Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions is a powerful retelling of the Mahabharata that uses various poetic forms – and the voices of many marginalised characters – to offer a tangential look at the great epic, specifically at the hegemony of the powerful, the helplessness of the weak, and the perils that may lie hidden in conventional interpretation. Part one of an interview:

When and how did your interest in the Mahabharata begin? At what point did it become the sort of obsession that led to such an intense book?
I couldn’t quite pinpoint one instant of awareness or active interest. I mean, I imbibed it in so many ways: as bedtime stories from the extended family, then through Amar Chitra Katha comics – a staple when I learnt to read… and simultaneously through intricate kathakali performances (many of which I dozed through), or thunderous fantasy films.

As a teen, two experiences that stood out were the Mahabharata episodes in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj (though I’d enjoyed the more opulent B.R. Chopra television series too), and Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi, which focussed on one particular – endlessly fascinating – equation from the Mahabharata (the bond between Duryodhana and Karna), and transposed it brilliantly into small-town, 20th century India.

His delineation of characters and their emotional arcs was a master-class in storytelling. And Bharat Ek Khoj struck me with its attention to the social and political environments in which the epic could have unfolded: suddenly, the human became much more gripping than the divine.

But the immediate trigger came only in early 2010. I’d just read a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata and been intensely annoyed by its reductive approach to two layered, heroic, yet wilful protagonists whom the author painted in shades of gold and roseate. And that got me thinking about all the others, especially the ones who feature as “supporting cast”.

Around the same time, I read the late Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra: it pretty much rewired my synapses. I am still at a loss for words when it comes to this book and how it galvanised the imagination – here was the other end of the spectrum, and how iridescent an end that was!

The obsession, though, grew after the decision to attempt this retelling in multiple voices. It was sown during these last years of reading/watching everything I could: translations, retellings, analyses, film and theatre and dance adaptations… and as I began writing, these characters just developed bone and sinew, nerves and raucous tongues, and took to challenging my own notions of structure and narrative. There were times when it felt like an unending visitation.

Speaking very broadly, there are two types of Mahabharata tellings: the supernatural one, which centres on Krishna as a god, and which also tends to have a sentimental view of the characters and a reasonably defined sense of good and evil; and the cynical, earthy one (probably very close to what the epic in its core form, Jaya, was) that questions everything. As a reader, do you have a preference for one over the other?

I believe they serve different functions, and I can be just as engrossed in both types: it depends on the levels of inventiveness and writing. Though I am invigorated by the reminder that there was always room for cynicism, for doubt, for picturing alternative scenarios! The playwright Bhasa’s oeuvre, for instance, includes so many plays questioning the righteousness of the gods, of the victors; imagining a next generation (that of Abhimanyu) refusing their fathers’ war. And his plays were written roughly two thousand years ago: it injects some hope to our Age of Offence where the near-omnipotent right-wing revisionists are primed to scream bloody murder over any act of imaginative freedom. I wonder which Foreign Hand they could blame for Bhasa’s writing!

Your book takes its title from the African proverb “Until the lions get their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” You apply it to the Mahabharata in an intriguing way – specifically to the little people of history, including the ordinary soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the hubris of princes, and the marginal characters who exist only to serve. This isn’t something as simple as a history-is-written-by-the-victors narrative, is it? You seem to be making the point that even within every “winning team” and “losing team”, there are the heavily oppressed.
You are right: the proverb, to me, implied more than the prerogative winners have on history. It underpinned the problem with dominant narratives – any dominant narrative (victor or recognised victim). In the context of this retelling, I felt strongly there is – okay, this is a truism but important enough to be repeated – seldom a single history, especially with a juggernaut like war. Mahasweta Devi underscored this with casual brilliance in After Kurukshetra, where she told the tale of the widows of Kurukshetra, of Yuyutsu’s mother Sauvali, and of the relatives of the Nishada family burnt alive in Varanavrata in place of the Pandavas – a reminder that even victims leave behind other victims, ones we do not perceive. It was the intersection of narratives, the refracted, echoed voices, so to say, that intrigued me.

