Dear Readers, today, we’re about to embark on a literary adventure with a remarkable author Sudarshan Ray. His book ‘Mahabharat’ have touched the hearts of readers worldwide, and we’re here to uncover the secrets behind his creative genius. Read the review of the book here.
Mili: Your retelling of the ancient Indian epic, ‘Mahabharat’; promises to transport readers into a world of warring kingdoms, magic, and divine intervention. What inspired you to embark on this journey of retelling such a timeless and intricate narrative? Also, from what we know is The Mahabharata is renowned for its rich tapestry of characters and complex themes. How did you approach bringing fresh perspectives to the familiar stories of the Pandavas and Kauravas, while staying true to the essence of this epic?
Sudarshan: An entrepreneur by profession but a romantic at heart, my father, Samir Kumar Ray, introduced me to the world of the Mahabharata. He used to tell me as a child, “Be shrewd like Krishna, truthful like Yudhisthir, sincere like Arjun, courageous like Duryodhan, and dedicated like Karna.” My childhood games were filled with vivid scenes from the many duels in this epic. I would often challenge my sister, Parbati (Dr. Parbati Banerjee)—“Bak aar Bheemer dekha; taar maanei yuddha.” My sister and I would then wrestle, in emulation of how Bheem and Bakasura had once
fought with punches and kicks back in that forest near Ekachakra-nagari. Thus, through such childish tussles and bouts with Didi, I gradually developed a profound love for this great epic.
Much later in life, during our office lunches, I would frequently recount events and anecdotes from the Mahabharata to my co-workers. In one such gathering, after I had just enthralled my friends with a lively account of how once Bheem had cheated Bakasura of his dinner (the restaurant where we were devouring our lunch was also called Bakasura, and hence, I think, the description felt all the more inspiring to my audience), Rekha (one of my co-workers) asked, “Why don’t you write this all
down? These are such interesting tales that we would all love to read.” My colleagues were all very avid listeners, and it was from them that I derived the idea of setting down this magnificent story for young readers.
I chronicled unbiasedly while writing my Mahabharata. Most writers and most other versions are pro-Pandava. But Duryodhan’s perspective is also important. According to me, he is the tragic hero of this epic. He was the one who embraced Karna despite his nether origin. Thus, in a way, Duryodhan was one of the foremost practitioners of meritocracy – he had a vacancy in his camp and
he offered it to Karna – the most capable and deserving, regardless of his caste or origin. However, like all tragic heroes, Duryodhan had a tragic flaw. He should not have humiliated Draupadi in the open court. Anyway, the intonation of my text is neutral; it is up to my readers to choose their hero.
Mili: How did you capture the intensity and scale of this epic battle, and what challenges did you face in portraying such a significant event? However, from what we see here that is your book delves into concepts such as dharma, karma, and the nature of the self. Could you discuss how you interwove these philosophical ideas into the narrative, and what you hope readers will take away from exploring them within the context of the story?
Sudarshan: There were many aspects of the Kurukshetra War – the pre-war strategies and counter- strategies; the various Vyuhas or formations in which the generals deployed their troops on each of the eighteen days of the war; the weapons and divyastras invoked during the many duels; and the psychological impact the war had on the warriors. It was essential to bring all these aspects together.
For this, I did not have to do anything extraordinary. I am, in principle, a raconteur, and focused on telling the story. Now, Mahabharata is a dharma-shastra (a text about justice and fairness); it is an artha-shastra (a text about politics); it is a kama-shastra (a text about love, lust and relationships); and it is a moksha-shastra (a text about spirituality). All its events and characters generally revolve around these often-overlapping themes. More importantly, was the war necessary, and could the
eighteen-day-long carnage finally establish Dharma? As a storyteller, I have narrated the events and the many debates around them. Again, my readers would have to come to their own conclusions. And, I won’t be surprised if they arrive at very different conclusions.
Mili: What aspects of the epics, enduring appeal did you strive to capture in your retelling, and how do you hope your interpretation will resonate with readers?
Along with that we know that themes of war, love, betrayal, and redemption are integral to the Mahabharat’s narrative. How did you navigate the exploration of these timeless themes, and what emotions or reflections do you hope readers will experience as they journey through your retelling?
Sudarshan: Life is nuanced, and there is no absolute right or wrong. I want my readers to appreciate the many dilemmas and quandaries that this epic poses. As Bhishma, from his bed of arrows, advises Yudhisthir: “The definition of dharma is never fixed. As a king, you are expected to understand the many facets and nuances of dharma. You should not apply any tenet without understanding the context…..”
It would be a roller-coaster ride for my readers. There are many betrayals in this epic that are evident, and then there are those traps and deceits that are more subtle.
Mili: How did you approach depicting the complex power struggles, alliances, and betrayals that shape the destinies of the characters and kingdoms?
