Godan : Munshi’s Last Masterpiece

I have been hearing about this book, Godan, right from my school days. We had a couple of short stories by Munshi Premchand in our curriculum. But I never picked up any of his novels, until last week when I came across Godan on the Amazon Kindle store and thought of giving it a shot.

‘Godan’ literally translates to ‘Donation of a cow’. In Hindu culture, a cow is supposed to be the most sacred animal and one who is worshipped daily. Godan means gifting a cow to a brahmin and a certain set of prayers need to be performed along with it.This is a very sacred ritual in the Hindu subcontinent.

Mythologically it has been mentioned in Shastras that the performance of the Godan ritual facilitates one’s route or journey across the Vaitarani River and it becomes very easy for the dead. This gift serves as a relief to the deceased along their journey.

So the book revolves around a villager, ‘Hori’ and his life as a peasant in India. Suppressed by landlords or Zamindars and being pushed into a vicious cycle of debts , this book clearly identifies the plight of the poor and still doesn’t fail to identify the  small joys they experience each day.

This is a book about the rich as well as much it is about the poor. Godan provides a large canvas of various interwoven stories set Uttar Pradesh short of Lucknow. A long and arduous read. What I thought was not necessary was too many secondary characters which do not have a major role in the novel which could have been avoided. A highly recommended read.

The book which is a translation in English by Jai Ratan & P. Lal,  fails to capture the emotions by Premchand. The writing is downright mediocre but the story makes up for the pathetic translation. One should go for reading it in Hindi only if the language is not a barrier.

Munshi Premchand’s words ring true even today, with great reverence that always leave their mark. Premchand’s original name was Dhanpat Rai, but he shifted to his pen name ‘Nawab’ Rai and changing it to Premchand short while thereafter.

 Munshi was a great laureate in both Hindi and Urdu. A lot of people say that he has been an unparalleled author in Hindi Literature, one of the first and he definitely struck a chord with the rich and poor alike.

This is my way to pay tribute to someone who has coloured true and vivid pictures of real India through his writings and it cannot get real than this. I think I selected this book because unless the heart of India is not read about, its villages not experienced vicariously, reading India seems incomplete.

Today I post this as a tribute to Munshi Prem Chand on his Birthday and I believe that more people should go ahead get a copy and read this brilliant masterpiece.

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Sita : Story of the Daughter of Earth

‘Animals fight to defend their bodies. Humans curse to defend their imagination of themselves. The imagined notion of who we are, and how others are supposed to see us, is called aham. Aham constantly seeks validation from the external world. When that is not forthcoming it becomes insecure. Aham makes humans accumulate things; through things we hope people will look upon us as we imagine ourselves. That is why, Janaka, people display their wealth and their knowledge and their power. Aham yearns to be seen‘, Ashtavakra said to Janaka

I was in my fourth grade when I first saw the Ramayana Series which used to run on Cartoon Network India, which was later made into a movie. It was phenomenal and so breathtaking. Even the animations were so realistic. Two years later in my sixth grade I read the Ramayana for the first time, in Hindi. The more I read about it ,the more I got lost in the enchanted world of Ayodhya.

I purchased Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik shortly after I finished reading Jaya by the same author. I had loved Jaya and was completely bowled over by it, and hence decided to give Sita a shot.

This book is an illustrated retelling of the Ramayana, and the central character is Sita, who was discovered in a furrow by King Janaka while the fields were being ploughed in Mithila. Hence she is also referred to as the daughter of the earth.

The book is written in a compelling manner , it starts with Hanuman and it ends with Hanuman, who is also the guardian of Ayodhya. The novel also concentrates on Sita’s  actions which are mostly associated with being at peace with herself and not wanting to be judged by a society, she has no part in. The story examines Sita’s actions as a spiritual side and her connection to nature than to the society.

Devdutt Pattanaik mentions in the beginning that ‘To all those who believe that the Mahabharata is more realistic and complex than the Ramayana; may they realise that that both epics speak of dharma, which means human potential, not righteous conduct.’

Dharma is about exchange, about giving and receiving . It is about outgrowing animal instincts, outgrowing fear, discovering the ability to feed others, comfort others, enable others to find meaning.’

As Krishna says in Gita,

‘Dharma is more about empathy than ethics, about intent rather than outcome. I follow Dharma when I am concerned about your material, emotional or intellectual hunger. I follow adharma when I focus on my hunger at the cost of yours.’