And that also resonated with something my father, an army officer, told me when I was a child: he said there were no altruistic victories in war and few noble heroes – that heroism exacts a moral price. It taught me too that we are almost all, in some ways, complicit in conflict, in injustice, in battle, which, for instance, considerably shaped my reading of Krishna. There are tales of “winners” too, in this book. But I was not trying to switch binaries: the aim was not to make the bad guys the good ones and vice-versa. So there are poems where Duryodhana’s malevolence is clearly indicated (by his own mother, among others), and others where his loyalty to and love for Karna are highlighted. We can often be hero to one person, villain to another, and something in between to lots of others.

A question about the feminist aspects of the book. Nearly all the narrators here are women – certainly all the ones that are established Mahabharata characters. Including very peripheral figures such as King Drupada’s nameless wife, known only in terms of her relationship to other characters; or Vidura’s mother, the maid Poorna; or Yuyutsu’s mother Sauvali, raped by Dhritarashtra (though as she says, “When the king decides to rape me or my kind, we must not use the word rape”) in his quest for an heir. Is it your feeling that such women – treated as child-bearing machines and then discarded or ignored – best represent the downtrodden of history?

Nearly all the voices with the exception of two soldiers – a father and son (with radically different outlooks on war) – and Krishna (as man-avatar, but later also as Mohini). The men are Padavit, among the lowest rank of soldiers, who also represent the downtrodden of history.

In the Mahabharata – as seen in most other epics (except perhaps Gilgamesh?), and through history – women are generally among the first casualties of war and conflict (Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Gandhari in certain regional accounts, Draupadi, the Yadava women after the destruction of their clan…).

Their bodies become territories, then detritus: conquered, ravaged, ploughed for produce, cast aside. But, unlike in the case of land, the humiliation of “conquest” is attached to their person; there is a puzzling (and expedient) transfer of defeat and dishonour that Rushdie wrote about most memorably in Shame: from the men who’ve experienced defeat to the women who suffer the consequences of that defeat. I was interested in the women’s own responses to that notion of dishonour, as well as their (occasional) refusal of it.

Amba spends two lifetimes seeking retribution, but in quieter ways, Poorna’s and Sauvali’s reaction to the use or possession of their bodies is just as radical, as subversive. Sauvali sums up the societal order with, “When the king decides to rape me or my kind, no one will use the word ‘rape’. The word does not exist in the king’s world. This body is just another province he owns, from navel to nipple to eyelid, insole to clitoris.” And her response is that, nonetheless, even he cannot own her thoughts, nor her conscience: that conviction is the legacy she leaves her son.

Also, I wanted to explore the thought that Vyaasa expresses in Until the Lions, horrified, that “war is sometimes not the worst event… it just magnifies the evil men commit at other times.” So most of these women – on the epic’s margins, as you put it so aptly – suffer as many humiliations during peace.

The total disregard for their desires, their fates – that was a trait exhibited not by the “enemy” alone, but also by the men in their lives. And perhaps almost as much by other women (Kunti’s commandment on Draupadi’s marital status, and Satyavati’s decision to have her widowed daughters-in-law impregnated to perpetuate her dynasty are flagrant examples).

I was not interested in male bashing any more than I was in “victor bashing”! It was more of an inquiry into power, its sources, its proprietors and tenants and what that power permits/spurs them to do. Unsurprisingly, those who wield it most often are men, but I also wanted to explore the actions of women in the epic who hold the sceptre (Satyavati, Ulupi, Hidimbi, Kunti in many ways). And through the years of reading and writing, I saw them as much more than archetypes of virtue and vice.

Another reason to focus on the female voice was perhaps because many of them are survivors, witnesses but not disinterested ones. Over and above the loss and grief, some emanate a sense of inevitability. And many have a narrative that goes beyond victory and defeat. You mentioned Dhrupada’s wife. Vyaasa’s epic recounts that Dhrupada raises Draupadi as an enticement for Arjuna, that it is all part of his plan to destroy Drona.

