Thursday, January 29, 2009

Plus, there are pictures!

Here it is, your book of the week, the MahaBHARata.  I have to admit that in the first few chapters of this I was feeling pretty damn proud of myself for my awesomeness in reading a legendary work of religious and cultural importance to a people that my only contact with so far is a friend I had in second grade.  I did also see Slum Dog Millionaire and Monsoon Wedding though, so I figured I was all caught up on the parts of Indian culture that didn't involve licking crushed Smarties off your notebook.  

I had to come down a little from my self-importance, though, when I finally read the introduction and publisher's note, which pointed out that this is an extremely abridged retelling of the Mahabarata, and the literal translation into English is eleven volumes and probably has less sex too.  This is the version I read:

Which was "retold" by an English dude named William Buck* who really really loved reading the 11 volumes of the original version, and who delivered this, plus his translation of the Ramayana, to his publisher and then promptly died at the age of 36.  That seems like a story worth knowing about too, but perfunctory googling didn't get me anything on that.

Anyway, all this means that I can't really comment on the full version, or on the beauty of the Sanskrit, because I'm still taking those Sanskrit for Travellers classes down at the Y and all I can say so far is "How much is that painted elephant?"

BUT, I can recommend the version I read as both swashbuckling and romantic, colorful and dark.  There are blue people and people with four or more arms and a magical bow that never runs out of arrows except that one time that it did, and there are women calling on the gods to impregnate them and gods chilling in the forest because they're having a totally pissy day and there's a lady married to five brothers and a guy who magically removes his junk to hide in a lady's retinue from a king who's trying to kill him.  There are approximately 1.5 billion characters, whose names all sound like other characters' names, not to mention the billions of others who die in the final epic battle but weren't important enough to have names.  One woman gives birth to 100 sons, all at the same time, in a big matzo ball of flesh that has to be divided and put in jars to finish cooking.  There are important life lessons, such as "A liar mistrusts everyone, thinking that they are all like himself" (p. 239), and gods who behave worse than people, and even funny parts, mostly from Krishna who is a bit of a cut-up when he's not killing people.

All in all it has everything that is awesome and only the Dostoyevsky-like naming conventions make it occasionally difficult to follow, so go read it.  GO.  Read it right now.  

* Not to be confused with William "Buck" Ewing, who played and coached baseball and probably knew less than me about India.

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