Ramayana has had numerous retelling’s and it beacons across centuries. Before second century there were the oral retelling’s by travelling bards, and then in second century the first written form of Ramayana emerged in Sanskrit by Valmiki. The poetry, all scholars agree is outstanding, and has been traditionally qualified as Adi Kavya, the first poem.

Ramayana apart from being quite popular across the length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent is also very popular across Indian borders including Tibet, Vietnam, and a lot of South East Asian countries. But most of the scripts in which Ramayana has been written in India emerged from the script we commonly refer to as Brahmi.

A few centuries later even Kalidasa wrote a version of Ramayana. There have been numerous Bengali , Assamese and Odia translations as well. Ramayana is divided into Seven Books, and in Sita the author has divided the the book into seven corresponding chapters. The interesting part of Devdutt Pattanaik’s Sita  are the short notes at the end of every section which divulge a whole lot of information from various sources and are very insightful. Alternate theories by different retelling’s have also been discussed in this section.

Sita-1The story spans across different locations from Mithila to Ayodhya to Lanka, and during the fourteen years of exile of Ram & Sita accompanied by Ram’s younger brother Lakshmana, a lot of geographical areas has been covered by them on foot. These places, where they halted have their own significance and stories related to them.
After leaving Ayodhya, they reached Prayag shortly after. Prayag  also known as Triveni Sangam is the place of confluence of three rivers, Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna, and is considered very Sacred.

Then they travelled to Chitrakoot and finally to Dandkaranya which covers a vast area of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Covering  a vast span across of the Indian Subcontinent makes it an important book with respect to my blog and hence I chose to write about it here. Personally I have loved Jaya more than Sita but the central theme of both the books is same. Dharma. A recommended read and a complete heads up to this book.

As for Sita, she went back the same route she came into this world, back into the furrow in the ground. And whatever remained of her above  the ground, her hair, slowly turned into blades of grass, which were being caressed slowly by Ram. He just sat there thinking of her, as he had always done, because she was always there in his heart no matter what the circumstances were.

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Quotes from Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

 

 

Devdutt’s Gita!

My first tryst with books written by Devdutt Pattanaik started with this particular book called My Gita. A bright yellow coloured cover with an beautiful illustration of Krishna adored with a peacock feather caught my eye at the bookstore. I had not read any version of Bhagwada Gita before, as the mere complexity of it never motivated me to pick it up. But I finally did, and was glad that I picked it up because this book marked my entry to the world of Hindu Philosophy.

Gita means song and Bhagwada means God, and the literal translation comes out to be the Song of God! It was called the song of God as Gita was the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. Song which Krishna sung to his favourite friend, and brother in law, right in the center of the battlefield before the war of Mahabharata started.

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There are numerous other Gitas apart from Bhagwad Gita. There are various other Gita’s in Mahabharata itself,  Pingala Gita (prostitute’s song), Sampaka Gita (priest’s song), Manki Gita (Farmer’s song) among others, and outside Mahabharata as well there is Ashtavakra Gita, Vashishtha Gita and many more. But Bhagwad Gita remains to be the most popular as well as most widely read one of all times.

From now on I will be referring to Bhagwad Gita just as Gita for ease and simplicity.
The final form of Gita has has 700 verses split into 18 chapters, divided into three broad themes of which 574 are spoken by Krishna and 84 by Arjuna, 41 by Sanjaya and 1 by Dhritrashtra.

As I mentioned earlier the Gita is divided into three major themes or Yog’s, namely Karma Yog, Bhakti Yog and Gyana Yog, wherein each theme focusing on Work, Worship and Wisdom respectively.A lot of concepts like darshan, atma, deha, dehi , karma , dharma, yagna , yoga deva, bhagwana ,maya , moha and moksha are expained along the way. With each chapter dedicated to one of the concepts as mentioned above.

Mahabharata which tells the story of a war between brothers fought over eighteen days involving eighteen armies, indicates that the core teaching of the Gita has much to do with relationships.Any study of Gita has to take into consideration Vedic, Upanishadic, Buddhist, Puranic, Bhakti and orientalist ideas.Screenshot_2016-07-09-09-24-18

Devdutts style of writing this book is very impressive. Simple and easy to comprehend. This kind of simplistic writing style is necessary for such a complex subject. In fact because of this book only, I eventually picked up his other books and developed a liking for his style which renders to the modern era.He has explained each concept backed by a lesson in history and a story to support it along with a paraphrased quote from the Gita.

