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In Tharoors Indo-nostalgic allegorical design, Indian democracy represented in the person of Draupadi, has a mixed parentage. She is the product of an illicit union of Nehru and Edwina, which signifies that India came into being because of their unholy alliance. Through her marriage to Arjun, Draupadi is shared by his other brothers who personify "The hopes and the limitations of each of the national institutions they served." (p. 319) During Nehru's tenure, her health remained stable, but started deteriorating after his death, especially during the time of Mrs. Gandhi. The narrative records how after the short spell of Shishu Pal's tenure in office, the elders chose Mrs. Gandhi to lead the party, mainly because they thought her pliable.
Nehru's Fabian ideals of industrialisation and modernisation are explained with slums, lack of electricity, drinking water, education and employment. Tharoor makes a satirical pun on the ministry of External Affairs by calling it the ministry of Eternal Affairs. The transactions that can be made in days go on for weeks and even longer, it means it goes eternally. They are expert at losing important and urgent documents. The author makes an enigmatic remark on Nehru's firm belief in parliamentary democracy:
â€¦for all Dhritarashtra sins and limitations that was one conviction he never betrayed even though or perhaps because he let no one else come near to being prime minister, he constantly reaffirmed and encouraged the institution of parliamentary democracy in the country.(p.370)
The portrait of Nehru presented in the novel is not at all a flattering one. It seems to balance account of Nehru's role in the country's politics given by official hagiographers of the Congress Party and government. The basic idea of his role is derived from that of blind Dhritarashtra. This metaphorical blindness, together with his immense ego and cryptic ambition, made him an appropriate Indo-nostalgic prototype of Dhritarashtra. The narrative clearly suggests that he gained significance in the party hierarchy because of Gandhi's blessings. The novel chronicles how, as the country's first prime minister, he bungled the Kashmir issue and evinced his lack of foresight by unilaterally taking it to the United Nations. Tharoor traces his mistakes to his shortsightedness:
Dhritarashtra was guilty only of the insincerity of the blind. (p. 295)
The only credit Tharoor gives to India's first prime minister is that he was, despite his limitations and drawbacks, a true Indian democrat.
Indo-nostalgia through the Image of Indira Gandhi:
Shashi Tharoor transcripts the hundred Kauravas as one girl called Priya Duryodhani, who is none other than Indira Gandhi and attributes the vices of all the Kauravas to her to expose Indo-nostalgia. The only daughter of her father is considered equivalent to hundred sons. However, Tharoor prepares the readers for a negative portrait of Mrs. Gandhi through a piece of well-conceived anticipation, in which he uses animal imagery to suggest the brutality and oppression of her times.
[her birth-cry] is a rare, sharp, high-pitched cry like that of a donkey in heat and as it echoed around the horse a sound started up outside as if in response, a weird, animal moan, and then the sounds grew, as donkeys brayed in the distance, mares neighed in their pens, jackals howled in the forests and through the cacophony we heard the beatings of wings at the windows, the caw-caw-cawing of a cackle of crows and penetrating through the shadows, the piercing shriek of the hooded vultures circling above the palace of Hastinapur. (p. 73)
After the unnatural death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the congress party was in an uproar over the choice of a leader. The name of Indira Gandhi (Priya Duryodhani), who had been the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in her father's cabinet, is proposed and given the support of the most of the party men. Thus, Indira Gandhi (Priya Duryodhani) takes up the tiller of the board of Indian democracy and the Indians get their first woman Prime Minister, a bud of the Nehru clan. During her first year in office:
Priya Duryodhani seemed far more conscious of what she did not know than of what she could find out. (p. 339)
Yudhishtir, the son of dharma goes through a severe test. He mounts up a chariot in order to travel to the court of history. Tharoor's contrasting pictures of Priya Duryodhani are original and highly representative of the contemporary history. Yudhishtir is shocked to find his late tormentor seated on a golden throne. He stammers, "This tyrant, this destroyer of people and institutions, this persecutor of truth and democracy seat like this on a golden throne?" (p. 416) Dharma's reply is not void of truth:
History's judgments are not so easily made my son, to some Duryodhani is revered figure, a savior of India, a Joan of Arc burned at the democratic stake by the ignorant and prejudiced. Abandon your old bitterness here, Yudhishtir. There are no enmities at history's court. (p.416)
At first, Mrs. Gandhi tried to entrench herself by carrying out a series of populist measures, such as the eradication of private purses and the nationalisation of the banks, which made hardly any difference to the people of the nation in general. Later she promoted the culture of slogans, replacing policies. Tharoor blames the left and progressive forces in the country, including recognized political parties, for being taken in by her rhetoric and bluster. In her own party, she reduced even cabinet ministers into non-entities. Her return to power made her more dominant and dictatorial in her style of functioning
â€¦more and more laws went on to the statute books empowering Priya Duryodhani to prohibit, profane, prolate, prosecute or prostitute all the freedoms the national movement had brought to attain during all those years of my Kaurava life. (p.357)
She declared a state of emergency in the country, which proved the most unfortunate part of her tenure. It is interesting as well as significant that the emergency in the country has been considered by the Indian English novelists as the most traumatic event of post-independence India. Nayantara Sahgal devotes a whole literary endeavour to dramatise its effects on the general ethos of the country. In Rushdie, it becomes the focal point of the degradation in the political and secular character of the country, which leads him to postulate two different kinds of India's past. In Tharoor's version, it is a part of the deteriorating democratic culture of the country because of which the blame on Mrs. Gandhi is not as pronounced as in the other two. Tharoor understands the emergency in its very immediate context, when it was declared by Mrs. Gandhi. He is critical to her decision but at the same time also blames the people whose attacks pushed her into taking the extreme step, especially Jayprakash Narayan, who had launched a full scale movement against her. Though he concedes that areas and censorship and other repressive measures taken by her were 'primarily cynical and self-serving' he adds that:
