What makes a book good? Is it the story? Is it the author? Is it the language, the usage of words? Most of us will agree that it is a combination of the three that makes a book what it is. When the story is one you know well, you expect the retelling to be brilliant, which puts the onus on the author. Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles series, as we know by now (or at least those of us who have read the first – Govinda – know) is her rendition of the Mahabharata. When I began reading ‘Govinda’, I wondered how she would treat a much retold story, and if you have read my review, you would know that she succeeded in surprising me.
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When I picked up ‘Kaurava’, the second book in the series, I wondered if the book would live up to the expectations, post ‘Govinda’. Would Krishna Udayasankar succeed in surprising me again? How would she take forward a story I knew so well? And this is where Krishna scores in her retelling. She refuses to stick to the well-known narrative, taking instead, a completely different view of things, bringing people we have barely noticed in the original to the fore, altering events so they fit her notion of Aryavarta, thus making the story her own, rather than the one familiar to us all.
This is what made the book so interesting. It made me want to keep reading, forgetting all my pending chores, which is what, honestly, I like my books to do!
The story of Kaurava begins soon after the events in Govinda. Dharma is the Emperor and Govinda an outcast, shunned for being a Firewright, exiled from those he loves the most. The Firstborn seem to have achieved their goal of finally ridding Aryavarta of the Firewrights. Yet, there are undercurrents, of people with hidden agendas, politics at its best (or worst, depending on which way you look at it), relations strained and egos at work, and of course, secrets kept and leaked. All of which lead to a chain of events which shatter the foundations of everything that the empire is built on. Krishna stays true to the epic, to the extent of the major events. How they come to occur, is another matter altogether. That is the crux of the book, and you have to read it to find out for yourself how she integrates her version of events with the events we are familiar with.
Some might argue that her distortion of the events changes the epic beyond recognition, but I enjoyed reading the book for that very reason. This is an epic, first composed centuries ago, then passed down the generations verbally, before being written down in the form we know, and then translated and retold once again, in various languages and dialects, at various periods in time. The epic, as it passed through time, grew, as did the story, amalgamating and blending history with myth and legends, deifying heroes and demonizing villains. To read a simplified story, sticking diligently to the narrative as we know it, almost seems like a sacrilege to the epic itself! Which is why, reading Krishna Udayasankar’s version had me smiling all through, admiring her for concocting such a story, stopping now and then to wonder just where she got all her ideas from!
The best thing about the book are the characters; or, to be precise, Krishna’s characterization. As with ‘Govinda’, each of her characters is well written, and each speaks so well with his / her voice that they seem to come alive. We almost begin to expect characters to behave in certain ways, which only helps us imagine them better.
If the first book was almost wholly about Govinda, this book is almost entirely about the Kauravas. Hence the title. However, it is primarily about the two Kauravas who are pitted against each other for the throne – Syoddhan and Dharma Yudhisthir. And it is in this book that they grow, as characters, as men, showing their personality, coming into their own. I absolutely loved the way events moulded the way Syoddhan thought, and how the exile changed Dharma’s actions. However, there is no doubt who are the primary actors in the story of Aryavarta – Govinda and Panchali continue to sway decisions and events, no matter how much it costs them both.
Having said all that, the book is not without its faults. It starts out on a rather slow note, and the first few chapters were rather difficult to get through, after all the excitement of ‘Govinda’. And if you are wondering, yes, I read through Govinda once more before starting out on ‘Kaurava’. It is only as the story progresses that it picks up pace, and gets interesting once again. However, at times, I had to stop and think, because the story is getting more and more complex. For a story which is already complicated in its entirety, all the twists and turns are sometimes difficult to cope with, and I just hope Krishna holds all the threads firmly in her hands for the final book. Once again, towards the end, the big denouement is not as unexpected, or such a big surprise as intended. Somewhere along the way, I thought it was almost inevitable, and I wasn’t really surprised. And this book actually had one proofreading error – on page 312. No, I am not going to tell you what it is. Those of you who read the book, see if you can spot it.
Over all, it is Krishna’s writing which keeps us hooked to the very end. Her book is set in a time long past, and she brings that time alive, making it clear that its very much in the past. However, she also constantly shows us how things remain the same, even as they change beyond recognition. For, some basic things do not change. Love does not and neither does lust, nor does ambition, or even courage. Thus, human nature remains much the same, no matter when they live. We do not need a connection to the present to understand the past, but an understanding of the past can indeed help us in the present, as well as the future.
Which is why, I look forward to the final part of the Trilogy. Krishna, hurry up please!