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The Great Indian Novel : An epic Blunder

by Dr Ramlal Agarwal
(Jalna, India)

Title : The Great Indian Novel
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Reviewed by: Dr. Ramlal Agarwal

Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel has come in for high praise in India and abroad and is already in its fifth edition. Khushwant Singh called it "one of the most significant books in recent times”. Washington Post reviewed it on its front page and the Times, London, called it a " tour de force". The novel is certainly ingenious in its conception, innovative in its narrative technique and bold in its execution.

Tharoor humbly explains why he calls his novel The Great Indian Novel. He says that since his primary source of inspiration is the Mahabharata and since Maha means Great and Bharat means India he calls this novel The Great Indian Novel. This explanation is misleading because it leads one to believe that the novel is a fictional rendering of the epic. But it is not Tharoor starts recounting the story of Mahabharat but on the way he gives a twist to it and merges it into modern Indian history and comes up with a mongrel breed. Bhishma or Ganga Putra of the epic is merged with Mahatma Gandhi and is transformed into Gangaji.

Shashi Tharoor very playfully carries on the process with the entire cast of the epic and all the major players of recent history. Gangaji moves from Hastinapur to Motihari and instead of his usual bow and arrow, takes to a new weapon called Satyagraha to fight for the rights of farmers and succeeds beyond all expectations. Encouraged by his phenomenal success he launches a Mango March and becomes an undisputed leader of the nation. Dhritarashtra (Nehru) is blind, is educated in Eton and Cambridge and is a hard-core idealist. He has his way with the masses and the high officials. He is very loyal to Gangaji and Gangaji prods him in all situations. His wife being chronically ill, he takes to politics like fish take to water. He has a daughter called Priya Duryodhana (Indira Gandhi). He has an affair with the last vicereine to India. Eventually he becomes the first Prime Minister of India. But he bungles, his stand on Myanmar and brazen flirting with China break him completely. After him, in due course, his daughter is elected Prime Minister.

Pandu cannot beget children and hence he persuades his wives Kunti and Madri, to give him sons by sleeping with the men of their choice and gets five sons called Pandavas. They stake a claim in the spoils of victory. But Priya Duryodhani is not one to share power with her cousins. Therefore, she invites them for a game of dice and takes all they could bet even their beloved Drupad Mokrashi. Priya Duryodhani orders Dushashan to drag Mokrashi to the court and strip her naked. However, Mokrashi beats her by unfolding layer after layer of Muslin sarees. When the elections are declared, Pandavas emerge victorious and Duryodhan is dethroned. However, their victory is short-lived as Yudhisthira turns out to be a faddist and drinks his urine graffiti marked public urinals as "Yudhisthira Juice Centre ". Naturally they lose the election and Priya Duryodhani is reinstalled as Prime Minister. Shashi Tharoor feels cheated and laments that his country men could not throw up someone better.

Shashi's mongrel breed cuts no ice with the readers. Vyasa's Mahabharata is about heroes, who notwithstanding their faults, were heroes. Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel is a story of betrayed expectations. The characters in the novel are huge cardboard cut-outs, lifeless and sapless. His Gangaji is the mockery of Bhishma as well as Mahatma Gandhi. So, it is with Dhritrashtra and Nehru and other characters as well. A broad stream of flippancy runs through the novel. It neither celebrates the epic nor renders a sensitive insightful account of recent history of India. The only saving grace about the novel is in the writer's admission that he has told his story from a completely mistaken perspective.

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