Monday, August 2, 2010

Govinda, self... and green vegetables!

About a week ago, my wonderful agent Jayapriya Vasudevan of Jacaranda (check out their awesome list here: asked me a question to which I had no glib answer.

Why did I write this book?

It took a few days, and twice that many glasses of soul-fuel, to scramble up any semblance of an answer.
The cryptic solution, finally, was this: I wrote this book because as a child, I hated green vegetables.

It might sound ridiculous, even trivial. So does the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings can create or stem a hurricane. But that, rather plainly stated, is the basis of chaos theory. And chaos, it certainly was.

My childhood gastronomical idiosyncrasies finally drove a despairing mass of family members, one grandmother included, to come up with a solution. I was fed stories from the Epic Mahabharata along with my greens. Clearly, the consequences had not been foreseen.

Given that these were the dark ages before 24-hour TV, video games, and the likes of Spiderman had coloured the juvenile world, the adventures from the Epics became an obsession. Friends and I played make-believe ‘cops and robbers’ style games, with each side reluctantly taking turns to play the evil Kauravyas. We poked many an eye out with our mighty bow and arrow sets, bought for five rupees during the Sunday sojourn to the local market. We turned tricycles into chariots, and saris and bed sheets into tents and voluminous robes. We fought for the chance to play the hero of the game - Partha Arjun, the archer; or to be the demon-rakshas Ghatotkach, during which one could pretend to eat up their fellow playmates; to cast astras as the all-powerful Dron and the Grandsire Bhisma; and to even die a gory death as Syoddhan Duryodhana.

Two characters, however, remained too complex to be played with, and then discarded and outgrown. Many years after I’d hung up my cardboard quiver, my middle-class, post-modern, part egalitarian - part feminist dialectic beliefs, still grappled with the question of Draupadi Pancali; and all the complex events that legend associates with her. The other character was Govinda Shauri.

The scriptures suggest, and the devout believe, that when Gods descend to earth as ‘avatars’, they too become bound by human foibles, by the laws of earth, and its reality. It was an explanation I could not accept, not just on grounds of agnosticism, but on grounds of faith. I wanted to believe in the rise of humanity, not in divinity diminished; in a true story that could have been history, not some improbable fantasy-tale that defies all logic and science. I was looking for, as the term goes, an outcome with significant probability; as opposed to choosing between a) denying something on the grounds that it is improbable, or b) believing in it, as a matter of faith.

That meant asking the question: If Govinda, Panċali, Dron, Syoddhan and all these other characters had walked this earth – the world as we know it today, bound by the same tenets of physics, psychology and politic theory that we hold sacrosanct - what might their story really have been.

Surprisingly, it may not have been very different from the stories told by Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa. Kālās, Yugas, and the Wheel of Time suddenly made sense as theories of revolution and renewal. The magic-filled Epic of old fell into place as the tale of a feudal, agrarian hierarchy based on natural law and religion, caught in the throes of technological and economic change.

And, of course, it was the story of power politics and passion in the times of such change - Panċali, the fiery rebel, the sometimes-confused, sometimes-forthright thinker; caught in the web of her own despair and frustration. Govinda, on the other hand, was the quintessential revolutionary; someone who saw Time and Society as inexorable forces, and himself as an instrument of social evolution. Around their strange, indefinable relationship, many characters were woven together in a tangled web of intrigue.

It was a story that was waiting to be told, and so; I have.

Bold but not irreverent, and passionate but not irrational; this tale is different, but not lacking a deeper integrity. It is the story of why things happened.

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