I still believed that the political chaos in the country fuelled by Drona's idealistic but confused uprising which a variety of political opportunities had joined and exploited, could have lead the country nowhere but to anarchy.(p.369)
His skepticism about the worth of the people who combined against her is reflected in the comment on their coming to power:
The Indian people gave themselves the privilege of replacing a determined, collected tyrant with an indeterminate collection of tyros. (p. 402)
Tharoor's views on the emergency and the people who fought against Mrs. Gandhi also stem from his estimate of Jayprakash Narayan. The narrative gives him his due by documenting in detail how he was far away from the taint of power and made strenuous efforts for raising the consciousness of the people by educating them about their rights and duties. He provided moral support to protect the pillars of Indian democracy, but his complicated thinking proved his undoing. Despite of the praise showered on him after his death, in which he was compared with Gandhi, Tharoor makes a mixed comment embarking his Indo-nostalgia:
â€¦he was a flawed Mahaguru, a man whose goodness was not balanced by the shrewdness of the original. He had stood above his peers, a secular saint whose commitment to truth and justice was beyond question. But though his loyalty to the ideals of a democratic and egalitarian India could not be challenged, Drona's abhorrence of power had him unfit to wield it. He had offered inspiration but not involvement, charisma but not change, hope but no harness. Having abandoned politics when he seemed the likely heir-apparent to Dhritarashtra, he tried to stay above it all after the fall of wrought fall into the hands of lesser men who were unworthy of his ideals. (p. 409)
With the coming to power of Mrs. Gandhi, the narrative brings to an end the story of India's political vicissitudes. Tharoor's disillusionment with the country's declining political culture, its institutional structures, such as the press, bureaucracy and party system have not done much in promoting any meaningful change in the country. He makes us believe that the Indian people in general have perfected the art of living with what they get, strengthening in them their vestiges of fatalism. He visualises a bleak future for the country. This partially explains why people have become obsessive about their past. For some it is a source of power; for others a comfortable retreat.
Moreover, Tharoor shows how Mrs. Gandhi valued people more than the parliament. Being inherited the British political tradition; she learned the supremacy of the people to the parliament. Tharoor professes how the stability of power relations was maintained by Mrs. Gandhi:
It is not parliament that is supreme, but the people: the importance of parliament arises simply from the fact that it embodies the supremacy of the people. Duryodhani did not understand that there is no magic about parliament in and of itself, and that it only matters as an institution so long as it represents the popular will. The moment that connection is removed, parliament had no significance as a democratic institution. (p.384)
It shows Mrs. Indira Gandhi's commitment towards the people, rather than the power as the chief characteristic of her democracy. Though the narrative delineates her lonely and neglected childhood spent by the bedside of her perennially sick mother, she is cast into the role of female Duryodhan - Priya Duryodhani: an ironic combination of Indira Priyadarshini and Duryodhan. It is because of her egotism, selfishness, scheming nature, intolerance and undemocratic instinct to eliminate her political rivals, she is conceived of as a modern counterpart of Dhritarashtra's eldest child. The narrative shows how, after being elected as the Prime Minister following Lal Bahadur Shastri's death, she tried to entrench herself by implementing, with the help of the left and progressive parties in the Parliament which were duped by her socialist rhetoric and lip-service to the poor and the downtrodden, a series of populist measures like bank nationalisation that proved ultimately detrimental to the country's economics. She systematically undermined all democratic institutions in the country and promoted the culture of empty slogans. The novel depicts how she 'smashed all the pillars and foundations of the world's oldest anti-colonial political organization.'(p.351) The political totalitarianism under Indira's rule is subjected to a mocking scrutiny in the narrative:
Her speech writer's peppered her rhetoric with dutiful obeisance to the wretched of the Indian earth, she proclaimed her democratic pedigree and socialist convictions from every lectern and platform - and she acquired more and more power in their name â€¦ (p.357)
Indo-nostalgia through the portraiture of Gandhi and his Ideals:
Gandhian ideas and ideals continued to dominate the Indian English novelists even beyond the 40's of the century. In Kamala Markandaya's Nector in the Sieve, and A Handful of Rice we see the Gandhian concern for the lowly and the lost. In Nayantara Sahgal, Gandhian values are more omnipresent and less overt. A Time to be Happy embodies India's bright eyed optimism after independence. Manohar Mangaonkar's A Bend in the Ganges paradoxically exhibits Gandhi, an upholder of the Hindu-Muslim unity, an advocate of non-violence, an inspiration behind the partition of India. Chaman Nahal in Azadi explores the meaning of India's independence accompanied by the tragedy of partition. He shows Gandhi as an architect of freedom and as a martyr of communal harmony. In the Crown and The Lion Cloth Nahal fictionalises the life of Gandhi from 1915 to 1922. Gandhi appears as a character in Anand's The Sword and the Sickle and Untouchable, R. K. Narayan's Waiting for The Mahatma, K. A. Abbas's Inquilab, K. S. Venkat Ramani's Kundan The Patriot. These novels in the epic demarcation of the first phase of the Indian freedom movement under the magnetic leadership of the lion-clothed Gandhi shook the century-old pillars of British rule in India.
