Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel: An epic Blunder
By: 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 of recent times. Washington Port reviewed it on its front page and the Times of London called it a tour de force. —Tharoor humbly explains why he calls his novel The Great Indian Novel. He further states, that his primary source of inspiration is the Mahabharata. Since Maha means Great, and Bharat means India, he calls this novel The Great Indian Novel. —Another source of inspiration is recent history and politics. Shashi believes that the recent history of India is a replay of the Mahabharat. Therefore, he recounts both, the epic and the history of modern India simultaneously. He carries the double task in the manner and style of Salman Rushdie. The extraordinary success of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had encouraged Indian writers in English to get rid of the high seriousness of the modernist writers, abandon all concerns for the purity of form and assert their right over English left behind by the colonists. Steeped in the spirit of the times, Tharoor starts the novel in mock- seriousness by invoking Lord Brahma to provide him with an amanuensis to write his epic, and accordingly, Lord Ganesha is made available to him.
He begins and ends his novel with a statement, “They tell me India is an underdeveloped country.” The pronoun in his statement refers to Westernized writers and readers who denigrate India by dubbing her an underdeveloped country. Tharoor says that it is “stuff and nonsense.” He claims that if they read the Mahabharata and Ramayana and studied the Golden Ages of the Maurya and Guptas, they would realize that India is not an underdeveloped country, but rather a developed one in a state of decay. He adds everything in India is over-developed, particularly the social structure, the bureaucracy, the political process, the financial system, the university network, and, for that matter, the women. Tharoor has said that he wanted to reclaim his country’s heritage for itself, to tell the story of India in an Indian voice. Tharoor does not want to follow Westernized writers and their concepts of novel writing.
He starts with the Mahabharata and ends with the immediate past of India. The story of the Mahabharata is mythological in its structure. The story of India in the immediate past is historical. Tharoor devises a novel strategy to tell both stories simultaneously by telescoping the two. He replaces Ved Vyas and starts retelling the epic story to Ganpati, the scribe.
His epic story begins with Shantanu and Ganga. Ganga marries Shantanu on the condition that he will not question her for her actions. She gives birth to seven children and hands them over to the flowing water of the Ganges, and Shantanu does not utter a word. When the eighth one is born and Ganga takes him to the Ganges, Shantanu protests. Ganga tells him that he has broken his promise and hands over the child to him and disappears. This child was initially called Ganga Datta and later Bisham. One day, on his hunting expedition, he comes across a beautiful girl called Satyavati with a strange smell emanating from her body, and he falls for her and proposes to marry her. She says that she will marry him on the condition that their son will be the heir to the throne. Shantanu cannot agree, because he has already announced Ganga Dutt as the heir-apparent. He begins to pine for the love of Satyavati when Ganga Dutt comes to know the reasons for his father’s unhappiness. He takes an oath to abdicate the throne and, to avoid complications in the future, he will remain celibate. Shantanu and Satyavati get married, and two sons are born to them – Chitrangad and Vichitravirya. The former dies early and the latter succeeds Shantanu. Satyavati asks Bisham to procure a bride for her son. Bisham attacks the king of a distant state, who was holding a Swayamwara for his three daughters, and lifts his two daughters-Ambica and Ambalica- but leaves Amba. Because Amba protests that she was committed to Raja Salva, Vichitravirya marries both the princesses. Tharoor says Hindus were not wedded to monogamy in those days, and that barbarism would come only after Independence.
Vichitravirya could not beget sons on her own. So, the job was outsourced to Ved Vyas, who was also born of Satyavati from her premarital relations with a meandering Brahmin called Parashar. His first wife, Ambika, gave birth to a son called Dhritrashtra, and his second wife gave birth to Pandu.
Dhritrashtra marries Gandhari and gives birth to Duryodhana and many other sons, Pandu is caught by a dangerous disease and becomes unable to beget sons. He retires to the jungle along with his two wives, Kunti and Madri. He insists on his wife providing him with sons by outsourcing. Accordingly, Kunti provides him with three sons—Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjun and Madri—who provide him with two sons, Nakul and Sahadev. The sons of Dhitrastra are called Kauravas, and the sons of Pandus are called Pandavas. When the Pandavas come of age, they claim their stake in the state, which Duryodhan tries to dodge through treacheries and conspiracies. It becomes the cause of the war described in the epic.