Sudarshan: As the Political part is concerned, it was as simple as following the storyline. Mahabharata is indeed an intriguing power struggle with shifting alliances and complex rivalries. For example, Drona used
his pupil, Arjun, to exact revenge on Drupad, the king of Panchal and Drona’s childhood friend. Drupad, in turn, befriended Arjun and his brothers to take revenge against Drupad. Krishna and Balaram were brothers (half-brothers) who had, in their childhood, unitedly fought against their uncle, Kamsa – the king of Mathura. Yet in the Kuru-Pandava clash, Balaram sided with Duryodhan while Krishna supported the Pandavas. Why did Krishna break away from Balaram and choose the Pandavas (who were at that time more of an underdog) over the Kurus? Was it because he believed that Yudhisthir and his brothers were on the path of dharma? Or, probably he had figured thatDuryodhan’s council was already crowded with canny counsellors; therefore, in order to attain political prominence, he preferred the underdogs. The epic is open to all these interpretations and possibilities, and as my readers navigate this complicated minefield of friendships and betrayals they
would, as I keep on saying, come to their own conclusions.
Mili: Given the vast scope and depth of the Mahabharata, what challenges did you encounter during the writing process, and how did you manage to distill such a sprawling narrative into a cohesive and engaging work?
Sudarshan: Mahabharata has a complex framework. There are many subplots and side stories within this narrative. While these aberrations are very interesting, they sometimes distract and confuse the readers. I stuck to the main storyline to keep my audience enthralled. In the future, I plan to compile a collection of all the tales from Mahabharata.
The extensive reading that I got to do while writing this book. I was trying to convey an ancient epic to a modern audience, and hence the language of my text was important. I read many books on history, politics and diplomacy and listened to many parliamentary debates from across the world. I was trying to strike a stately tongue for my characters that was free-flowing and lucid and yet retained the vintage beauty of the epic. It was fun stitching my words together; it was like collecting rubies and emeralds from the troves of every culture’s aristocracy and stringing them into a garland that befits this timeless classic.
Mili: So tell me do you plan to work on other Indian Mythologies as well? Also, would you like to write stories of another genre?
Sudarshan: Some of my readers are asking me to translate the Ramayana – again an unbiased text that does not ignore Ravana’s perspective. I am seriously thinking about it.
Presently I am working on a collection of short stories – Campus-Ramp-Us. I have lived on many university campuses across the world (Oxford, Stony Brook, etc). These are short stories from college and campus life – tales of friendship, rivalry, love and ambition; vignettes from peoples and homes of
Mili: Tell us your 5 favorite books and why they are your favorite.
1. Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome): A travelogue filled with humor; a wonderful description of nineteenth-century Thames.
2. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote): Who can resist the charm of the protagonist: Miss Holly
Golightly? And, the language of this novella – so beautiful and refreshing.
3. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde): Wilde at the peak of his power. A complex story of love,
lust for immortality, and sexual identity that was way ahead of its time. Loved this book for its sheer artistry.
4. The Greatest Show on Earth (Richard Dawkins): Logic and scientific reasoning weaved into sparkling eloquence. In this book, Richard Dawkins presents the evidence for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through natural selection. This is supposedly a dry subject, but Dawkins turns it into a
page-turner. I was thrilled to discover how from very simple beginnings such as a self-replicating molecule we can arrive at prodigious complexities without any supernatural intervention.
5. Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (Jeffrey Archer): A delicious medley of plots and counterplots. A classic bestseller much like Gone With the Winds.
In addition, I am an ardent fan of Dickens’ novels, Rabindranath’s poetry, and P.G. Wodehouse’s humor.
Mili: Finally, what message or emotion do you hope readers will carry with them after experiencing your retelling of the Mahabharata?
Sudarshan: There are endless ways in which this epic can affect my readers. However, there is one point I would like to drive home – Wars are cruel, and they don’t serve any purpose. I want my readers to walk alongside Gandhari, as she trudges through the battlefield with Krishna and witnesses the tragedy of Kurukshetra – an endless array of chopped heads, decapitated bodies, half-
eaten corpses and rotting skeletons sprawled across the vast battlefield. My readers would one day grow up to become world leaders. There is still so much hostility and belligerence around us, and I hope that my young audience, upon reading my book, will understand the futility of violence and vengeance. Strive for peace – my only appeal through this work. Having said so, Mahabharata, not unlike life, is a great dilemma; and I sought to pose this quandary truthfully before my audience. Beyond that, they are on their own to navigate this maze. I am, myself, still wandering within the ever-expanding, ever-shifting contours of this magnificent abyrinth, otherwise known as the Mahabharata, and making fresh discoveries.
Our journey through Sudarshan Ray’s world has been nothing short of captivating. It reminds us of the enchanting power of storytelling and the magic that authors like him bring to our lives. As we step away from this interview, let’s carry with us a newfound appreciation for the art of storytelling and the authors who make it all possible. Happy reading, and may your own stories be as inspiring as Sudarshan’s!