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Review: Until the Lions, by Karthika Naïr

Until the Lions is a triumph of narrative and poetic risk-taking. Five years in the making, Nair's collection of poems, written in the voices of women in the Mahabharata, has been rightly hailed as a magnum opus by critics. The most recognisably remarkable thing about the book is its beautiful, languorous, old-world English that blends right in with her subject matter. Think Cormac McCarthy's King James English and its ominous effect in Blood Meridian. So when Bheeshma (the prince whose chastity oath sets the butterfly effect of the Mahabharata in motion) is described as 'he, of the terrible, tungsten oath', a shiver runs down your spine. You realise that beyond the swords and arrows that will eventually mow down hundreds of thousands on the battlefield, it is the immovable metal of one man's idealism that will drive the dagger home.

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Again and again, Satyavati, Gandhari, Amba and the rest of Nair's women (eighteen in all, one for each of the eighteen constituent parvas or books that make up the Mahabharata) expose the arrogance and the fatal martial pride of the men glorified by the Mahabharata. The book's epigraph, taken from an old Chinua Achebe interview, is also the source of its name. 'Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter'. This sounds like a virtual call-to-arms - a clarion for retellings such as Nair's, where voices from the margins challenge their 'assigned' status in the text. It is at once a fictional counterpart to historicism, as well as the logical endpoint to subaltern theory.