In fact, all his children are created to rout an enemy rather than to bring him joy or propagate his name. And I found the perspective of a mother who must watch her children be forged into weapons compelling. Someone who lives in a greenhouse of hatred and vengeance, who feels alienated from her closest kin but cannot (or does not) actively intervene to change the course of events.

The first half of the book has multiple poems in the voice of the matriarch Satyavati, great-grandmother to the warring Kuru princes, as she reflects on everything that went wrong, and the part that she played in it – while also providing the reader the basic Mahabharata back-story. In the original epic, Satyavati exits the stage quite early. Were there any complications in using her as a recurring, anchoring voice?

Is there a keyboard shortcut for “big burst of laughter”? Oh yes, it was hell to get rid of Satyavati; her voice had become the thread around which all the others were strung. Both Anita Roy and Marilyn Hacker, while reading the initial voices, had strongly urged me to use a diegetic device to explain the story, like a foreword or a plot summary: they pointed out that most people (even Mahabharata-obsessed souls like us) tend to forget the minor characters, the convolutions of plot, and that it would really help to get a clearer picture while reading Until the Lions (instead of having to keep a set of reference books by the bedside).

Somehow, I wanted to avoid an explanation outside the story, and slowly Satyavati came into being (she was the voice whose devising took the most thought and time). And once she took the stage, she elbowed out any other aspirant to that role. She became increasingly more central, as the only character with a larger vision of cause and effect. Most of the other voices, self-aware though they are, are concerned with their immediate lives and environment or interests. Satyavati is both passionately devoted to building her dynasty and painfully aware of the cost of that goal.

Nonetheless, I had decided not to deviate much from the chronology of the epic, so I had to get rid of her around midway. That did cause more burnt axons and overheated grey cells, juggling with options: should I have her reading letters from Bheeshma in her hermitage apprising her of doings in Hastinapura, or hand over her functions to someone else? I didn’t discard the unreal either: could her ghost walk through the palace, noting the colour of Subhadra’s wedding robe? No, I am joking! I did finally find a solution that felt right, one that allowed her to have the last narrative word.

Some of the voices here complement or contrast with each other, serving as “double bills” in some sense: e.g. Poorna and Sauvali; or Hidimbi and Ulupi, both of whom are marginalised wives of Pandava princes. Even as a long-time Mahabharata buff, I saw new parallels between certain characters and situations. Was this part of your original design, or did it emerge in the writing?
Not really! I mean, some of the specific twin-ship/mirror patterns emerged as my vision of the characters became clearer. I had an original long-list of about 23-25 characters whose stories and personalities had always beguiled, and then I cut that down to 18 (with Satyavati, of course, later becoming the nineteenth – or first, actually – voice that acted as Ariadne’s thread) that I would write on/as. Karna’s adoptive mother Radha, Subhadra, Chitrangada, Ambika-Ambalika, etc. were some of those who didn’t make the shortlist, so to say.

There are characters that double bill themselves, so to say: Amba and Shikhandi (within the same poem), Krishna and Mohini (across two separate poems). Some that were meant to provide contrasting voices from the beginning: the Padavits, for instance. I knew father and son would have radically different views on war and heroism – they now bookend the narrative.

Also, Kunti and Gandhari: it was clear they would be poles apart as mothers, as queens. But there are others, like Hidimbi and Ulupi (as lovers and mothers) whose similarities and divergences grew more pointed as I conceptualised the poems, or even while I wrote them. The casteist/species-ist conventions kick in too, with Hidimbi’s and Ulupi’s stories: Ghatotkacha never gets his due as the eldest Pandava grandchild because he is half-rakshasa, a reviled race. While the Nagas, who see themselves superior to earthlings, give Ulupi’s son Aravan a hard time, as he is blemished by the human taint of his father.

Poorna’s and Sauvali’s accounts are offset by a sharp distinction: volition. Poorna’s coupling with Vyaasa is volitional: she chooses to go in Ambika’s place, to spare her ward/mistress a repeat of the violation she dreads – and I hope her choice permeates the writing. Dhritarashtra, however, rapes Sauvali, over and over again: it is a rape authorised and sanctified by court and priests and all the powers-that-be, and all the more horrific for that. That’s somehow not very different from the State refusing to recognise marital rape as a crime, is it?

