On a cremation ground somewhere in the present, the past or perhaps even the future, Ashwatthama of the wounds that never heal tells the story of all he saw in the great war to his companions, the crackers of skulls and bearers of corpses. As far as Mahabharata retellings go, Amruta Patil’s has a knack for choosing sutradhars, or narrators – in Adi Parva, the first volume in this graphic diptych, it was the river Ganga. In Sauptik, the concluding volume, the thread is passed to as different a raconteur as possible: unlike a fabled river, the mass-murdering immortal Ashwatthama is not as easy to redeem into elegance of any kind.
This befits the book perfectly, for the tale Patil spins is one of ignominy, betrayal and repeated falls from grace. Throughout, Ashwatthama attempts a preacher position, albeit sitting beside pyres, pus leaking from his forehead. He is immortal but this is ironically his fatal flaw: he is too central a cautionary tale to be able to teach the same. The effect is brilliant: Patil thus dips between pithy wisdoms (a simple clay lamp, sitting upon its own shadow, with the caption: “Directly beneath the lamp, darkness.”), strictly dangerous political instructions (“Small fires in a big forest keep flammable matter in check. A periodic purge may prevent a large-scale catastrophe. Useful, where civilization is concerned.”) and even artist’s notes (on the Sudarshan Chakra: “best shown as a jagged flying disc or as a mathematical sequence or as a moustached minor divinity armed to the teeth? Is Krishn best shown as a galactic nursery? Or a dirt-eating blue baby? Or a dark, bejeweled androgyne? Is devlok – antithesis of dense, low-frequency matter – best shown as purple-pink mountains or as a blank page? All these diagrams – crude as their executor – are only my attempts at making the Enormous accessible.”).
One of the most profound insights in the book, with its themes of jealousy and self-ignorance, comes from the supporting narrative of Ashwatthama as pyre-dweller. To contextualise his setting, the story of Sati’s feral husband Shiv and her hidebound father Daksha is recounted at the book’s beginning. Deep into the narrative, we are reminded of this auxillary story with a series of self-revealing questions: “To learn a queasy truth, ask yourself this: Who’s the Shiv to your Daksha? Of the worthiest of the worthies, whose name do you refuse to say aloud while a litany of others are mentioned? Who do you hesitate to leave room for in your crowded altar, though their credibility is immaculate? Of the worthiest of worthies who do you give thanks to?”
In fact, philosophy rather than story is Patil’s narrative style, and Sauptik requires some familiarity with the Mahabharata, and it is also recommended that its first volume, Adi Parva, be read beforehand. The epic’s sprawling storyline is illuminated in selected parts, with the text often taking on a sermon-like quality. In all retellings of any epic, elisions speak as much if not more than illuminations. In some cases, prior knowledge is necessary – the conveying of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is rendered in simplest terms – “He knelt in the red dust before Krishn. They had a very quiet conversation.” Similarly, a basic familiarity with Vaishnavite cosmology – and indeed, the epic’s other convolutions too – is a prerequisite, otherwise brief interludes like Bheem’s encounter with his half-brother Hanuman are incomplete, and dangling storylines like how Yudhishthir rescued his siblings from the magic lake of the crane-yaksha are completely baffling.
In other cases, inference rather than expression speaks strongest. A diagram of a hand shows each Pandav as a finger, with Draupadi’s name within the palm – but is she what connects the fingers, or what the fist crowds upon?
The answer is unequivocal in Patil’s telling, in which Draupadi is very much the dark horse protagonist, the one rendered with the most pathos and the least equanimity. Some of the most vivid scenes belong to her. In the court of Hastinapur where the game of loaded dice has shown the polyandrous queen to be no more than property, the author eschews the standard narrative of disrobing and divine intervention for a chilling image: unfurled tongue and disheveled tresses, her eyes cold and not bloodshot, Draupadi is Ma Kali herself, pronouncing her curses and vows. Later, a striking scene is dedicated to the combing of her hair with the blood of not just those who humiliated her, but her father, her twin and her five sons too. Her face is extraordinarily beautiful, lit from within, as a handmaiden performs the sanguineous shampoo,
The story of how Draupadi came to have five husbands – often told as an act of obeisance to their mother who tells them to share everything – is spun neatly here as a tale of female desirousness and agency. The Pandav’s mother Pritha (her name restored to its original one from the popular Kunti) too offers counsel in just terms: “The only consent you must seek is hers. Your marriage needs no other approval.” This cannot protect Draupadi from becoming pillage in the war, or soothe her heart of longing and rejection. In a later sequence, she opines how Arjun takes advantage of a pretense of dignity to seek Subhadra out, and make her co-consort among his various dalliances.
The author’s language is evocative, always didactic, and with elegant turns of phrase – memorably, Bheem and Duryodhan wrestling as students in the akhada are “symmetrical as an inkblot folded in half”.
This is a graphic novel, as much painting as it is prose. It is Patil’s third and she retains mastery of the form. When Draupadi is staked in a game of dice in the court of the enemy, she is menstruating in a room painted blood red, its walls unmistakably vaginal in the frame in which she utters her first and only warning to Dusshasan. Elsewhere, despite the book’s themes of carnage and forest darkness, there is beauty, most notably in scenes of intimacy: Bheem and his true love, the rakshasa Hidimbi, amidst plantains and passionflowers; sleep-dancing gopikas in petal-skirted dervish delight, each with a Krishn of her own; the lushly sexual apsara Tilottama.
Patil’s visual genealogy is a rich one, but to her credit, her references never trip into too-obvious, easy-applause territory. So in a poignant double spread about Draupadi’s forest (one chapter elucidates how each protagonist had one of their own), the text explores her defenselessness, emotional abandonments and the way long-suffering patience lends itself to long-held vengeance – while a naked, aurically-dense figure of her calls to mind a stance seen somewhere in Diego Rivera’s oeuvre. Elsewhere, on the epic’s bloodiest night of carnage, we recognise that the Shiv that Ashwatthama has invoked is reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahakala. We admire the tableau and the artist’s astute subtlety, balancing allusion with lyrical expression, and turn the page.
But the last page turns onto blank dismay. Sauptik opens on “[a] caution, a key: Don’t impose your preconceptions onto the story then claim objectivity.” Ashwatthama, survivor of aeons, offers this buffer against the limitations of time-bound mores, but Patil herself fails to take this guidance. In a spectacularly misguided endnote signed by the author, she writes of how “brahmin” and “rajanya” are “not genetically transmitted states” but purposes. And more risibly still, choices: “You determine your varna. The bucks stops with you. It is as easy and as excruciatingly hard as that.”
Ashwatthama speaking this on a battlefield or a burning ground out of time may have had resonance, but Patil writing this in a caste-ridden society where the best one can do with one’s privilege is to renounce the system, rather than find ways to whitewash it, is disingenuous to say the least.
Ironically, Ashwatthama – son of Dron, perpetrator of caste-based violence – himself says it better. After the Eklavya episode, he first attempts a justification – “Contrary to the current narrative, Eklavya wasn’t punished for being a poor forest boy with super skills. He was punished for a serious error: laying claim to a lineage he had done no ground-time to earn, from a teacher who had explicitly rejected him. Was Dron’s rejection unjust? Arguably.” – then moves into lip service towards radical subversion – “Karn and Eklavya should’ve just rejected elitist lineages, declared themselves to be what they were – swayambhus, self-actualised ones… Ultimate cocking-a-snook at a system that kept them out.” It’s a bizarre endnote to a book of philosophy on the folly of hubris, but almost – in an unpremeditated way – a befitting one.
An edited version appeared in Biblio.