I had set the author a difficult task. I started reading the trilogy in the middle, wanting to see if she could entice me enough to buy the other volumes. I was pleased to observe that she rises to the challenge.
This is a highly imaginative retelling of the Mahabharat. The author tries to balance the characters on both sides of the battlefield at Kurukshetra, seemingly considering the original text of the epic as a propaganda piece for the victors. What if Duryodhan wasn’t the epitome of evil he is made out to be? What if Yudhisthir wasn’t the paragon of virtue he’s considered today? These and similar assumptions are what the author starts with. To be fair, the original Mahabharat does present its characters in a more balanced fashion than modern, popular fiction portrays them, but here, the scales are driven more towards equilibrium. A very welcome attempt indeed.
The author also reverses many roles, making originally marginal characters the central players of her story. Ashwatthama, Shikhandi, Sanjay, Dhrishtadyumn and others are more centre-stage compared to the Pandavs or Bhishm, to name a few. In this process, the reader’s suspension of disbelief does get stretched now and then, but not to breaking point.
I’m generally not a fan of introducing entire sets of new characters in an established story universe, especially one already well populated as the Mahabharat is. Ms. Udayshankar however, not only introduces such groups (yes, in the plural), but is able to link them into the existing network of characters; the links being at times tenuous and at others more substantial.
Trying to stay true to the major turning points of the original epic, the author is forced to elide over some parts of the story that she finds impossible to explain in her alternate version, most notably in this volume the “Dyut Kreeda” episode where the Pandavs lose their empire.
Ms. Udayshankar is a lot more sensitive to female characters, fleshing them out a little more than they are in popular imagination where they serve more as wallflowers than players. Again, I must point out that the original epic was nearer to the author’s depiction than to popular imagination. That said, I do feel that Draupadi’s “Vastra Haran” carried on for a little longer than it might have.
All in all, a good effort at the rather challenging task of retelling a very well-known story. Ms Udayshankar reimagines many characters, introduces some new ones and re-interprets some events, but still succeeds in not straining the reader’s credulity too much.
I’ll definitely be buying the other two volumes.