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It is with scepticism that one begins yet another retelling of the Mahabharata. Can a story so familiar, recounted by so many, be rendered any differently. To the credit of Maggi Lidchi-Grassi, she leaves her reader moved, spent and drawn at the end of the epic. Indeed, it is impossible not to empathise with her hero - Arjuna, who tells the story from his perspective through most of her book - as he lives out the aftermath of that soul-crushing war.
There are passages and moments in this book that are truly exceptional. The battle between Bheema and Shalya, brother of Madri and uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva, tricked into joining the Kaurava army, is riveting. Mace for mace, muscle for muscle the two are equals. Arjuna's outburst, his attack of "Eldest", as he chooses to term the first of the five Pandavas, after Drona has been cheated to his death, is another compelling narrative.
After the war, the brothers sit down and discuss Karna;the reader is almost a voyeur. Arjuna has the most mixed feelings of all, simultaneously feeling anger and sadness for his mother, Kunti, and yet wondering whether she hates him for killing her first-born. Finally, there is Arjuna's journey through Bharatvarsha, following the sacrificial horse he nicknames Kalidasa, as part of his mission to bring success to the Pandava kingdom's Ashwamedha yagna. He meets sons and grandsons of those he's slain, including a little baby, grandson of the Kauravas' sister Dushala and of her late husband Jayadratha. The prince among archers is a broken man.
The Mahabharata fascinates every generation of Indians. An obsession with readers and buffs of Ved Vyasa's magnum opus is identifying the turning point in the epic, and its true hero. This book tells the story through the words of Arjuna and, in other chapters, Ashwatthama, son of Drona and murderer of the sons of the Draupadi.
Ashwatthama and Arjuna dote on each other, are united in their devotion to Drona and their knowledge of the martial arts and mantras. They are also most affected by the war and most wounded by its emotional toll. Yet they are forced by their dharma to fight for opposite sides at Kurukshetra.
In invoking Arjuna and Ashwatthama, in painting their essential and very personal tragedies - in Ashwatthama's case, his punishment is the curse of immortality - Lidchi-Grassi makes an appealing choice. Ashwatthama is the insider-outsider in the story, wondering if it was his cry for milk - which sent his father to Drupada and caused, indirectly, the birth of Draupadi, arriving full-grown in a sacrificial fire - that triggered the 18-day war.
Alternatively, was it Bheesma's decision not to marry? Ashwatthama pointedly, sometimes mischievously, examines Bheesma's relationship with Satyavati, the fisherman's daughter with that intoxicating aroma who could have been his wife (in terms of her age), became his stepmother instead, but then left him feeling almost paternal.
In the end, the Mahabharata is the story of heroic flaws, of giants with, if not feet, at least toes of clay. That is the message Lidchi-Grassi drives home. The blood of Kurukshetra takes care of the rest.
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