Aditya Iyengar’s debut novel The Thirteenth Day dealt with one of the Mahabharata’s most dramatic episodes – the death of Abhimanyu – but treated it in a deglamorised, largely unsentimental way. His just-published sequel, A Broken Sun, continues the Kurukshetra-war trilogy and is told in a range of voices, including those of the grieving Arjuna, the introspective Yudhisthira and the tribal prince Ghatotkacha, unclear about what he is even doing in this war.
Iyengar demythologises familiar stories (Arjuna’s vow to kill Jayadratha is depicted as a public relations strategy retrospectively engineered by Krishna) while capturing something comically human and relatable about them: senior warriors in the Pandava camp squabble like petulant children during a conference; after a battle has briefly been interrupted, warriors look hesitantly at each other, wondering whether to resume fighting as if nothing had happened. The practical aspects of surviving a messy, chaotic war are dealt with, as are questions of masculinity and heroism.
Iyengar isn’t limiting himself to the Mahabharata, though; in a short but prolific novelistic career, he has had two other books published and is simultaneously working on other projects. He spoke to Scroll.in about A Broken Sun and his other works. Excerpts from the interview:
A notable thing about your two Mahabharata books is that there doesn’t seem to be a political or ideological agenda – you’re focussed on telling a bare-bones story about fighting and strategising, through the eyes of different people. There is little moralising, no dwelling on dharma or adharma, and you have removed the narrative’s supernatural elements. What has your relationship with the epic been like, and what approach did you try to bring to it as a writer?
I believe I belong to perhaps the first generation of novelists which was introduced to the Mahabharata on screen first, rather than through literature. I must have been four or five years old when I saw the TV show on Doordarshan, so I suppose the first version I was ever exposed to was Rahi Masoom Reza’s brilliant screen version. Over the years, of course, I read CR Rajagopalachari’s, Kamala Subramaniam’s, and RK Narayan’s versions among others.
And while I’m sure the debates on dharma have in some way shaped my understanding of the world, I’ve always loved the more surface attractions of the Mahabharata. Details like the old warrior Bhagadatta having to tie a piece of cloth around his forehead so that the wrinkles don’t fall over his eyes; or Bhima being able to eat all the food of the world but deciding not to, and earning the name Vrikodara for the slimness of his waist. It tapped a childlike sense of wonder within me.
As a writer, I wanted to tell a different kind of story, one that spoke about the nature of masculinity. I took out the supernatural details so that the reader could focus more on the internal conflicts of the characters rather than the “coolness” of the weapons. I wanted to bring out the horror of the war and the sheer nightmare of having to kill your own family, which I feel gets lost in some modern retellings. In the translation of the Mahabharata I’ve read (KM Ganguli’s fine version) the descriptions of war are very stylised. Arrows are described as rays of sunlight, the bloody wound of a warrior is described as a flower in bloom. I wanted to take away the veneer of glory from this violence.
And I never really wanted to do a straight retelling: what’s the fun in that? There are so many writers who’ve done it better than I ever could. I was actually inspired by Balzac. Or more specifically, Patrick Rambaud, who was inspired by Balzac. He’s a French author who wrote a trilogy about the Napoleonic wars. Balzac, it seemed, wanted to write a book on war where a reader would feel himself present in it. He never completed the work, but Rambaud was sufficiently enthused by the concept to create his own trilogy about Napoleonic battles.
I wanted to try something similar, where the setting of the battleground would be a place where a reader can truly see a character’s personality. It is a place of intense emotion, anger, and stress; and I felt that as a setting, it acted as a catalyst for the actions of the characters. The humour is a consequence of the absurdity of it all – of having to fight in circumstances like these, alongside people you normally would not agree with.
You have narrators as disparate as Bheema’s son Ghatotkacha (usually described as a “rakshasa” in the mainstream Mahabharata tellings, here presented as a tribal chief) and Duryodhana’s brother Duhshasana (here given the more benevolent name Sushasana). How does the multiple-narrator technique aid you as a writer?
The multiple-narrator technique was filched from Colleen McCullough’s stunning retelling of the Iliad – The Song of Troy. I’m more comfortable writing in the first person than the third person, and also I felt it would be more interesting as a writer to try different narrators – especially lesser known ones from the epic. I wish I could say there was some grand thematic reason for using different voices, but I’ll stick to the truth: I got greedy, and wanted to get in the heads of all these people.
You seem particularly interested in the mundane aspects of fighting a large-scale war: the accumulation of gore and grime, the need for interpreters for warriors from other regions (and the practical question of how to communicate when an interpreter is killed mid-battle). What war literature has influenced your work?
I’m a huge fan of historical fiction and war literature in particular. “Fan” is probably understating it. I’m more a history nerd than anything, and I’ve read historical fiction and non-fiction about everyone from the ancient Egyptians and Hittites and the Greeks; all the way down to Edo era literature, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and the World Wars.
