she’s had that one pre-marital, sexual relationship, Yash is confident he can arm-twist her into having sex with men of his choosing once she’s married. These sexual encounters will lead to babies and the Kuru line will be healthy and lengthy. It’s a wonder Yash managed an empire with such absurd logic.

Deb hurtles through these early episodes and strips all the bits from the original epic that he felt were extraneous. For example, the Pandavas are three instead of five in The Last War while the Kauravas are essentially two (give or take a sister who is largely inconsequential). Deb has no time for Nakul, Sahadev or any of the Kauravas other than Duryodhan (had Draupadi not bayed for Dusshasan’s blood, Deb would probably have axed him too).

The Last War pits two trios against one another. Representing the Pandavas are Rishabh, Vikram and Jeet, who are to be confused with Yudhishthir, Bheem and Arjun respectively. Helping them out is Kishenbhai (no prizes for guessing his epic identity) and Jahn, Deb’s attempt at Draupadi. Opposing them is Rahul, the modern-day Duryodhan, ably assisted by Karl Fernandes (Karna) and Ranjit (Dusshasan). Their Kurukshetra is Mumbai with its grimier neighbourhoods like Chembur, Andheri and, of course, Dharavi. Cars overturn, warehouses blow up, boys and old men are killed. The police watch and do nothing because the gangsters are only killing each other, not civilians.

The Mahabharata fascinates us even today because the questions and issues it raised continue to perplex us. The Last War is disappointing because it blunts so many of the political and moral dilemmas that enrich the Mahabharata. Too many of the characters are flattened into stereotypes. Those who were fiery in the epic become brash and obnoxious in the novel. Diplomats are turned into doormats. Deb was clearly impatient to get to the bit where the boys play with their toys and this has robbed complex characters like Karna (Karl), Gandhari (Aditi) and Vidur (Satya) . Even Jahn, who gets much of the author’s attention, is a crudely-wrought character who bludgeons her way through the story.

However, The Last War is successful in its aim of turning the Mahabharata into a pacy thriller. It’s an easy read, which is both its strength as well as its failing. The novel strips nuance from the stories of the Mahabharata like scales and guts are ripped off and out of a fish. What emerges is a meaty story but one that’s denuded of much of its beauty and glinting insight.

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