Now, My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik is not a translation of the original Gita, but an explanation of it in the authors own words. Its his interpretation to the existing Gita and an addition of his thoughts on every concept. Even the chapters in My Gita are explained at different locations as per the authors whims and fancy. The chapters are staggered and not sequenced according to the original Gita but it definitely does not break the flow of narration.I think the idea behind was to acquaint the reader slowly with the book, one step at a time. This can be an excellent book, if one wants to pursue reading the original Gita further after this.

So basically the Gita is focused on an individual’s psychological expansion, mentally physically as well as emotionally. As mentioned in the book, the Gita does not speak of changing the world. It speaks of appreciating a world that is always changing. It says unless the heart feels secure, the head will never receive new ideas. one of my favourite verse by Krishna in the book is ;

“Arjuna you wear fresh clothes at the time of birth and discard them at the time of death. You are not these clothes” – Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 22 (paraphrased).

An interesting aspect of the book is the various illustrations after every few pages to support the texts , were provided, but this I feel could have been avoided. The diagrams are not so interesting as much the texts are and I usually skimmed through most of it.The illustrations in My Gita were not as captivating as the ones by Devdutt in Jaya or Sita.

Krishna1The book also excellently explains the concept of Gunas commonly known as tri-guna ; Tamas , rajas and sattva. The tendency towards inertia comes from tamas guna, the tendency towards activity comes from rajas guna and the tendency towards balance comes from sattva guna. In humans the sattva guna dominates , which is why only humans are able to trust and care for strangers , empathize and exchange.

Personally this book had a very strong connect with me. I was reading this at a stage where my personal life was going through a lot of troughs and crests. My Gita did help me find deeper meaning within myself and since then I have read the book numerous times. I think this is not a one-time-read-from-cover-to-cover-and-toss-it kind of book. I have referred to it now and then during turbulent situations and it has not failed me to find a bit of solace in it, thus helping me in my transition from the tamas guna to the sattva guna.

“Arjuna, one who gives up conceit and ownership and craving, in other words the sense of ‘I’, ‘Mine’ and ‘me’, will always find peace.” – Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 71(paraphrased).

Gita forms the  epicenter of Hindu Philosophy. Of course the Vedas and Upanishads are there and they contain more deeper philosophical knowledge, but Gita connects more easily to the people. Hence I was compelled to write about it here, as reading across India would seem incomplete if the roots of Indian philosophy were left untapped.


Quotes from My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

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Yayati: A Poetic Masterpiece!

For a long time I have been wanting to explore some Marathi literature. But how does one select from a vast ocean of amazing literary pieces. Its difficult to pick one ,and I was very much tempted to read all of them at once.

This land of Maratha has experienced countless stories; right from Shivaji to the very contemporary ones, and they have been beautifully illustrated in countless written forms. Eventually I started asking around a couple of friends who are really into Marathi literature and drew up a list of quite some interesting books which have been recommended in the past.

From this list, I short listed close to about thirty books to choose from and finally set my heart on Yayati by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar.

This I did for particularly two reasons. Firstly I knew that Yayati was a character in the Mahabharata. I read about him first when I came across a chapter bearing his name in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya, and hence was intrigued to read more about him. Secondly for the love of mythology I simply went for this novel. As much as I would want to read the original edition of Yayati my insufficiency in reading and comprehending the language compelled me to stick to the English translation.

I have always loved how complex Mahabharata is. That is why they call it an epic. Every characters perspective is different on the tale. What may be good for one might not be good for the other.I guess in true sense nothing is good or evil but our thinking makes it so, and hence Mahabharata never fails to fascinate me with its different aspects.

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Yayati is often regarded as selfish, self-centered and a very materialistic person. So much so that he started neglecting his own Kingdom and daily affairs and indulged in wine and women. But this was so contradictory to what Sage Kanva once had to say about him. Sage Kanva blessed his daughter Shakuntala, mother of King Bharata on her marriage that: ‘May you be as dear to your husband as Sharmishtha was to Yayati’.

This was indeed puzzling.These scattered pieces of the puzzle were put together by VS Khandekar beautifully in his novel Yayati.

