Friday, 13 April 2012
Book Review: The Forest of Stories by Ashok K. Banker
Retelling one of the greatest epics of the world is no easy business. For one, most readers would know the story and would want something more, as value for their buck. Secondly, the epic would have been retold by many others, starting with parents and school teachers – the reteller has to compete with all of them. However, there is cause for optimism when the reteller happens to be Ashok K. Banker, one of the best in this business, with a fantastic record of having retold the Ramayana through his Ramayana Series and Sri Krishna’s exploits through his Krishna Coriolis Series.
The Forest of Stories is an introduction to the Mahabharata, the first of many (I read ‘seventeen’ somewhere) books that will form the Mahabharata Series or MBA Series as Banker calls it. The Forest of Stories carries flyers for the next two books - the second book in this series is to be called The Seeds of War and the third one, The Children of Midnight. It is only in the third book, The Children of Midnight, that the Pandavas and Kauravas are born and the stage set for the Great War. I am familiar with the main Mahabharata, but at least half the stories in The Forest of Stories, all from the fringes of the Mahabharata, were new to me.
The Forest of Stories is narrated by one Ugrasrava, son of Lomarasana, known as Sauti, because he is a ‘Suta’, the son of a Kshatriya father and a Brahmin mother. In the beginning of the book, we see a travel weary Sauti make his way to an ashram, deep inside a forest, the Naimisha-van, where Kulapati Shaunaka presides, attended by many acolytes. ‘He had walked unstintingly for days, stopping neither for food or rest. Accustomed though he was to a rigorous pace, a life spent on the open road, the forest unnerved him. There were tales told of Naimisha-van. Rumours of strange inhabitants who resided within its shadowy depths. Not all were human, it was said. Not all were benign. …………….he had always laughed off such tales, not being one to succumb to superstition or fireside entertainments, but it was one thing to laugh at a tale in the gaudy light of noonday, or even by the cackling heat of a fire with twenty companions beside you, and quite another thing to recall them when striding along through the same darkling woods themselves…………He shivered again as another gust of breeze whisked past him. This was not the playful caressing gust which had teased him moments earlier. This was a rough blow that shoved at the small of his back with the force of a man’s hand, forcing him to open his mouth in a moue of surprise at its strength, then shook branches to rain down twigs and leaves, upon his person………………’ With this sort of beginning, Banker gives his readers a taste of the feast he has laid out.
As promised by Banker in his introduction, The Forest of Stories is a faithful retelling of the Mahabharata, but it plays to a score set by Banker with all of his signature flourishes. Sauti is warmly received at the ashram, given food and drink and allowed to rest. Vyasa, the original narrator of the Mahabharata, has passed away, Sauti tells Kulapati Shaunaka and others, but Sauti has had the great fortune of having listened to the great sage recite this own compilation. Sauti is then pressed into narrating the Mahabharata for the ashram’s inmates, a task he joyfully undertakes.
As mentioned earlier, there are a number of stories in the book, none of which involves the main characters of the Mahabharata or the Great War that forms the centerpiece of this great epic. There’s the tale of Parashurama (which I knew), where the evil King Arjuna Kartavirya turns up uninvited at Parashurama’s father Jamadagni’s ashram and takes away Kamadhenu, the wonder calf, Indira’s gift to Jamadagni. Parashurama pursues King Arjuna Kartavirya with his axe and gets back Kamadhenu, but Jamadagni is killed by King Arjuna Kartavirya’s sons. The story ends with Parashurama scouring the world with his axe, killing off all living kshatriyas on earth. The story of the Sarpa Satra yagna (which I didn’t know) has King Janamajaya, son of Parikshat conduct a great yagna so that all snakes in the world, including King Takshaka of the Nagas who killed his father Parikshat, are drawn into the flames of the yagna and killed. The yagna is prophesised to be unsuccessful and so it comes to pass, with a last minute assault by the clever Astika, in brahmin form, saving his father, King Takshaka of the Nagas from the great fires that had consumed so many snakes by then. The story of Sage Bhrigu and his wife Puloma, their descendants Chyavana, Pramati and Ruru (which I didn’t know) also finds a place in The Forest of Stories which comes to a close with the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta which is well known to practically all Indians.
Banker’s beautiful narration, punctuated with good drama, makes the already action-packed Mahabharata riveting. Of all the stories in The Forest of Stories, I liked the story of Parasurama best. ‘As the band of Haihayas rode down on him, Parashurama raised the hand holding the axe before his face. He did not slow his walk or turn his head. He kept walking towards Mahismati. The blade of the raised axe was as clear and mirrored as still water. Upon the surface of the blade, he could see a clear reflection of the raj marg behind him – and the Haihayas riders bearing down on him with swords drawn and ugly expressions on their bearded faces. He gripped the axe by the leather thong that hung from the base of its handle with his other hand, then as the riders came within striking distance, swung it. What next followed was a blur to the watching brahmacharyas across the road.'
Do please read The Forest of Stories to find out how Parashurama fared as he fought the Haihaya riders.
Mr. Ashok Banker, more power to your pen! I look forward to reading the rest of the stories in the MBA Series.