What need for another Mahabharata-inspired novel, you ask? Our bookstores are spilling over with them, and that’s if you include only the re-imaginings and perspective tellings published in the past few years.

One way of looking at this is that “epic lit” has become a profitable little cottage industry for mediocre writers and lazy publishers. But when depth of knowledge aligns with imagination, the story’s many possibilities can still be given fresh life – as in Aditya Iyengar’s sharp new book, which uses for its canvas a brief mid-war period where mind-games are lost and won.

Rule of three

Any Mahabharata buff knows that the 18 days of the Kurukshetra war don’t carry equal heft. Far from it. The fighting in the first dozen days is relatively low-intensity (but don’t tell that to the thousands of “ordinary” soldiers who have their heads lopped off), with only one major dramatic occurrence, the fall of the grand-patriarch Bheeshma on the tenth day.

It is from day 13, with young Abhimanyu leading the charge into the Kauravas’ Chakravyuha formation, that things really heat up. Iyengar’s The Thirteenth Day spans the period – three nights, three days – between these two events.

Three is in fact the book’s talismanic number, since that’s how many interweaving voices tell the story. There is the Pandava prince Yudhisthira, for whose claim to the throne the war is being fought; his voice has the introspective timbre of a man aware that he is one of history’s foils, never quite a hero in the sense that the people around him would want him to be, always in the shadow of – and dependent on – his brothers Bhima and Arjuna.

The second narrator is the Kauravas’ lynchpin Radheya – better known as Karna in the epic’s mainstream renderings – who was brought up by a low-caste family but has lately learnt that he is the Pandavas’ elder brother. Cynical, often rough-edged and rude, this is the voice of someone who was raised in horse-stables and continues to be jeered at as a “suta”, even after being admitted into the warrior class.

While staying mostly faithful to the events described in the original, Iyengar reinterprets the Kaurava attempt to capture Yudhisthira as a stratagem that will allow Radheya to take the throne for himself by revealing his real status and overseeing a truce. But it is Abhimanyu – the book’s third narrator, full of teenage bluster and impatience, and obsessed with posterity – whose actions will determine the result of that game.

Realism, not moralising

A notable aspect of this book is that “dharma” goes unmentioned. There is no moralising about good and evil, or suggesting that the Pandavas represent the former and the Kauravas the latter. At the same time, unlike many revisionist tellings, The Thirteenth Day doesn’t try to highlight the Pandavas’ flaws or the good qualities of Duryodhana (known here as Suyodhana); it simply doesn’t bother with the moral angle.

Realpolitik is the meat of this story – its characters are hardened warriors concerned with winning a war, that’s all. Most of the action takes place either on the battlefield or in the army camps at the end of each day. And most of it is fuelled by masculine ego and swagger. The women in these protagonists’ lives – Draupadi, Subhadra, Uttaraa – are on the fringes, only sometimes alluded to. (“I wrote some rubbish to Mother and went to bed,” Abhimanyu says in the manner of the college kid who has more important things on his mind than parents.) The most pronounced female presence is that of the melancholy Shikhandi, who was used on the battlefield as the pawn to bring Bheeshma down; her unenthusiastic attitude to the war serves as an effective counterpoint to Abhimanyu’s.

There is no sentimentalising either, which is intriguing given that two of these narrators are among the Mahabharata’s most hero-worshipped characters, with a large dewy-eyed fan following built up among listeners and readers over the yugas. In scores of other books, Karna’s battles against misfortune and Abhimanyu's gallantry have been milked for every drop of emotion (and I don’t mean that as a putdown; there have been superb sentimental-humanist renditions of the Mahabharata, such as the ones by Kamala Subramanian and Ramesh Menon).

In Iyengar’s novel, though, there is a detachment even in the accounts of Radheya meeting his real mother Kunti, or the wounded Abhimanyu having his head smashed in. Sentiment is trumped by cool self-analysis: when he thinks Bhima has been killed, Radheya wonders if he should be feeling sad about the death of a younger brother. The book’s most tender moment involves the death of an elephant.

No embellishments

In other words, The Thirteenth Day belongs to a tradition that tells us the Mahabharata in its core form – called Jaya – which was grittier and sparer than the version most of us know today. And godless too, the original epic’s Yadava chief Krishna not having yet been conflated with the Vishnu-avatar of the Bhakti Tradition. (In <I>The Thirteenth Day</I>, Krishna performs some splendid chariot-manouevering in one scene and is respected as a strategist, but otherwise stays mostly in the background.) This tradition includes Iravati Karve’s critical analysis Yuganta, MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham, told in Bhima’s voice, and Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, all of which – to varying degrees – treat the epic in realist terms.

Explored here are the practical workings of a world where titles such as “Maharathi” can be bought or transferred (much like examinations being taken by proxy in our own present day); the settling of personal scores, even among people fighting on the same side; the necessity of being tactful once in a while (even if you have had a good day, you mustn’t show much celebratory emotion in the presence of a colleague who lost a kin); the impossibility of properly disposing of hundreds of decomposing bodies each day.

That Iyengar knows the Mahabharata well is obvious in his treatment of peripheral figures such as the old King Bhagadatta. There is attention to detail – especially in the descriptions of combat – and a ring of truth in many of the character portraits, such as the suggestion that Suyodhana’s skill as a mace-fighter is linked to his pride about his looks. And there is humour: in one passage, after hearing that the soldiers consider Bhima the army’s heart and Arjuna its brain, Yudhisthira makes the mistake of asking which part of the human anatomy he is deemed to be in this analogy. Soldiers are a crude lot, comes the reply, so let’s not go there.

And crude they are. Most of the voices we hear in conversation are not those of genteel nobles, but the bawdy ones of men in war, inured to wine-drinking sessions even as the stench of carcasses drifts across to them. (“Don’t say I didn’t warn you when Radheya is riding our boys like a bull in heat,” someone says.)

Which leads me to a minor quibble: given that Iyengar’s descriptive prose is assured and elegant (this is one of the two best-written Mahabharata novels I have read recently, the other being Sharath Komarraju’s The Winds of Hastinapura), some of the slang in the actual dialogue – or the way “putra” and “my boy” are both used at different times – feels a little incongruous.

But since demythologising is the buzzword here, with characters and incidents constantly having the sheen of epic romance removed from them, perhaps slang is an acceptable mode. As the author observes in an introductory note, in our own “Selfie Yuga” we have all become our own bards and myth-creators through social media. Perhaps it was ever so.

The book ends with a minstrel’s lament where we see that the process of legend-creation has already begun, with hundreds of thousands of deaths ascribed to the slain Abhimanyu; there will no doubt be further exaggeration in other ornate verses to come. But an earlier description is more in keeping with this narrative’s earthy, matter-of-fact tone: “The boy had balls. Great, big ones.”

The Thirteenth Day, Aditya Iyengar, Rupa Publications.