Yayati existed approximately thirty five generations before the actual war of Mahabharata took place. Son of the great Puru king Nahusha and his wife Viraja, Yayati was the crown prince of Hastinapur,being from the Puru Dynasty. Nahusha was himself carrying a curse, that his children will never be happy, and that pretty much shaped Yayati’s life.

Yayati was tricked into marrying Devayani, daughter of Guru Shukracharya, in spite of Devayani being a Brahman. As he was smitten by her beauty Yayati didn’t protest much, but as it turned out the marriage was a unsuccessful one.

But eventually Yayati set his heart on Devyani’s maid, Sharmishtha, or dearly called as Shama by Yayati. They married behind Devyani’s back and even had a son called Puru.

The interesting part is later after many years; Yayati was still so immersed in himself that he asked to exchange his old age with his youngest son Puru. This is quite fascinating by many aspects. Puru’s love and affection for his father knew no bounds and he readily accepted this fate upon himself.

They say sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free. Yayati realised this very late in life. Its not the material possession or the beauty which you are going to carry with you in your grave, but the number of lives you touch.

I love the concluding lines of the book which actually sets the theme for the entire novel:

Oh man, desire is never satisfied by indulgence. Like the sacrificial fire, it ever grows with every offering.

A truly beautiful and an immersive story. Yayati was  originally written in Marathi, which went on to win the Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi Awards and hence subsequently got translated to English. This novel is a masterpiece by VS Khandekar.

A highly recommended read to everyone, especially those who are interested in mythology. The translation by YP Kulkarni does justice to the original version but the original version in Marathi is supposed to be more vivid, and one can enjoy the mythical past vicariously.

The Palace of Illusions :An artistic marvel

palace-of-illusions

“Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story.  And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one that I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.”

And thus begins the story of Princess Panchaali, born out of fire , as it was prophesied, she would be responsible to change the course of history, and oh man how excited was she to hear all about it over and over again. This beautiful dark skinned princess was none other than Draupadi. As we all know her as the wife of the legendary Pandava brothers, the only women to have five husbands all at the same time.

I have read the Mahabharata a couple of times, and a couple of versions of the epic have surfaced before my eyes and through these very hands. Each time I have added something new to my existing knowledge , and each time I have read a new version by a different author, it keeps on getting better. From my early childhood days I have wondered that how ever all the Pandava characters have been given much importance in the epic, but not much has been talked about Draupadi, apart from the very fact being that she was responsible for the downfall of the Kauravas.

A story becomes powerful with every retelling, and so has been the case with The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. An enchanting retelling of an epic that is truly powerful. This book while painting a vivid picture of events leading up to the war at Kurukshetra also sinks in the realization of the imperfections of human nature.

The palace of illusions is a very different approach to the Mahabharata. It is narrated by Panchaali. It is Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi. From the time she was born until the end, its her take on the entire situation, and on the journey she mentions about her thoughts, her insecurities , her desires, her anger, lust, love, responsibility and her portrayal of courage.

Courage of-course. Courage to have five husbands. Courage to face shame in an assembly full of her husbands and their brothers. Courage to have Krishna as her best friend and comrade and courage to let go of her love, the person she admired the most, with whom she always wanted to be. As the author rightly mentions –

“Love comes like lightning, and disappears the same way. If you are lucky, it strikes you right. If not, you’ll spend your life yearning for a man you can’t have.”

The highlight for me has been the conversations between Draupadi and Krishna. How subtly Krishna explains Panchaali about things beyond her understanding. The way Krishna always talks in riddles, and how behind every conversation there is a deep meaning to the entire context.

One of my favourite quotes from the book, again a conversation between the duo, wherein Krishna says –

“Just as we cast off worn clothes and wear new ones, when the time arrives, the soul cast of the body and finds a new one to work out its karma. Therefore the wise never grieve for the living or the dead”

Draupadi’s character has been discussed in depth.To what lengths she can go to have her way, how she often dreams of living in huge palaces, and get adorned with the finest jewelry and be pampered at all times. Her character is buoyant, expansive and uncontainable, a side of hers which lot of people are not aware of.

The book is written in a very gripping way. Its simple yet beautiful. Its vivid and colourful. The details are very picturesque and the whole saga has been depicted in a very quaint style. I loved the book, and was hooked to it completely. It definitely features in my ‘Top 5 picks of all time’.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has done complete justice to the concept of this half mythical half fictional tale, which has turned out to be completely magical.