Indians are proud of two things: the great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana and the freedom movement. And Shashi Tharoor has done a brilliant job by mixing these two together in his one-of-a-kind novel, The Great Indian Novel. Along with this, he references various other famous works on India such as E. M Forester, Rudyard Kipling and Paul Scott. He takes the story of the Mahabharata and blends it with India history, going back three generations. A satirical take on everything Indian, this book is a great read for all Indians.
It starts off with the cantankerous narrator, Ved Vyaas looking for a writer and he finds none another Ganapathi (dangerously similar to Lord Ganesha in many aspect). He narrates the tale of everything he has seen in his life, starting from his birth. Satyavati, being seduced by the Brahmin Parashar gave birth to Vvji and then what follows is the epic tale of the Mahabharata coupled with Indian history. Each famous Indian freedom fighter is given a role from the Mahabharata hence leading to a dual role. For example, Gangaji, who is actually Bhishma is Gandhiji (pretty obvious), Dhritarashtra is Nehru, Vidura isVallabhai Patel, Pandu is Subash Chandra Bose, Karna is a vague impression of Jinnah, Priya Duryodhani(Duryodhan) isIndira Gandhi and so on. These are the obvious allusions. But the question most people are left to wonder is that what do the five Pandavas represent? They represent the five pillars of democracy whereas Drapudi represents the ideal of democracy (D.Mokrasi). From the birth of the characters, to their whereabouts and their deaths, the book is exact and not lacking in detail and accuracy. Even the minute events of Shakuni’s dice game, Duryodhana’s attempt to kill the Pandavas by leading them to the Laksgraha, Drona’s impact in the Mahabharata, Krishna’s wise words, Arjun’s marriage to Krishna’s sister find a mention in the book.
There are 18 chapters, just like the Mahabharata has 18 books and the war of Kurukshetra goes on for 18 days. Each chapter name alludes to a famous Indian work like “Bungle Book” refers to “Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling, “Midnight’s Parents” refers to “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie, “Passages through India” refers to “Passage to India” by E. M Forester and so on. The book covers every epic event in Indian history, from Gandhiji’s Dandi March, the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre, Subash Chandra Bose’s agitations, to Indira’s disrobing of democracy by declaration of Emergency,Nehru’s alleged affairs with Lady Mountbatten, The Indo-Pak and Indo-China wars etc. The book also hints at various conspiracy theories but on the whole, it is very well-researched.
Tharoor has managed to fit in every defining moment from both sides of the spectrum and added in much humor that leaves you laughing and clutching your sides. Everyone is a butt of his jokes, British and Indians alike. He does come off as harsh on Gandhiji and various other figures that are held in reverence usually, but ends up holding him in high reverence even if it is hinted at mildly. His jokes, warning be taken seriously, are not for the weak or serious.
“The British are the only people in history crass enough to have made revolutionaries out of Americans.”
There is no way to summarize this book and in actuality, there is no apparent need to either. It is expansive and vast, with various events layered over each other. It is impossible to miss every allusion that Tharoor has set to lovingly in front of us. Each and every event, person, word has a meaning referring to both the Mahabharata and the freedom movement. In short, it is a run through of everything India stands for. In the last chapter, Tharoor tries to emulate what the Bhagavad Gita stands for and succeeds at a layman’s version. He also talks about various Indian issues prevalent in society, which is found between the lines.
This book is definitely worth a read and it won’t leave you bored at any point. It is page-turner for sure. But only a person who is well-versed with both the Mahabharata and Indian history sufficiently will understand this book to the fullest. Otherwise, it is just a great read, not exploited to its fullest potential. And of course, there is the allusion to the name itself, where “The Great Indian Novel” translates directly to the “Mahabharata”. It is not THE great Indian novel, but it is definitely A great Indian novel.