Mahabharata retold, with a twist from writer Kiran Nagarkar

March 17, 2015

A ‘bedtime story’ is supposed to lull a baby to sleep. But Indian writer Kiran Nagarkar’s play of the same name is anything but sleep-inducing.

Almost four decades after he wrote “Bedtime Story”, the controversial and provocative play has seen the light of day in print for the first time last month.

The story of the Mahabharata, an ancient and revered epic of the Hindus, is a popular bedtime story for children. Nagarkar reinterprets a few episodes to discuss the problems of caste, patriarchy, religion and war.

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“There is no crime greater than apathy or indifference,” he writes in the introduction to the book, which also contains a screenplay of the story titled “Black Tulip”.

Historical events such as the Vietnam War and the Chinese cultural revolution inspired Nagarkar to write the book, in which he drives home the point of personal responsibility.

Born in what was then Bombay in 1942, Nagarkar has written plays, screenplays and five novels, including the award-winning book “Cuckold” (1997). His first book “Saat Sakkam Trechalis”, in Marathi, is considered to be a landmark in post-colonial Indian literature.

He finished writing “Bedtime Story” in 1977, but it took nearly two decades for the play to be staged. The censor board ordered 78 cuts (later reduced to 24) and some actors withdrew from rehearsals due to threats from right-wing groups. The play later made it to Cambridge and Edinburgh.

It didn’t have any luck with a publisher either, until now. A “prestigious and established publishing house” (left anonymous by the writer) offered to bring out the first edition, but later backed out.

In “Bedtime Story”, the playwright rewrites the character of Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata, who questions certain events in the epic that reduce her to a commodity. In the epic, Draupadi was the common wife of the five Pandava brothers. But in Nagarkar’s play, she would have none of it and refuses to turn herself into a “five-day roster…just because Mummy said so.”

She punctures the larger-than-life persona associated with her husbands by calling them “gutless” because they failed to protect her during the infamous disrobing act. She doesn’t spare the Hindu god Krishna either, reprimanding him for being late in rescuing her when her husbands’ rival, a Kaurava, pulled at her sari to try and disrobe her.

Throughout its nearly 100 pages, the book rarely ceases to be subversive. In the exchange between the tribal prince Eklavya and the arrogant guru Dronacharya, Nagarkar writes a scathing critique of India’s caste system.

The guru refuses to take the boy, who wants to learn archery under his tutelage, because he’s an untouchable. The boy beats the guru’s students in a contest and when the time comes for Eklavya to offer the traditional honorarium to the teacher, a classic myth is overturned. Instead of cutting his right thumb and offering it to Dronacharya, he creates a mock thumb with some earth and spit, and gives it on a leaf. “Like guru. Like gift,” the snubbed boy says.

In this retelling of the Mahabharata, most of the characters lose their mythical status, especially when you read Draupadi’s message to Arjun, who won a contest to pick a groom for her: “I am yours, Arjun, only yours. If somebody else’s arrow had hit the target, I swear to you, Arjun, I would have stolen out of my husband’s bed and lost my virginity to you.”

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And then, Arjun gives Draupadi a long kiss.

There’s no dearth of comic relief either. In Kurukshetra, the battleground between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, you hear  the sound of bhangra and ghazals of Pakistani singer Malika Pukhraj.

In the end, when the “fake” Mahabharata draws to a close, the chorus – representing a Nazi war criminal – transforms the auditorium into a gas chamber and the audience become the victims.

“I am taking a very very extreme step to get the audience, hopefully, riled. But why this is happening is because we allow things to happen and somebody has to pay the price,” Nagarkar, speaking of the gas chamber episode, told India Insight in an interview last week.

“I wrote it (the play) not only as a very very scathing criticism of myself, but I thought of society itself. If I was under the impression that it was extremely timely at that time, I don’t know what kind of time it is now. It’s so urgent,” he said.

The publication of his play coincides with the debate over freedom of expression under the Narendra Modi government. Earlier this month, India imposed six bans in the span of a week, including a documentary on the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case.

Given the content of the play and its history with censors, it’s an obvious concern for Nagarkar. In an interview to NDTV, he said he would be worried if the book was subjected to censorship.

“What you have here is an open discussion, which is what a democracy is about. And if this is the very thing we don’t want, then there maybe something very radically wrong about the way we think of democracy.”

(Editing by David Lalmalsawma; Follow Ankush on Twitter @Ankush_patrakar and David @davidlms25This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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