One may ask what was it in Gandhian philosophy that left so abiding an impression on Indian English novelists. Gandhian ideology lent these novels a frame of reference. It linked them to the roots of Indian culture. It created in them a social awareness and helped them to interpret the social reality creatively and indiscriminately. It made them look at man as a social animal, an individual with his responses and reactions. It sent them searching for a national identity. It enabled them to share their intellectual journey through modern and Western ideas back to the reinterpretation and renewal of rich Indian tradition. His philosophy and ideals not only recharged the political life of India but also reoriented Indian literary values.
Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel explores a parody on both the Mahabharata and contemporary Indian society. The chief characters of the Mahabharata are parodied in the contemporary Indian society. Tharoor has used a prototype of Gandhi and his ideals to validate Indo-nostalgia through his fiction. Tharoor's version of the historical account begins roughly from the time when Gandhi entered into politics till the time Mrs. Indira Gandhi is returned to power after the fall of Janata government. Gandhi is represented through Bhishma, also termed as Ganga Datta. (Gangaji) The novel gives greater significance to the character of Gandhi. The novel presents a solid and rounded portrait of the father of the nation. The narrative depicts the unique manner in which Gandhi mobilises the Indian masses to fight against colonialism by perfecting the master weapons of non-violence, civil disobedience and truth. It records how he used the weapon of 'fasting' not only as a means of bringing his principles to life but also as a potent power to resist injustice.
In fasting, in directing the strength of his convictions against himself, Gangaji taught us to resist injustice with arms that no one could take away from us. Gangaji's use of the fast made our very weakness a weapon. It captured the imagination of India in way that no speech, no prayer, no bomb had ever done.
Gandhiji not only widened the mass base of the congress party by bringing common men and women into the mainstream of the freedom movement but also gave a novel direction to Indian nationalism. Tharoor takes cognizance of his infinite fads like toilet cleaning, celibacy and love for the cows. It holds Gandhi responsible for Jinah's dissatisfaction with the congress.
Karna was not much of a Muslim but he found Gangaji too much of Hindu. (p. 142)
In Tharoor's novel, it is the figure of Gandhi (Gangaji) with whom the mythic setting of the novel starts off and gradually the novel gets "populated by contemporary characters transported incongruously through time to their mythological setting."(p.355) He works out the idea of the eternal present in an ingenious manner. Despite of using two distinct time frames one for the epic and other for the modern, he combines them into a single one presenting characters, events and situations relating to the Mahabharata simultaneous with the present. The depiction of Ganga Dutta going to the forest with his guests to meet the head fisherman and ask the hand of Satyavati for Shantanu serves as the best instance:
Ganga Datta didn't travel alone either. In later years he would be accompanied by non-violent army of Satyagrahis, so that the third class train carriages he always insisted on travelling were filled with elegantly sacrificing elite of his followersâ€¦but on this occasion it was a band of ministers and courtiers he took with him to see Satyavati's father. (p.23)
Gandhi is celebrated for awakening public awareness against the British by perfecting the system of non-violence struggle against their unfair exercise of power. As an excellent instance of Gandhi's triumph, the novel documents his magnetism in Motihari; where he forced the British to see his point of view. The rareness and competence of his concept of truth which entails taking punishment willingly for the strength of one's convictions is methodically approved:
Truth was his cardinal principle, the standard by which he tested every action and utterance. No dictionary imbues the word with the depth of meaning Gangaji gave it. His truth emerged from his convictions: it meant not only what was accurate but what was just and therefore right. Truth could not be obtained by 'untruthful' or unjust or violent means. (p. 48)
Gandhi's concept of non-violent struggle is praised not only for being worthy in itself, but also as a timely and effective method to fight against the British:
When sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both proved ineffective, Ganga took the issue of freedom to the people as one of simple right and wrongâ€¦law versus conscienceâ€¦and gave them a method to which the British had no response. (p.55)
The novel praises Gandhi's role in India's freedom struggle, pointing out in particular his honesty and steadfastness of his purpose. The narrative also emphasises that despite of sharpness in Gandhi's style of functioning, he was a master strategist. The people whom he made into a strong force were convinced that:
They were not led by a saint with his head in the clouds, but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground. (p. 122)
On account of the incomprehensible multiplicity of his reading the Manu, the Vedas, Tolstoy, Ruskin, the Bible and the Gita to name only a few - his dividing line between matters worldly and divine often becomes unclear.
