Jayary Newsletter # 85


I don't know if it's my attention span or the enormity of the Jaya that's the culprit, but having spent almost ten months on the epic, I am barely a third of the way into the third book of the epic: the Adi Parva and the Sabha Parva are done, but the deep forest of the Vana Parva is much harder going.

The recounting of one backstory after another is proving to be my undoing: first, Nala and Damayanti, then the various pilgrimages, then Agastya's heroics and now Bhagiratha and the filling of the ocean. I know there's something important here - that's what made me reread Nala and Damayanti's travails twice - the epic isn't a grab-bag of tales stapled together, but I am not able to see the woods for the trees in the Vana Parva.

It's an admission of defeat, or more accurately, frustration.

Meanwhile, the tenth month of this year is almost up. Another way to count the waning days of 2016: today is day 296 of the year, only four more to go for 300 and after that only sixty five more days. I don't want to limp along like a lame duck president at the end of her term (we might yet get to see a her majesty). What to do next? How to end with a bang and not with a whimper?


Self diagnosis is a dangerous task - physicians can rarely heal themselves and I am no physician. But it's not as if there's an itihasa clinic around the corner where I can have myself treated. Self diagnosis is the only diagnosis available.

Here's the first problem: the itihasa is a specific kind of object, just as the novel is a specific kind of creative object and the academic monograph is a specific kind of scholarly object. Except that there are millions of novels and monographs and there are only a few itihasas, which makes it that much harder to find out what kind of object the itihasa is. Nevertheless, what kind of object is it?

By the way, the "what is it?" can't be answered empirically. There's a cottage industry of scholars who analyse the Jaya, compare it to epics in Greece and elsewhere and travel around the world talking about the discursive strategies of Vyasa. To paraphrase Vladimir Brusiloff, the fictional Russian novelist in Wodehouse's "Clicking of Cuthbert" - I spit me of those scholars.

Which brings me to restate the problem: what kind of object is an itihasa? Takes me all the way back to one of my first Jayaries last year and it's evoking of Maria Von Trapp in the Sound of Music: how do you solve a problem like the Jaya?

Four Ways

Now that the scholars have been condemned and the Jaya is as intractable as it was a year ago, we have to ask ourselves what else can be done. A brief survey of the literature around the epic shows us four different models:

  1. The translation. It's the obvious first step, making the epic more accessible in a modern language and especially so when abridged with some creativity. Another tack is to add a modifier "Jaya for X," and aim at a specific target audience such as managers or children. Translations are the standard model. We can't make much progress without a bevy of translations with differences in intent.

  2. The creative interpretation. Where scholarly interpretations are analytic, creative interpretations are synthetic. Everything from Margaret Lidchi-Grassi's "The Great Golden Sacrifice to Shyam Benegal's Kalyug and Peter Brook's Mahabharata are in this category. Their enduring popularity in every medium is a sign that the epic is alive.

  3. The meditation. The philosophical or political - typically contemporary - engagement with the content of the epic. Here too we find a wide range: from the dismal "Bhagavad Gita for Management" to Gurchararan Das' "The Subtlety of Being Good" to the incandescent meditations by Calasso.

  4. The (re)creation. The Kamba Ramayana isn't a translation or modification of the original Ramayana. It's an entirely new text. Kamban shows that the itihasmic imagination was widespread throughout the subcontinent and Sanskrit is far from the only language for writing the epic. No one seems to have done the same for the Jaya.

Of the four, I like Kampan the most though Calasso comes a close second. Unfortunately, we can't (and don't) inhabit the Jaya's world in the way Kampan could; too much has changed. We can - as Calasso tries to - evoke that world with as much vividness as possible. What do we do after evoking that ghost?

Itihasmic Style

I realize my problems with the Jaya are cognitive: I want to suspend the last shreds of disbelief but I can't. I can't quite picture a man digesting a goat and an ocean even though it's not a problem at all to imagine the same man flying a spaceship across two galaxies and returning home for tea.

Strange isn't it, how our epistemological tastes change?

While I admit that the ocean swallower is posing a currently insurmountable problem to my imagination, I don't think it's a problem only for me. The history of imagination isn't in my head alone - it's (somewhat) objective too. The believable imagination, i.e., the ideas and metaphors that help us suspend disbelief are conditioned by the world we live in and that world isn't the Jaya's world.

Normally, that's enough to set aside a task or demote it to a lower status; to a fairy tale rather than literary fiction or to grandmotherly wisdom instead of proper philosophy.

I don't want to do that to the Jaya, for I think the itihasmic style has much to offer. Fiction while not only being fiction. Fact without only being fact. Philosophy without only being philosophy. It's a literary mode waiting to be revived.

Of course, one can't rework the Jaya. What a thought! Not in one year. Perhaps not in one lifetime. But it's possible to bite off small bits, to do several painter's studies on paper before embarking on a serious work on canvas.

Not a bad way to start tomorrow's Jayary, it being the 300th of the year.