Since this is a “gritty” retelling, I thought it would be interesting to see the Mahabharata in granular detail, with all the thumb tacks visible. Interestingly enough, the original text has enough of these details from different kinds of arrows to the effects of different astras. However, most retellings avoid these details to focus on the higher-level messaging, which, I feel, takes away from the fun of the story.
For me, the practical stuff (most of which I had to re-imagine to fit my narrative) is really the most interesting part of it, since these details make the war more relatable to readers. How do you communicate when you suddenly can’t understand what the soldier next to you is saying? And how do you keep your balance when the mud is slippery under your sandal? And does a battlefield full of corpses impede a chariot’s path?
At the heart of it, the Mahabharata is just such a great story. An eighteen-day war. A thirteen-year-long exile. An attempted rape. An abandoned child. Murder, arson, subterfuge, humiliation, revenge, and the great human truth – nothing is permanent, everyone’s time will come. While I love the philosophy it expounds, I do wish more people would just stand back and be amazed at the quality of imagination in the epic.
The earlier book, The Thirteenth Day, was largely about the death of Abhimanyu. In this follow-up, the voice that is most soaked with sorrow and introspection is that of Arjuna, who addresses his narrative to his dead son. It is also the only voice that is in the present tense. Was there a specific reason for that? Did you want to convey a dazed, stream-of-consciousness effect that would be notably different from the other voices?
Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t sure how to write that kind of grief effectively so I used as many literary devices as I could to multiply that emotion. So the present tense is used to add urgency to the situation. I wanted to create an effective stream-of-consciousness but with an element of surrealness. Arjuna is present in the moment, but is doing as he is told rather than taking his own decisions. He is almost an observer – an outsider or bystander – to his own life, and he needs to be one in order to deal with the grief and keep it at a distance.
Different notions about masculinity and heroism run through the voices in these two books – from the chest-thumping warrior (Abhimanyu) to the more unsure, less battle-suited narrator (Yudhisthira) to someone who admits to losing control over his bowels on the battlefield (Sushasana). Since you focus much more on the men and their interior struggles than on the women, these books might seem to be “macho” – but on another level, they are constantly undercutting our ideas about what a man “should be”. Is this something you intended?
I did want the novels to be about the interior lives of men, since I haven’t read too many novels that actually bring out the insecurities of men effectively. Cinema does it better. Take for example the works of Scorsese or Bertolucci, who have influenced my reading of male insecurity heavily, or Bicycle Thieves, which inspired Ray and Scorsese and perhaps most filmmakers in the world. It is, at its heart, a story of male insecurity.
Closer home, one grew up seeing the work of Yash Chopra, Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and so many others and that certainly shaped one’s view of how a man should be or what notions he must have. Mr Chopra’s depiction of Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Kaala Patthar as a man who is struggling with his own perceived cowardice is exquisite. And not all these depictions are so serious; take Utpal Dutt’s character in Golmaal.
I feel that this generation, ie, born post 1979 at least, has learned more about what it is to be a man through cinema, which is more raw and visceral than novels. Perhaps we had more access to cinema than previous generations and began preferring them to novels for entertainment. Or perhaps this is my shortcoming as a reader rather than the non-existence of such novels.
But what is the Bicycle Thieves / Goodfellas/ Raging Bull / Jalsaghar / Golmaal equivalent in literature? Are there any novels that really bring out men at their vulnerable worst, without making villains of them, instead trying to evoke sympathy for their complete helplessness in the face of the rigid requirements of society? The closest answer I have is Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold. Maybe JM Coetzee’s Disgrace too.
As a man, I can talk about my own problems with the idea of masculinity though it has taken me time to articulate it. A big part of being a man is posturing, being macho as you’ve said, but go behind the scenes and look at his innermost thoughts, and you realise that every man is essentially petrified of losing control over his circumstances. Some are able to mask it, others take it out on those vulnerable next to them either by bossing them around and showing they are in control or being violent or mean to them. I wanted to create a novel about men dealing with society’s ideas of manhood, and how these characters are trying to live up to them – or not, in some cases.
For a long time I wasn’t sure whether I had adequate insight into the interior lives of women to be able to attempt a novel about women. Thankfully, something went off in my head last year, and I was able to write my upcoming novel, Bhumika. I’m still not sure if I’ve succeeded in understanding other men or women (I come from the space that I can truly only attempt to understand myself as an individual), but one can only try.
Closely tied to the masculinity theme is the relationship between fathers and sons – and how fathers very often don’t know how to deal with their sons as they grow away from them, or become extensions of them. You explore this through the Arjuna-Abhimanyu, Bheema-Ghatotkacha and Yudhisthira-Prativindhya relationships, among others.
