Sunday, 28 December 2014
Book Review: The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 3: Kurukshetra by Krishna Udayasankar
Kurukshetra is the third and final book in Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy. As was expected and as the book’s title suggests, the Great War takes centre stage and the book is almost entirely devoted to it.
As the war unfolded, I wondered what shape it would take. Would it be a violent ancient battle fought by sturdy men who lived and died violently, battle axes and bows in hand and no technology at play? Or would it involve advanced weaponry, arrows intercepting other arrows, warheads raining death and destruction, involving technology which would not be out of place in the modern day battlefield. As mentioned in my reviews of the first two books in this trilogy, namely Govinda and Kaurava, Udayasankar has mortalised all the characters in the Mahabharata, with the gentle suggestion that those brave and exceptional beings later became legends over the millennia. This approach led me to expect a battle without any shock and awe technology. On the other hand, I remembered that Udayasankar had retained a trump card in the form of Firewrights, the secret order of inventors and craftsmen who created technology which was out of the world, for that day and age. The Firstborns may have crushed the Firewrights, but their technology survives, as do many Firewrights in disguse. We are told that Drona and Ashvattama were Firewrights, as was Govinda Shauri, aka Krishna.
Ultimately Udayasankar treads a fine line on the battlefield, as she keeps her characters very much mortal, but reluctantly gives them occasional access to Firewright technology, which allows arrows to intercept arrows, missiles loaded with black nitre to be launched and poison gas to be deployed. Udayasankar’s approach works well and one is treated to a realistic narrative of an ancient battle involving modern day technology.
The Kurukshetra War has a number of sub-legends such as Abhimanyu’s attempt to enter the chakravyuh and his consequent death, Jayadrath’s death at the hands of Arjuna, Grand Sire Bhisma’s fall, the duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim etc. and Udayasankar deals with all of these with elan. I waited for Dharma to say Aswathama Hatha Kunjara, but those exact words were missing in Udayasankar’s realistic narrative, though Dharma does come close to saying those words.
I had never heard the story of Bhagadatta and his war elephant Supratika and I would say that Udayasankar’s execution of this particular sub-story is possibly one of the best sections of Book 3. I could feel the terrible fear experienced by the Pandava line as Bhagadatta’s war elephants charged towards them, but as the great Supratika fell, I couldn’t help, but feel extremely sad. The duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim is almost equally good.
During the Second World War, as Nazi Germany baulked at the idea of mobilising its women, the Soviets went all out inducting women not only into factories, but even to the battlefield. The USA and UK followed suit, but to a lesser extent. Udayasankar takes a leaf from the Allied diary and tells that that the Pandavas did the same by enrolling commoners who were not Arya by birth. However, the Pandavas are still vastly outnumbered by the Kauravas and each day on the battlefield depletes their army, whilst the Kauravas take far fewer casualties. Consequently, the ratio of Kauravas to Pandavas is further skewed as the battle progresses.
Were Hidimba, Hidimbi, Ghatotkacha and other Rakshasas really non-humans, ogres or giants as the legends have made them out to be? Not according to Udayasanakar who offers a perfectly rational explanation for the gentle forest dwellers (she calls them Rishasas) who ended up fighting on the side of the Pandavas. Similarly, Udayasankar tells us that the brave warrior Shikhandin (Shikandi) was not a eunuch, but rather the victim of calumny by his ex-wife.
If Panchali walked away with the honours in Book 2: Kaurava, Uttara does the catwalk in Book 3: Kurukshetra. Just like Panchali, Uttara is showed to be a strong female, one who gets her husband Abhimanyu to treat her as an equal and grow to love her. However, Uttara gets on better with demure Subhadra than with strong-willed Panchali. I’ll not disclose any more here, but will leave it to you to read this fantastic book and find out for yourself why this should be so.
Just as in the first two books, almost all characters in Kurukshetra come in shades of grey. Yudhistir or Dharma, as Udayasankar calls him, continues to be an object of derision, though he too shows a few redeeming qualities.
Towards the end, Udayasankar discloses the identity of the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights, which is yet another reason to pick up book 3. Go on, do buy this fantastic book and read it and if you haven’t already read the first two books in this trilogy, do read them beforehand, even though it is perfectly possible to enjoy Kurukshetra without having read Govinda or Kaurava.