His manner had grown increasingly other worldly while his conversational obligations remained entirely mundane and he would often startle his audiences with pronouncements which led them to wonder in which century he was living at any given moment. (p.26)
This aspect of Gandhi's thinking, in which he would lapse into the cycle of timelessness, has been severely censured by Mulk Raj Anand, for being inimical to changes which were necessary for shaking Indians out of their fatalistic moorings. Tharoor's narrative draws attention to its other serious implications. Because of his deep rooted grounding in the Hindu tradition, Gandhi consistently exploited Hindu symbols for exciting people against the British; this made the leaders of other communities conscious of the rising tide of Hindu influence to their identity. It is true that, at nowhere the narrative suggest that, Gandhi caused disaffection among the minorities, but it makes it amply clear that, it led to the alienation of political leaders like Jinnah. This eventually sharpened the sources of conflict between the Hindus and Muslims which led to the division of the country. Though a host of historians have expressed their uneasiness over this aspect of Gandhi's thinking and practice, it is striking to mention that, how Tharoor catches the disapproval of Jinnah for Gandhi:
The Mahaguru's traditional attire, his spiritualism, his spouting of the ancient texts, his ashram, his constant harking back to an idealised Pre-British past that Karna did not believe in â€¦all this made the young man mistrustful of the Great teacher â€¦and Gangaji's mass politics were, to Karna, based on an appeal to the wrong instincts; they embodied an atavism that in his view would never take the country forward. A Kaurava party of prayer-meetings and unselective eclecticism was not a party he would have cared to lead, let alone to remain a member of (p.142)
Jinnah's detestation of Gandhi's ways and philosophy is quite well known and has been widely documented. It is somewhat sarcastic that a person who fought all his life for Hindu-Muslim unity has to be made responsible for encouraging Muslim separatism, but this is evident in Tharoor's understanding of Gandhi and of several historians too.
Tharoor's narrative unequivocally criticises Gandhi for breaking his grip over the congress party around the time of India's independence, when it was needed most. He thinks that Gandhi was wrong in letting the question of partition be decided by his lieutenants. That is why; the scene of Gandhi's death in Tharoor's account is important where the mythic charge is at the strongest. He lets Gandhi's assassin Shikhandin (Nathuram Godase) criticise him for his recklessness of duty and also for neglecting the issue of leadership of the party. His words clearly declare him a failure.
You make me sick, Bhishma. Your life has been a waste, unproductive, barren. You are nothing but an impotent old walrus sucking other reptile's eggs, an infertile old fool â€¦ a man who is less than a woman. The tragedy of this country springs from youâ€¦
These harsh words cannot be dismissed as gimmickry and taken lightly. Tharoor reinforces their import by putting in the mouth of the dying leader. Despite of uttering "Hey Ram" Tharoor's Gandhi says: "Iâ€¦haveâ€¦failed." (p.234)
The novel chooses actual words of diverse world leaders and famous people who spoke on the time of his death. The narrator's comment suggests several causes for his death, in which both he and the people of the country are caught up. Its entire tone affirms that Gandhi died as a beaten and cynical man:
I will not ask whether Amba/Shikhadin was truly responsible for the Mahaguru's death or whether it was not India collectively that ended Gangaji's life by tearing itself apart. Nor will I ask you, Gangaji's life by tearing itself apart. Nor will I ask you Ganapathi, to reflect on whether Ganga Datta might in fact have been the victim of an overwhelming death-wish, a desire to end a life that he saw starkly as having served no purpose, a desire buried deep in the urge that led him, all those years earlier, to create and nurture his own execution. (p. 234)
Thus, The Great Indian Novel provides a concise and balanced portrait of Gangaji/Gandhi with a view to revive his Indo-nostalgic memory of the father of nation not only among the Indian readers but also around the world. He thinks that although Gandhi left behind a well-documented life, his countrymen have 'consigned him to the mists and myths of historical legend' so much so that he 'might as well have been a character from the Mahabharata' (p.47) The author believes that Indians have failed to relate the father of the nation to their lives not only because of the 'bastard educational institutions the British sired on us.' (Ibid.) but also because of the prevailing political culture of the country after independence in which the ruling elite promoted their own favourite politicians by pinning the ones they disliked to currency notes and concrete slabs. In this way, Gandhi was effaced from the sphere of moral and cultural influence. In a bitter tone, the narrator says:
Gangaji was the kind of person it is more convenient to forget â€¦while he was alive, he was impossible to ignore; once he had gone, he was impossible to imitate. (Ibid.)
Thus, throughout the novel, Gandhi matches his idealism with strong and practical commonsense. He acquires a status of Mahaguru and stands as an uncrowned king of thousands of throbbing hearts. His character is delineated with great care. Emphasasing his greatness, Tharoor's narrator says:
Ganga seemed to be holding the forces of nature in his hands, recalling the fertile strength of the Indian soil from which had sprung the Indian soul, reaffirming the fullness of the nation's past and the seed of the people's future. (p.123)
Indo-nostalgia through Allegorical Representation of History:
The allegorical representation of recent history through the epic narrative provides Tharoor with a number of advantages. The Mahabharata is a foundational text of Indian literature and an inextricable part of its living tradition. Any work of fiction that is modeled on it would be assured of a general acceptability and an interest among its readers.
