Just about two years after Aditya Iyengar made a noticeable splash on the Indian mythological fiction scene with The Thirteenth Day, the sequel, A Broken Sun, is here. The first instalment broke new ground as a Spartan retelling of the Mahabharata, stripped of the supernatural elements. Perhaps the thinking reader is tired of inflated tales of leaders, streaming from the mouths of modern media bards and needs its heroes to be understated and honest, if a little flawed.

A deadly beginning

That Iyengar starts his retelling in the thick of the great Mahabharata war is his first mark of distinction. Almost all renditions thus far have felt obliged to start from the beginning, laying thick the foundations of the epic, which culminate in the war. Iyengar audaciously begins his first book after Bhishma – arguably one of the most important characters – is felled. Likewise, the second book, The Broken Sun, starts after the death of a pivotal character – Abhimanyu.

We meet Arjuna in a state of grief, shock and denial, still having imaginary conversations with his dead son. The author draws the reader right in with Arjuna’s vulnerability, and keeps her hooked with his attractively austere voice.

Voices in the wings

As in the first book, Iyenger entrusts his narrative to less-than-central characters, such as Yudhishthira, Sushasana (aka Dushasana), Ghatotkacha, and Radheya (aka Karna). Voices such as Krishna’s, Arjuna’s, Kunti’s, Suyodhana’s (aka Duryodhana) and Dhritarashtra’s – the ones we are most accustomed to – remain either largely in the background or completely silent. The author’s ‘protagonists’ are, therefore, not heroes; but they aren’t underdogs either. These are men of flesh and failings – their heroism often reluctant or accidental.

Yudhishthira is full of self-doubt. Ghatotkacha, who is certainly not a giant rakshasa, is eager to impress everyone. Sushasana is fully aware of his unimportance. And Radheya is sometimes bristling with resentment, but mostly coolly detached. These are our main men. A sprinkling of eccentric characters like the strict Sanjaya or the flamboyant Satyaki keeps the mix interesting.

The Great War is (and I say “is”, because when has any war truly ended?) a culmination of the aspirations, disappointments and even indifferences of many a mind. The author deftly assumes and alternates between this bunch of internal voices, each as valid as the other. There is no room for judgement because we are all justified in thinking what we think and doing what we do. And because he chooses to tell the story from both sides, he is able to sidestep the matter of morals – the mainstay of literature in the “mythicoreligious” realm.

“True Grit”

What replaces morality is truth and grit. And shit – in a way only real life can be. As Iyengar’s Sushasana says, “All warriors shit before battle. The ones who don’t are lying. I felt a warm river snake its way down my leg and felt its wet warmth mingle with the rough leather of my sandals. Then, my bowels released their load onto the seat of my dhoti, following the same route the river had taken.” Later, we are told, he flings his soiled dhoti on an enemy soldier’s face to distract, attack and escape, but also for the kicks.

The battlefield, then, is not just a place of shiny armour, mighty warriors, fiery contests, and glorious victory, as BR Chopra had us believe in the late ’80s. It is also as much, if not more, a place of ignominy, loss and grief and even nonchalant boredom. In the hurling of javelins, the riding of chariots or simply, the killing of a man, the author’s descriptions of war are vivid without being dramatic. It is all in a day’s work for a warrior, as it were.

Deconstructing mythology

Iyengar’s Mahabharata is set around 1000 BC, corresponding to the Iron Age of India, and is naturally a world where neither gilded palaces nor satin garments existed. Nor did test tube babies. The author interprets the hundred Kaurava princes as a result of Dhritarashtra’s royal wild oats rather than Gandhari’s disintegrating and multiplying foetus. Her blindfold too, according to the author, was more to look away from her husband’s wayward ways rather than sharing his fate.

Ghatotkacha’s death too is downplayed by Iyengar, who makes it simply a case of succumbing to battle injuries. No crushing of hundreds of Kaurava soldiers under him here!

Similarly, Krishna’s intervention at the vastraharan was just that. In Iyengar’s view, Krishna was the only one who stepped up and broke the spell of drunken madness that ensued after the dice game between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Yadava king stopped Sushasana when he placed his arm on Draupadi’s garment.

But Iyengar most gleefully takes apart the myth that gives this book its name – The Broken Sun. According to the popular version, Arjuna takes a vow of killing Jayadrata – one of the main culprits behind Abhimanyu’s death – within 24 hours. At the end of the fourteenth day, as the sun seemingly sets, a smug Jayadrata appears before Arjuna, challenging him to kill himself instead, because he hasn’t succeeded in fulfilling his vow. Krishna eggs Arjuna on to kill Jayadrata because the sun hasn’t really set – his Sudarshan Chakra has temporarily blocked out the light, making it seem like sunset. Arjuna complies and Jayadrata is killed. The sun reappears for a few moments before finally setting. For the record, Arjuna has fought fair, albeit with a little help from his sakha.

But the author simply explains this episode away as an eclipse. To add insult to injury, he “accuses” Krishna of drumming up opportunistic propaganda about the wrath of the gods to strike fear into the heart of the enemy army, and then lets the rumour mill do its job. But then, Iyengar’s Krishna is no righteous god. He is a shrewd leader, and we are only too familiar with the power of fake news in the games of power.

Solid, stolid, subtle

Even with all this demystification, Iyengar’s rendition of the epic never loses steam. Even when his characters speak in the plainest, most contemporary manner, they never sound frivolous or out of context. It is hard to go wrong when there are earnest voices in a powerful story.

But, more than earnestness, Iyengar’s gift is that of restraint. One is continually amazed by his controlled writing. In a setting as physically and emotionally daunting as war, the writer has the reins of drama firmly in hand. He delivers details with quiet implications. But that’s not to say his book is without moments of churn. The images of Arjuna as a grieving father, or that of Drishtadyumna lopping off and swinging Drona’s head lustily don’t leave the mind very easily.

Iyengar is a gifted writer, and there is much to take away from The Broken Sun. It is a fine specimen of relatable mythological fiction writing with many elegant messages for those who care to find them. But the most important takeaway is one poignant truth about war in our hostile times. In one tired moment, Yudhishthira’s character says, “I felt a great weariness come over me when I thought how I had gotten my son into such a war over this kingdom. But it wasn’t really about a kingdom anymore. It was about a principle. Why should the Kauravas take what was ours and bully us into relinquishing our right to it? It wasn’t making sense anymore. Even to myself.”

The futility of fighting is not lost on anyone – not even the one who fights the hardest for its spoils.

A Broken Sun, Aditya Iyengar, Rupa Publications.