Meanwhile, Tharoor slips into the history of India’s struggle for independence. Bhishma and Mahatma Gandhi merge and emerge as Gangaji. Tharoor now concentrates on Gangaji and his colleagues, who like him, have new names.
India’s struggle for independence is a matter of history. Shifting to historical fiction from mythological fiction requires scrupulous attention to characterization, authenticity, and accurate description of the background, events, and their aftermath, particularly so close to our times as there is a chance for personnel preferences to creep in. A writer’s prejudices and preferences distort historical truths and project a warped story. This is what happened in Tharoor’s narration of the recent history of India.
Tharoor describes Gangaji’s journey to Champaranya, his salt march, the Jalianwala Bagh tragedy, the round table conference, the quit India movement, the rise of Jinnah, and his demand for a separate state for Muslims, his upholding of Nehru as the President of Congress and Prime Minister, the Kashmir issue and Hindu Muslim divide, blood-shedding before and after Independence and other activities, and finally his murder, in a racy, easy, and engaging style, though with an element of flippancy.
Tharoor’s tone gets supercilious in his treatment of Nehru, who is Dhritrastra in the fiction. Dhritrashtra, of the epic, was blind by birth. Tharoor thinks Nehru was too blind because of his idealism. He points out his dithering in his China and Kashmir policies as well as his leanings toward Russia and Marxism. He takes an undue interest in describing Nehru’s relationship with the then Vicereine. Though he does not say it, he seems to suggest that Nehru was responsible for the “advanced state of decay” in India. Tharoor thinks that Nehru became Prime Minister because Gandhi preferred him. He does not ponder over why Gandhi preferred Nehru to Patel. He turns a blind eye to the glaring fact that Nehra was not blind but a visionary and the architect of modern India. He gave the country its best industrial base, the best irrigation facilities, and some of the best educational institutions, which are the mainstay of India’s progress. He was out and out a democrat and never belittled Parliament. He had a flair for writing, which won him high accolades from one and all. He bore the criticism of his policies with sangfroid and respected those who opposed him. He took onboard people who had differences with him, like Ambedkar, Shyama Prasad, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Gandhi preferred him to Patel because he thought Nehru was the one to lead India.
Nehru was aware that unchecked industrialization would lead to lop-sided development and create a crude and greedy middle class, and therefore, he introduced checks and balances to rein in unscrupulous elements in society. Whereas Tharoor is skeptical about Nehru, he shows special admiration for Karna, who plays Jinnah of recent times. He writes about him in glowing terms: “Ah, the legends that built up around that young man, Ganapati. Komen gushed that he glowed like the sun from the heavens, and his imperviousness to them had made him more refulgent in their eyes. The matronly housewife in the adjoining bungalow swore that the sun emerged each morning from her window.
Tharoor’s attitude towards treating Indira Gandhi is again supercilious. He calls her Duryodhani, after Duryodhana in the epic. Indira Gandhi came in for bitter criticism for imposing an emergency in the country, but it is often overlooked that the opposition got out of hand and unruly after the Allahabad decision and an atmosphere of total anarchy was getting hold of the Indian polity and she had no choice but to declare an emergency. Her wonderful treatment of Bangladeshi refugees, her extraordinary bravery during the war with Pakistan, her role in establishing Bangla Dash, her bold approach to abolishing Privy Purses and nationalizing banks, the operation of Blue Star, her independent foreign policy, and many other acts and decisions demonstrate that she was the right person to lead the country. To liken her to Duryodhana makes readers uncomfortable. How can one overlook what happened in India after her defeat? The replacement, Morarji Desai, became the laughing stock of the world because, on his admission, he drank his urine first thing in the morning. Public lavatories were called “Morarji Juice Centre.” However, Tharoor was saddened by Indira’s re-election because the country could not choose a better person to lead the country. He does not bother to tell his readers why she was re-elected after all the atrocities committed during the Emergency and hastens to confess to his scribe, “I have told my story so far from a completely mistaken perspective.”