Secondly, in spite of its mythological background, the epic has a considerable historical core and it embraces virtually all the vital aspects of human experience. This makes it an appropriate model for a fictional reconstruction of national history. The Mahabharata is also an imitable text for writing historical narrative which centers on such themes as power, politics, conspiracy, clash of personalities, institutional structures and individual as well as collective dharma. These thematic concerns are also to be found at the centre of Tharoor's reconstruction of modern Indian history through the retrospective of Indo-nostalgia.
Thirdly, the Mahabharata, which is generally attributed to Vyas, does not have any fixed text and is believed to have been re-written. The epic affords a good deal of flexibility and freedom to an author who intends to use it as a paradigm. Tharoor thus enjoys the freedom to write his own version of epic. Finally, the multifarious texture of the epic with its loose, episodic structure gave Tharoor another freedom, that of using a varied range of styles in his novel. He exploits this stylistic variety to great artistic effect. Shashi Tharoor, (Myth, History and Fiction, 1991:31) himself contends that:
The Great Indian Novel is a sprawling narrative which attempts to present the recent history of India in a parodic vein. My avowed purpose in this book is to "throw certain trends and issues into sharper relief than history makes possible."
To achieve this objective, he employs several literary forms of varied styles such as pun, wordplay, irony, sarcasm, light verse, jokes and humorous digressions. Through the deployment of stylistic diversity, Tharoor seeks to approximate another significant aspect of the epic which is highlighted by Shyamala Narayan (1990:35-44) in an essay "Verbal Pyrotechnics: a Note on The Great Indian Novel.":
The story of India, like that of Mahabharata, had to come across as a tale of many tellers, even if it is ascribed only to one.
What serves as the catalyst of the allegorical scheme in the novel is the idea that the battle of Kurukshetra, the paradigmatic struggle between good and evil, virtue and vice, dharma and adharma. As Ved Vyas, the modern prototype of the epic narrator asserts:
History is Kurukshetra.The struggle between dharma and adharma is a struggle of our nation and each of us in it engages in on every single day of our existence. That struggle, that battle took place before â€¦, it will continue. (p. 391)
According to Tharoor, the political history of twentieth century India closely resembles and can be properly understood only in relation to the events and the characters of the Mahabharta. The ancient epic provides for his novel the appropriate allegorical background to project the modern Indian situation. He uses the mythical narrative to foreground the continuity of the historical process from the remote past to the immediate present.
The battle of Kurukshetra is also an occasion for the restoration of values and the upholding of truth and dharma. The historic struggle for the Indian people for freedom from British rule was one such battle. Again, the issue of sharing the kingdom of Hastinapur pitted the Pandavas and the Kauravas against each other that resulted in the fratricidal battle. Similarly, the question of sharing the fruits of power determined the course of the country's post-independence history and ultimately led to the degeneration of democratic values and the declaration of emergency. The story of values like truth and dharma being deserted for selfish and insular ends and the consequent chaos in national life informs the text of both the Mahabharata and The Great Indian Novel.
Through a severe denunciation of the postcolonial Indian politics, the author seeks to arrive at binarism: the chaos versus the truth and dharma. The novel shows that contemporary India has been transformed into a 'muddle' by her self-serving and tunnel-visioned politicians, the modern prototypes of the ancient Kauravas, who destroyed the glorious tradition of the country represented by Bhishma in the epic and Gandhi in the recent past. It thus makes a daring and innovative use of the epic story for interpreting the historical process and uses the allegorical mode for making a trenchant criticism of the political history and personalities of the twentieth century.
What the The Great Indian Novel attempts to underscore is the continuity of the historical process. It demonstrates that even though the great epic warriors died on India's mythological battlefields long ago, epic battles have been fought for great causes like freedom and restoration of democracy in the modern history of the country. The national movement for freedom from colonial rule and the people's uprising against Indira Gandhi's dictatorial regime mark the continuation of the epic struggle between dharma and adharma fought on the battleground of Kurukshetra. Viewed from this perspective, the recent history of India is a reflection of what happened in the Mahabharata. The resemblance of the epic and the contemporary history, of tradition and modernity, is further suggested by the fact that instead of using two separate time frames for the mythic age and the modern, Tharoor inextricably fuses them into one, presenting characters and events from the Mahabharata as contemporaneous with the present age.
In order to fit the actual historical personalities and events into the narrative frame of the epic, Tharoor has made some changes in the cast of characters. Thus, instead of one hundred sons of Dhitrarashtra and Gandhari, readers find only Priya Duryodhani, representing all the Kauravas with an altered sex. The Pandavas, on the other hand, are presented as an assorted group and except Yudhishtir, who stands for Morarji Desai; they are conceived as the incarnations of some major institutions of the country such as army, bureaucracy and Foreign Service; which are meant to husband and protect democracy represented by Draupadi. The parentage of the five Pandavas in Tharoor's narrative does not conform to the original. They spend most of their time in the countryside with their teacher and political mentor, the bearded socialist Jayprakash Narayan.
Despite such changes and variations from the original made to accommodate the principal events and characters of the twentieth century India to the plot-outline of the Mahabharata, Tharoor has astonishingly succeeded in forging soft and realistic connections between the historical and the mythological narratives. The efficacy with which the historic freedom movement and the successive conflict among Indian leaders over the issue of sharing power is superimposed on the politico-religious struggle of the epic not only excites interest but also evokes readers' involvement. The responsibility of the reader of The Great Indian Novel is to figure out the parallels between the historical and the mythical stories and to grab their implications in order to make sense of Tharoor's version of the country's past through the standpoint of Indo-nostalgia.
