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The Forgotten Voices of the Mahabharata

Posted by Ciara Boardman & Lauren Bennett, 20th April 2018

To say there is a lot going on in Karthika Naïr's Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata is a vast understatement. This is not a criticism, but more to emphasise the immense task undertaken by Naïr in the production of this collection. Until the Lions is a retelling - though Naïr is hesitant to use the term - of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, dating back to the 8th or 9th centuries BC, which is generally considered the longest written poem of all time, coming in at around 1.8 million words or ten times the combined length of the Odyssey and the Illiad, or four times the length of the second longest Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. The Mahabharata tells the events of and leading up to the Kuruksetra War between the Kaurava and Pandava princes - two factions within the Kuru dynasty.

While Naïr notes the tales of the Mahabharata bled into her consciousness in the same manner it did for many South Asian children, through stories passed down from older generations, or else manifested in popular culture through plays, films and comics, her specific idea for how to approach the epic was more directly inspired by two adaptations released in 2010. Both of these examined the story from an entirely new angle, and so sparked in Naïr the desire to put her own spin on the tale. And this she does, presenting the story of the Mahabharata through poems which give the reader an insight into nineteen different perspectives, not given the centre stage in the original. Out of these nineteen, sixteen are women, and by magnifying and refracting the voices of figures formerly confined to the periphery of the original tale Naïr presents a refreshing new feminine vision of the Mahabharata.

Naïr gives voice to both those women who play larger roles in the Kuruksetra conflict, such as Satryvita, the fisher-queen matriarch of the Kuru dynstasty, and Amba/Shikhandi, the wronged princess who is reborn to take revenge in the final battle, as well as those who are shunned altogether by the original narrative, like Poorna, the handmaiden who despite her pivotal role is not even given a name in the original. A significant feature of this shift in perspective, is that in Until the Lions these women are granted a greater level of agency than they were in antiquity. In the Mahabharata, Satryvita's father negotiates greedily to secure her and her future son's place on the throne, however in Naïr's version Satyavati does it of her own volition. This twisting of the original narrative gives its female characters depth, and allows the reader to feel more keenly the motivation for their actions, as well as the inevitable pain they would often bring.

In her varied use of poetic forms, Naïr conveys the distinctiveness of each narrative she presents with great attention given to the idiosyncrasies of each character's anger or grief, whether it be relentless, chaotic or controlled. For example, when writing from the joint perspective of Amba and - as she is reborn following her death - Shikhandi, Naïr recreates this sense of two bodies and two voices both being occupied by the same soul by alternating between forms within the poem, as well as switching typeface and colour tones to suggest a shift from past to present, as one incarnation leads into another. Similarly, when writing from the perspective of Mohini in Jeremiad for the Debris of Stars, the poem visually evokes the emotions of the voice speaking as the text grows and shrinks, and words such as "curse" seem almost to fluctuate between being whispered and shouted from the page.

For those not already familiar with the Mahabharata, its sprawling scope may be off-putting; however there is thankfully a dramatis personae included which proves extremely useful in keeping track of the characters and how they relate to one another. There certainly is a lot going on in Until the Lions: Echoes from The Mahabharata, and that is precisely what makes it such an enriching read. It is a thing of beauty, a wonderful feminist revision of an Indian epic, which serves to deepen the reader's emotional investment in the original. Naïr's attentive and unflinching verse illuminates stories which previously existed only in the shadows of the Mahabharata and deftly weaves them back into the epic's narrative, giving a voice to those history has all too often ignored.