Book Review: Bhimsen by Prem Panicker

Title: Bhimsen
Author: Prem Panicker
Year of Publication:
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
4.12
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
3

Some Spoilers Are Bound To Be Around

bhimsencoverart

Plot Description: A retelling of another retelling of the epic poem Mahabharatha, from the perspective of the second brother – Bhim.

Let me start from the top. The Mahabharath is an epic poem, somewhat similar to the Illiad or the Odyssey. Like with those poems, there have been numerous versions of the Mahabharath, numerous perspectives and retellings, and along the way, new myths and legends are continuously being tacked onto the end of it. Panicker’s story is a loose translation of an older version written in Malayalam by M.T. Vasudevan Nair called Randamoozham (Second Chance).

What Panicker and Nair both attempt is to engage with the myths and legends that surround the stories about the Mahabharath, and to reimagine the story shorn of these trappings. Dispelling the myths results in a truth laid out that now seems stranger than fiction to those of us who grew up reading about miracles and magical weapons.

The part of the Mahabharath that Bhimsen deals with refers to the lives of the two sets of cousins who eventually form the opposing sides in the Great War (called the Mahabharath). There’s The Good Side (sort of) who are known as the Pandavas, and The Bad Side (mostly) who are known as the Kauravas. The five Pandavas and the 101 Kauravas are children of a pair of half brothers. The former’s father was pale and splotchy (and allegedly impotent), while the latter’s father (the King) was blind.

Each character in the Mahabharath is well known for at least one trait that ends up defining them. Bhim is the strong one. His younger brother Arjun is the ultimate hero – a handsome warrior who wins everything, fears nothing, and leaves swooning women in his wake. His eldest (illegitimate) brother, Karna is the generous one, the misunderstood one, the most cruel one (or the one who was also in love with Draupadi), depending on which version of the story you read. Draupadi is the ultimate wife, and Kunti the ultimate mother. And there is the Pandava King, Yudhishtir – the just one.

Bhim is the second of the five ‘good’ brothers, and his defining characteristic is his strength. He’s often described as loyal and single-minded to a fault, always willing to assist his brothers or the wife they all share in whatever they need to do. Due to their father’s impotency, these five brothers are said to have been the children of various Gods from the Hindu pantheon – the result of a boon offered to their mother when she was younger.

This brings me to the women – Kunti, mother of the Pandavas, and Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas. Yes, she’s married to all five of them. It’s complicated. Draupadi – never really cast as much of a weak woman to begin with – is depicted by Panicker as a bloodthirsty person, someone so filled with bloodlust that it’s pretty much her biggest turn on. She adores tales of heroics, and portioned out her love for her husbands on the basis of their heroism (or depending on whether she needed to manipulate them into something or the other).

Kunti, another master manipulator, is also shown to be ruthless in her efforts to gain the throne – the ultimate prize. It is Kunti that hid away a sixth son (the eldest) because she hadn’t been married at the time of his birth. It is Kunti who refrains from claiming that son – Karna – when he needs it the most, which means the eldest Pandava ends up fighting on the other side of the war. It is Kunti that ensures that all five of her sons marry the woman considered the most beautiful ‘in all the land’, so envy of Draupadi will not tear them apart.

As you might well expect from a myth stripping, cynical work, all these characters are separated from hundreds of years of white washing. What you get is a sad picture painted from an unflinching perspective. A Yudhishtir who is hypocritical in his justice, a guy who’s essentially pretending to be a lawyer after having watched too many episodes of Boston Legal. (Ugh, Denny Crane). An Arjun who’s arrogant and prideful, and becomes bitchy when that pride is injured. A Draupadi who’s viciously making the best of having to share her life with five different men.

Bhim is (obviously) the one who gets the most sympathetic deal of the lot. With him cast in the role of the protagonist, we quickly realize that we never heard much of Bhim’s version of the story. His mother makes him leave his first wife and son behind him in the forest, and he later ends up fighting the guy who took care of them afterwards. He describes ordinary fights that were so embellished in the retelling that his enemies ended up nine feet tall and with tusks for teeth. He talks about his desire for Draupadi, and his shame at desiring her, and his confusion because as her husband, surely he’s allowed to desire her?

Sub plots that never seemed very important are infused with new life in Bhimsen. The whole book is a conspiracy theory, a suggestion that the Mahabharath is just a case of the winning side getting to write history. For someone who’s already read a different, more conventional version of the Mahabharath, the book provides an exciting new perspective. And for someone who’s never read the Mahabharath, this is a chance to get to know the story without having to deal with magical weapons and miracle births.

“And so, somewhere down below he wandered still, the man who in the dead of night had set fire to the Pandava camp and, with sword in hand, mercilessly cut down every one of Draupadi’s children.

My work is not done yet, Bhima decided; it will not be over as long as Ashwathama remains alive.”

The book ends on a surprisingly realistic note – unlike his brothers, who embark on the long road to salvation, Bhim does not seem to have learned anything about the higher lessons of spirituality. He chooses to leave his story on an open note –not a new note, but the same old tale of revenge and bloodshed. (I would have found it more interesting if he’d finally gone searching for his first wife, but for him, it’s still about Draupadi – just as everything in his life so far has always been about Draupadi.)

Panicker carries a cynical book out to it’s thoroughly cynical ending, and I’m glad he did, because I might not have noticed if he’d snuck in a sweet fairy tale ending there. Because that’s what we want and expect from endings, regardless of what the story was.

Next: Discworld #1 – The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

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