Indo-nostalgia through the creative use of myth:
An abiding characteristic of an Indian mind has been to discover connections between myth and reality. It has always been conscious of the recurrence of mythic patterns in contemporary events to evoke the sense of Indo-nostalgia. In this regard, Meenakshi Mukharjee in her book The Twice Born fiction (1971:31) avers that:
â€¦the conscious use of myth for enhancing the effect of a contemporary situation is a device that the Indian novelist has emulated from the West but has naturalized it to the Indian soil. A world view is required to make literature meaningful in terms of shared human experience and the Indian epics offer the basis of such a common background which permeates the collective unconsciousness of the whole nation.
Characters from the the Ramanaya and the Mahabharata are perennial contemporaries for Indians who admit the continuing influence of the two national epics. The epigraph to Tharoor's novel, a quotation from C. R. Deshpande's (1978) Transmission of the Mahabharata Tradition refers to the lasting influence of Vyas's epic on India's social and cultural life:
The Mahabharata has not only influenced the literature, art, sculpture and painting of India but it has also moulded the very character of the Indian people. Characters from the great epicâ€¦are still household words which stand for domestic or public virtues and vices â€¦in India a philosophical or even political controversy can hardly be found that has no reference to the thought of the Mahabharata.
The second citation from P. Lal's transcription of the epic, The Mahabharata of Vyas, suggests its contemporaneity and continuing relevance.
The essential Mahabharata is whatever is relevant to us in the second half of the twentieth century. No epic, no work of art is sacred by itself; if it does not have meaning for me now, it is nothing, it is dead.
The author uses myth ornately to function as the prototype to give Indo-nostalgic sense. The ancient epic of Ved Vyas provided for Tharoor's narrative not only the narrative aesthetics but also a pattern of life as well as a value system to refer to his nostalgia. The author ascertains a meaningful association between the new myth of India's freedom struggle and battle for democracy and the epic battle to uphold truth and dharma which took place in the country's magnificent olden days. The account of recent Indian history in his novel revives the memory of the mythic age and evokes the feeling that contemporary Indian reality can be well understood in the significant light of the country's mythical past. It suggests that ancient Hastinapur also contained, like present day India, 'Midnight's Parents' like Dhritarashtra, Karna, Vidur and Pandu; villainous advisers like Shakuni; self-seeking and haughty politicians like Priya Duryodhani whose immoderate hunger for power brought about untold desolation and anguish to the people. The novel makes creative use of mythic material to interpret contemporary history and critically evaluate the role of political personalities of twentieth century India. He uses mythic settings as a parallel to the present age. The remote past and the recent present reflect each other, as in a mirror and this inter-reflection modifies the readers' usual perception of both the epic and the recent history taking them into the wheel of Indo-nostalgia.
Keeping the original source of the Mahabharata in hand, Tharoor's narrative begins with the birth of the narrator, Ved Vyas in the first book of fiction 'The Twice-Born Tale' and ends with the rise of Yudhishtir to heaven in the final book 'The Path to Salvation' After introducing the narrator, the story moves on to describe the love of Shantanu, king of Hastinapur, for Satyavati, the fisherman's daughter. The appearance of Bhishma, his renunciation of the throne and indomitable vow of celibacy, to facilitate his father's marriage and the emergence of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidur, the engineered birth of Pandu's sons, humourously described as 'heir-conditioning' (p.89) is narrated according to the original account in the epic but Tharoor savours it with wit and parody. Pandu's 'faithfully infidelious' wives - Kunti and Madri - are presented as ultramodern women. In this connection, Chaudhary M. K. (1994:105) comments:
â€¦The Mahabharata is the unitary national myth that perceives itself as totality and provides for Tharoor's novel the most appropriate allegorical background to project modern Indian situation. Tharoor uses the mythic settings of the ancient epic to foreground the eternal present, the continuance of the historical process from India's remote past to the present.
The novel also houses number of incidents from Vyas's poem in a slightly modified form, which gives a pleasing sense of nostalgia. For example, the escape of Pandava brothers from the Jotugriha ( Lac house), their adventures during the period of exile, Arjun's banishment for a year, his love for and elopement with Subhadra and his humiliation at the hands of a prostitute named Kameshwari. These diverting episodes are introduced to offer the novel an amplitude and digressive excellence of the original epic.
Tharoor's novel is both allegorical and mythical, in this sense, as it tells the story of the great Indian family of Shantanu and Satyavati interpolated with the contemporary history of British colonialism and the post colonial India. As Ved Vyasa, the narrator, tells Brahma:
In my epic I shall tell of past, present and future, of existence and passing, of efflorescence and decay, of death and rebirth; of what is, of what was, of what should have been. (p.18)
Besides these, the novelist shifts some important episodes into a dream world with the chronological frame of the historical narrative. These include the murder of Gandhi, the disrobing of D. Mokrasi during Indira Gandhi's rule and the journey of Yudhishtir to heaven. In addition to these, Tharoor also integrates some key episodes from the Mahabharata into the novel in order to project certain political events of post-independent India allegorically. The defeat of Hidimba by Bhima is presented as a parallel to the liberation of Goa by Indian army from Portuguese occupation; the tearing off of the body of Jarasandha into two halves by the second Pandava mirrors the dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. The humiliating defeat of Sahadeva in the wrestling match with Bakasura during the period of exile reflects India's military debacle during the Indo-China war in 1962.
