Sunday, 7 June 2009



One of the greatest epics is back again, like it always does, to remind everyone about the rich literary heritage of this vast land. The Mahabharata, that dates back to the Vedic period, has been published innumerable times in several languages. Journalist-writer Namita Gokhale has now joined the league as she retells the epic for the younger readers. Her version of the epic has recently been published in English.

“The publishers approached me with the idea of doing an accessible English version. I decided to work on it, precisely because I did not know the Mahabharata well,” says Gokhale about how it all began for her. And it “presented itself as a challenge and an invaluable opportunity to study this great epic in a disciplined manner, with a time frame and deadline,” she adds.

Divided into chapters, the book offers the readers all the important portions of the epic: the way the Mahabharata began to be told — it was originally called the Jaya; background information about the beginning of the Bharata dynasty; different clans that came into being, their rivalries and their lives; the great war; destruction of Dwaraka and finally the passage of the Pandavas to heaven.Gokhale has also deftly dealt with the philosophical issues and values that this epic is famous for. So how different is her version of the epic? “My version of the Mahabharata is told in a simple, contemporary style for young readers and first-time readers. But I have not compromised on the scope and the scale of the epic, although I have condensed it and kept to the main threads of the storyline,” Gokhale maintains. “It’s important to keep the spirit of the original while telling it in a style that can communicate in a modern and contemporary way,” she adds, referring to the criteria that a translator working on such an epic must consider.

Gokhale, who once published the film magazine Super in the late 1970s, has also penned several novels and few non-fiction works. Her first novel Paro: Dreams of Passion (1984) caused an uproar due to its mischievous sexual humour. Gokhale is also co-editing an anthology which relooks at the mythology surrounding Sita in contemporary ethos. But, unlike The Mahabharata, these works are meant for adult readership. How was then the experience of writing the great epic, keeping the younger readers in mind, I ask. “I wrote with faith and conviction, and with reverence and affection for this story-of-stories. It wasn’t difficult to write, — I found it a joyous and spontaneous process, but one that needed great focus,” she replies.

With almost 100,000 verses, the great epic demands massive research before being written again. “I spent a long time reading different versions of the Mahabharata, and marking and tracking those portions of the story that I wanted to retell,” says Gokhale about her methods, adding, “Then, I broke it up into chapters and would repeat the research process more intensively for each segment.” I ask if today’s children will be interested in reading the epics and Gokhale replies in the affirmative: “Internationally, a lot of children’s writing and video games have magical, mythic elements to them and I think the epic dimension will only add to the appeal of the Mahabharata”. In this context she refers to her favourite parts in the great epic. “The story of Karna is the most touching,” Gokhale says. “It reaches out in an essential human way across the centuries”.

Works of several writers have been on Gokhale’s reading list. So for her, it is not easy to single out any particular writer as her favourite or as being an influence on her literary endeavours. However, referring to children’s literature in India, she mentions Ruskin Bond, Paro Anand and Anoushka Ravishankar as being few writers in English who “manage to really reach out to young Indian readers”. Many book publishing houses have taken up the challenge and “there are lots of excellent children’s books in the market,” she adds.

Gokhale, who is the co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival along with William Dalrymple, is currently working on “other books for young readers as well as grown-up fiction”.

The colourful illustrations in The Mahabharata have been done by Suddhasattwa Basu.