The Mahabharata is essentially a story of parents and parent figures and how they eventually move further from their children. It is, like all great sprawling works of literature, about the generation gap, though no one is ever going to put it that way. I’m very fascinated by the idea of what qualifies as “masculine” and how it is almost completely linked with the idea of domination. To be masculine, one needs to be in control. But what happens when one can’t control what is happening? Does one become less of a man if he can’t impose his will on a situation? And what happens when one is put in a situation of chaos, and has to accommodate other people’s wills? These were questions I wanted to explore in this trilogy.
Interestingly, some readers have complained that Yudhisthira is a “wuss” and a coward in my interpretation since he is not a great fighter like his brothers and hates having to live in their shadow. On the contrary, for me, he is the only man who is trying to see the war as the horrible situation that it is rather than a logical extension of a man’s masculinity. In a sense, it’s a little like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon writing about the First World War.
A cynical question: over the past few years, mythological retellings have become a cottage industry within Indian publishing. I think your books are strikingly good additions to modern Mahabharata literature, but as an author do you feel it is risky to work in this field, because of the dangers of saturation? Do marketing teams, bookstore owners and browsing customers find it hard to distinguish between one “epic” novel and another?
It is risky if you are planning to stick only to one genre, and also if you view your writing career as a progression within a single, defined genre – like, say, Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden, who only write historical fiction. There is a real problem of making your work stand out. Franchise bookstores, which have obvious advantages of distribution over independent book stores, are becoming less about books these days, and Amazon’s algorithm may not always benefit the sales of your work.
There is also very little to differentiate one mythological fiction writer from another in terms of story since, let’s face it, everyone knows what’s going to happen at the end of the Mahabharata / Ramayana / any other epic anyway. Social media and marketing can only go so far in convincing potential readers to buy the book. Still one feels that one’s style and perspective set one apart, and I guess that’s the reason most myth writers try their hand at it, though as you’ve said, it may not be enough of a differentiator in the market.
Is there a solution? The only one I can tell is to create a culture of book appreciation and reviewing that creates a canon of sorts. Perhaps Indian myth fiction writing in English is too nascent a genre. Maybe, over time, there will be strong literary standards that writers and readers will have to guide them.
Also, writing episodic or character-driven novels about the epic is a more recent phenomenon within the genre. More writers are picking and choosing the stories they want to tell from the epics. There is no compulsion to tell the epic from start to finish like there used to be before. Perhaps that has set us all free?
Apart from this war trilogy, you have begun work on a series about the Chola dynasty, and have also written The Palace of Assassins, an original plot centred on another Mahabharata character, Ashwatthama. What is your writing discipline like, and how do you balance the writing with your day job?
I began my career as a copywriter in advertising. As a consequence, I have now been conditioned to work within short and nearly unrealistic deadlines. I guess that accounts for the prolificity. I set myself very hard deadlines and keep to them mostly. When I write, I work every morning from around 6 to 8 AM, before going to the office. Most of my writing happens over weekends, where I work from the morning till around five in the evening. It sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is though. In many ways, I’m also fortunate to live, and to have lived in situations where I can devote myself to writing without having too many other real responsibilities that can take up my time. More than discipline, I suppose circumstances maketh the writer.
Tell us something about your plans for those other books – the Chola series, for example. Also, do you see yourself writing a story with a contemporary setting at some point? Or do history and mythology have enough to occupy you?
I’m a fan of many genres of literature. It is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because one wants to attempt as many genres as possible. My novel Palace of Assassins, which was released last year is actually the first part of a planned octet where Ashwatthama goes across the world over several centuries seeking the Syamantaka gem that only materialises during times of war. The Syamantaka can finally rid him of his curse and allow him to die. It can also rid him of Krishna, who is present as a voice in his head till the end of time – or till Ashwatthama ends his own life. It’s a mad quest series with Ashwatthama and Krishna that (if I can pull it off) melds various genres – historical fiction, picaresque adventure, gothic horror, etc. But it’s still a work in progress. The next part has Ashwatthama in the Trojan war, but I’ve still not begun writing it.
The Conqueror is my first foray into historical fiction, which is perhaps my favourite genre as a reader. It deals with Rajendra Chola’s conquest of Indonesia. I’m trying to follow it up with two other novels of historical fiction, but I’m still in the middle of researching these books. My next novel, due next year, is called Bhumika, and is inspired by liberal interpretations of the Ramayana by Volga and others. In my novel, the sage Vishwamitra shows Sita how her life may have been if she had never met Rama.
So I guess I do instinctively gravitate towards myth and history but I am trying contemporary novels too. I’m fascinated by the Indian bureaucracy, and I’m trying to write a novel about modern-day bureaucrats. I feel there is something about mundane, boring office spaces that could potentially – like war – bring out the worst and most interesting aspects of us.