Thus, by using myths and legends in The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor works in the 'mythical modes.' The mythical mode gives the narrative the magnitude and enables the author to authenticate the Indo-nostalgic experience. It also helps him to facilitate two different time schemes, the mythical and historical within the fold of the narrative. It not only expresses his strong desire to project Indian consciousness but also his deep yearning for the great Indian legends.
Indo-nostalgia through the artistic use of Irony and Parody:
The Great Indian Novel is not an ordinary work of fiction. It is a historiographic meta-fiction in which the author uses history as a starting point to revisit the mythical Indian past with irony and parody. The Mahabharata, recognised as a multidimensional text, is rendered in unequivocal irony and parody in The Great Indian Novel to offer a sense of Indo-nostalgia to the narrative. The novel with its splendid inventiveness and originality exhibits a parody of both the Mahabharata and contemporary Indian history. Tharoor seems to subscribe to Bhabani Bhattacharya's (1994:2) view, who advocates:
The fundamental right of a creative artist to express himself in whatever manner he likes cannot be denied and the concept of creative freedom would include the medium of expression to which the writer, out of his inner urge, commits himself.
Irony is used in the novel not as a structural device but as a mode of perception. This is evident in the parodic nature of the narrator's tone and the attitude he adopts in the text. Tharoor builds up a complex network of meaning on several grounds which eventually result in an extremely stylish parody. His use of parody not only determines the choice of form and the elaboration of the subject but also the style and technique of the novel. As an illustration of how parody works in the narrative, the reader may refer to the opening chapter of book one 'The Twice-Born Tale' in which Ved Vyas, the narrator describes Ganapathi who has been sent to him by his old friend Brahm (Brahma) to serve as his scribe:
The next day the chap appeared the amanuensis. Name of Ganpathi, South Indian, I suppose, with a big nose and shrewd, intelligent eyes â€¦something about him, elephantine tread, broad forehead and all, impressed me. I agreed. (p. 18)
The mocking attitude of the narrator towards the divine scribe and the resultant humour and irony all depend upon the parodic effect which is deliberately produced by an unlikely combination of tradition and modernity, the past and the present, the sacred and the profane. This stance, maintained throughout the narrative, creates a complex inter-textuality in the novel. Thus, The Great Indian Novel is a kind of Indo-nostalgic foreground which becomes comprehensible only when the reader is conversant with the background text of the Mahabharata and the history of the modern India.
In blending the Indian and the Western literary sources and influences, the author consciously wipes out all boundaries of literary cartography and creates a delightful Indo-nostalgic parody. It represents both Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga, the twentieth century ultra modern civilization in a comic and satiric tone. The fiction is replete with the author's ingenious puns, alliterations, personifications, similes and metaphors. There are striking parallels of works like Kautilya'a Arthashaatra, Shantiparvan of Vyas and the Bhagawadgeeta preached by Krishna. The titles of almost all the eighteen parvas are undoubtedly altered versions of the titles of the works suggesting Indo-nostalgic puns. By casting the parody of the Mahabharata, Tharoor re-teaches history to the post modern generation by way of present references. In this connection, Uma Parameswaran (1975:435) remarks:
â€¦such a method allows not only for the reinterpretation of modern history through epic but for the reinterpretation of epic through modern history.
The places in the history are given parodic names and they are charged with political splendor to remark authors indebted Indo-nostalgia. Such places with altered names are Jalianwala Bagh as Bibigarh Gardens, Kashmir as Mimir, Shrinagar as Devpur, Jammu as Marmu, Goa as Comea, and Bangladesh as Gelabin Desh. Even the historic 'Dandi March' of Gandhi has not been spared at the hands of Tharoor; it is a 'Mango March'. On this parodic recurrence, Chaudhary M.K. (1994:111) comments:
â€¦by placing the past vertically on the horizontal present, he integrates a number of key episodes of the Mahabharata into the story, a couple of which are slightly modified, in order to project important political events of the post-independence period.
Besides this, Tharoor allegories the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised by parodying certain crucial incidents, in the history of the British rule, in India. The most heart-rending incident in the colonial epoch is the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. It is renamed as the Bibigrah massacre. General Dyre is nominated as Rudyard who is referred to Rudyard Kipling. Tharoor dwells at length on the large scale destruction unharnessed by the British police action, focusing the viciousness of the colonial system. The cold blooded murderers' gratify themselves by saying that, out of sixteen hundred bullets only eighty-four bullets were wasted. The author's comment, that each bullet of Rudyard destroyed the Raj's claim to justice and decency.
