Book # 8 The Forest of Stories by Ashok K Banker

The frame story for the epic mahabharata is it...

The frame story for the epic Mahabharata is the 'Snake Sacrifice' of King Janamejaya

It’s funny how little one really knows or recalls about the stories one grew up hearing. Like most Indian kids, my favourite bedtime stories used to be from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which my grandmother would narrate to me every night at bedtime. When I was a little older, I would watch the television adaptations of these stories every Sunday and when I started to read, Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book versions kept me entertained. The thing that struck me the most, even at that young age, was how these stories never got old. They remained constantly fascinating and endlessly repeatable. There was always something fresh, some new connection that one hadn’t quite understood the last time, or a new perspective through which one viewed these ancient stories.

But here’s the thing: so few of us actually revisit these stories as often as they deserve. The problem seems to be that they become such a part of our lives as Indians, so very familiar, that we never feel the need to read them again. No matter what religion you personally profess, if you grow up in this country, you know all about Rama, Sita, Ravana, Krishna, Arjuna and all the rest from the wide and colourful cast of these two epics. And so, you may end up thinking that there is nothing new to learn from them.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps some of you re-read the stories when you grew up a little. I didn’t. I always meant to, though. I would look at the thick, beautifully bound volumes of the epics in bookstores and would tell myself that I simply must read them again. But I never did, because there are so many other stories that I still haven’t read, and am I not already so familiar with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?

Turns out, I’m not as familiar with them as I thought. For instance, whenever I thought of the Mahabharata, I always had this vague idea that the story was about the fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and the politics behind it all. But there is so much more to it! There are hundreds of characters, each with his or her fascinating back story and motivation. So many little incidents that happen generations before the actual war actually make that event inevitable.

So what happened, that I’m thinking all this now, was that I received a copy of Ashok K. Banker’s The Forest of Stories from the good people over at Westland. It is the first instalment in Banker’s retelling of the Mahabharata. He calls it his MBA series, but don’t assume that the stories have been mangled by modernity. These are straight retellings. As Banker explains in the introduction, he sat with the various versions of the Mahabharata and put together a coherent version for the modern reader. It must have been a gargantuan task because although the Mahabharata does not have as many versions as the Ramayana does, it is nevertheless a massively complex work.

Banker sticks pretty faithfully to what we know as Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which was actually framed as a story within a story within a story. To put it simply, there’s Vyasa’s original epic poem Jaya (with 8,800 shlokas), which tells the story of the great fratricidal war of the Kuru clan and features Vyasa himself as one of the characters. This is expanded into the Bharata, comprising 24,000 shlokas and narrating the history of the Bharata race itself. Eventually, the number of shlokas went up to 100,000 shlokas and the epic came to be known as the Mahabharta. It was narrated by Vyasa (also called Krishna Dweipayana or ‘Dark Islander’) at the 12-year-long snake sacrifice ritual conducted by King Janamejaya who is descended from the Kuru line. The story of this narration as well as that of the snake sacrifice and why Janamejaya is doing it, is being told to the inhabitants of the ashram Naimisha-sharanya by the storyteller, Ugrasrava Sauti.

I know it sounds complex, and I assure you that it is. But it’s such wonderful reading! If anything, I find myself more drawn towards these little framing stories than to the story of the war itself. One particular section, the one that talks about the origin of snakes and how they’ve come to acquire the evil reputation they possess is alone worth the price of the book, in my opinion.

Don’t expect to dive into the core story straight away when you start reading this book. It wanders around and takes its own time to arrive. And yes, I know that you know where the story is going and that you might think there are no surprises to be had along the way. But when you read this book you understand more deeply than ever the truth behind Ursula K Le Guin’s words, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end”.  What you’ll enjoy, when you read this book, will be the stories about the Nagas, Shakuntala and Dushyanta, Garuda and the churning of the ocean. As you read the subsequent books, you will get to the heart of the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, but in the meantime, the journey to that point will keep you fascinated.


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