You have made some very bold decisions, such as the one to not just name all 100 of the Kauravas (in Dushala’s voice when she remembers her brothers) but to also have a line or two of description about each of them. For me this is one of the most striking and impressive sections in the book: even Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which we are told contains “everything”, can barely be bothered with the personalities of more than three or four of the Kauravas; Duryodhana and Duhshasana are always the visible “frontmen” for a nebulous mass of brothers. But you bring those nameless, featureless siblings alive, awaken the reader to the multiple possibilities in them: how one of them may have been a special friend to one of the Pandavas, how another may have been gay, another agnostic. How hard was this poem to pull off, in terms of both structure and content?
I am so glad you noticed that poem: it is one of the quietest ones, there are no pyrotechnics here of emotion or event. Like you, I have always seen and heard the Kauravas described as a nameless, faceless collective (except for one or two, like Vikarna who remonstrates with Duhshasana at the vastraharan).

I could have followed the very probable theory that hundred was a later addition made specifically to underscore the greatness of their adversaries, the five Pandavas, and that the Kauravas were also just a handful in number. However, from a theatrical perspective, a hundred has such heft and scope! Nonetheless, a hundred people should not, as Dusshala says, be

“Reduced to a number, a clan name.
That cannot be. They must be remembered. Mourned. Reclaimed.”

The hardest part of that poem was finding their names – in almost all the reference material I read, there were discrepancies, and repetitions in all. Finally, I retained the names as I found them, and one of the couplets even refers to the repetition. The choice of form came naturally – I’ve used the landay, a Pashtun form of oral poetry whose roots seem to reach back across millennia. It is a form used for mourning, persiflage, erotic banter; highly versatile, I find. It consists of couplets (often rhyming) contained within 22 syllables, 9 in the first line and 13 in the second.

It seemed important to evoke qualities and characteristics familiar to a sibling; someone who loved them but would have been less sentimental about their desires and whims, their annoying as well as endearing traits; someone also who would remember specific events in their lives. By the time they died, they could not have remained ciphers: they must have been lovers, husbands, fathers, practised a craft or vocation, travelled… if not as prolifically as the Pandavas, at least a good deal. Conjuring these up was not difficult; I was intent not to eulogise, nor to demonise, on portraying them as a motley bunch.

One of my favourite narrators in the book isn't human at all. Tell us about Shunaka the sardonic dog and what purpose she served for you as a writer.
Each time I saw or read the Mahabharata – or one of its numberless retellings – the casual, almost unthinking cruelty to animals struck me with renewed vigour. I mean, there is the burning of the Khandava forest, of course, where Krishna encourages Arjuna to kill every living being, whether Naga or suckling fawn or nestling. Then Janamejaya's attempt to wipe out the entire serpent species to avenge his father's murder by Takshaka. There is the dog whose mouth is gagged with arrows by Ekalavya. There are all sorts of animals merrily killed in pursuit of fun and ritual. Apart from Yuddhishtira's loyalty to dharma-disguised-as-dog in the Mahaprasthanika Parva, the outlook is pretty bleak for animals on the whole.

I wanted a rather dispassionate inventory of all this damage by a non-human narrator. And having grown up around dogs all through childhood and early adulthood, it was more natural to channel a canine voice. My parents have two dogs – Shwanan and Shuni – one generally quite superior and distrustful of most humans and the other, effusive enough to knock you off your feet. So I imagined a conversation between the two, but called the narrator Shunaka and the naïve “sister”, Shyama (which is the name of one of the mythological dog Sarama's children). But the direct literary ancestor of Shunaka is Ugh. He's got to be my all-time favourite narrator: the utterly unflappable and majestic canine protagonist of the opening poem of Arun Kolatkar's The Kala Ghoda Poems. He puts most human heroes to shame with his assurance and debonairness.