â€¦by letting it happen, the British crossed that point of no return that exists only in the minds of men, that point which, in any unequal relationship, a master and a subject learn equally to respect. (p.82)
Thus, Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel is not only a grand but also a multifarious work of art. The Americans always dreamt of producing such a subtle masterpiece called The Great American Novel having a head start on their Indian counterpart, but Shashi Tharoor stimulates the American quest of remaking and restricting the great epic the Mahabharata as his The Great Indian Novel. Commenting on this quest, Chaudhary M. K. (1994:104) avers:
â€¦In fact, the urgency to write a novel of epic magnitude that can render national history by integrating India's past and present and reflect the totality of Indian experience and the psyche of the country was generated by the Emergency, the dark night of the whole of India, that upset known, order, values and norms. The nightmarish experience of the country during the darkest period in the history of free India helped revive the memory of the battle of Kurukshetra, giving birth to the realisation that contemporary Indian reality can be understood only in relation to the myths and legends of India's remote past.
Parody allows Tharoor to speak to his culture through Indo-nostalgic mode. He can indulge in what amounts to almost a sacrilegious and scandalous running down of both the ancient epical and modern Indian characters with impunity and without, disowning his cultural heritage. The parodic mode provides him with both the necessary distancing form his culture and at the same time, the recognition of his own deep stake in and involvement with it. Through parody and self-parody, therefore he can both assert and undercut his Indo-nostalgia. As Linda Hutcheon (1988:8) says:
Parody is a typical postmodern paradoxical form because it uses and abuses the texts and conventions of the tradition. It also contests both the authority of the tradition and the claims of art to originality.
At the most obvious level, the parodic mode and intent is evident in the choice of his title; which proclaims what is disclaimed by the writer even before the novel has begun properly. Similarly, in the choice of titles of the eighteen books that make the novel, one can at once recognise parodic inversions of several well-known titles of books which have India as their subject. Some among them are: The Jewel in the Crown; The Far Pavillion; Midnight's Children; A Passage to India and The Jungle Book. It is significant to note that a majority of these works enshrine perception of India, written as they are from a predominantly colonial perspective. Tharoor's parodic inversion of these titles can, therefore, be said to constitute an implicit criticism of the inadequate portrayal of India by un-inventing the India represented by such works. The parodic intent sustained throughout the novel through witty asides, puns, and cryptic parentheses, is relentlessly aimed at discovering India that is neither idealised nor wholly depreciated but depicted honestly to recover a truer perception of Indian culture through Indo-nostalgia.
In the light of the above analysis, The Great Indian Novel can be estimated as a biting commentary on the political history of India and an Indo-nostalgic text promising and representing Indian reality in relation to myths and legends of India's remote and rich past. The core idea which is underlined recurrently in the text is 'Life is Kurukshetra, history is Kurukshetra' and 'the struggle between dharma and adharma is the struggle of our nation and each one of us, engage in one single day of our existence.' Thus, the novel by interpreting reality through myth and history in Indo-nostalgic approach makes us to realise that, India has a vast heritage from which much can be learnt. However, though some critics refuse to perceive Tharoor's text as a postcolonial, with this analysis we can label the text as an Indo-nostalgic text; since in the opinion of Tripathi V. (1994:229) Tharoor is:
A man of many culture and brought up and educated abroad who has had obviously highly cerebral Western education that seems to have desensitized him to the human cultural matrices of India.
Moreover, The Great Indian Novel through the conscious and frequent use of the phrase 'We Indians' becomes more conducive and Indo-nostalgic as a literary representation of displacement and defines the sense of Indianness of Tharoor's expatriate identity and sensibility. Talking about the task of The Great Indian Novel Tharoor (1994:2) affirms:
To affirm and enhance an Indian cultural identity, to broaden understanding of the Indian cultural and historical heritage and to reclaim for Indians the story of India's national experience and its own reassertion of itself, including the triumphs and disappointments of independence.
Thus, it would be appropriate to contend that, Tharoor has transported contemporary characters to their oneric mythological settings to offer an Indo-nostalgic picture of modern India through the novel. It is a creative vision of contemporary India retold in an Indo-nostalgic garb of the ancient tale of storytelling. What The Great Indian Novel fundamentally tries to underline is the continuance of historical truth: the pastness of the present and the presentness of the past. Partly modifying T.S. Eliot's (1974:1-3) oft-quoted lines, we can assert that, Tharoor has fictionalised India with:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps contained in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Indeed, the cover picture of the novel itself, is enough to understand the intention of the author; which mirrors Indo-nostalgia by shedding the universal and unique light of the sun suggesting 'unity in diversity' over the diversely dressed people, with diverse dharmas and diverse cultural as well as behavioural truths, in a multifarious country like India.
Thus, the novel's insight may be said to be an offshoot of Indo-nostalgia and India's pluralistic culture. It grows out of and speaks for, an India that acknowledges and welcomes multiplicity and honours all interpretations of reality, of the world and the text as potentially valid. It seeks to recover an adequate sense of pride in India's cultural history and by juxtaposing the past with the present, attempt to show in human terms, what happened to us and what we have lost. Therefore, the readers are left to make their own assessment of India's socio-political and cultural situation. Hence it would be appropriate to contend that Tharoor is taking an Indo-nostalgic view of history to which:
History â€¦indeed the world, the universe, all human life, and so too, every institution under which we live â€¦the world and everything in it is being created and re-created â€¦each hour, each day, each week, going through the unending process of birth and rebirth which has made us all. India has been born and reborn scores of times, and it will be reborn again. India is forever and India is forever being made. (p.245)
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