Book Review: The Great Indian Novel

An Exercise in Self-Indulgence or a Supremely Intellectual Modern Satire

While going through a spate of reading mythological literature and fiction, I came across Amazon’s recommendation to read Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel. Curiosity made me purchase the novel and few pages into the book I was recommending it to all readers with similar book interests. The intricacies of word play and the liberal usage of intelligent pun made this a humorous and enthralling read. It stands high on the pedestal of a modern satire and is impressive.

The parallel between the characters from the Epic Mahabharata and modern Indian politics is significantly entertaining in the context of a political terrain almost always aglow and awash with elections! The book is ominously relevant against the backdrop of the battlefield, the modern Kuruskshetra, and the nonstop churning wheels of power dynamics in India. In fact, it is the timelessness of this book should make Shashi Tharoor extremely proud of this work.

It was fascinating to see Tharoor’s practical explanations of some of the ‘miracles’ of the mythical and historical times of the Mahabharata. His explanation of niyoga and what actually fared in the lives of Amba, Ambalika and Kunti was amusing and set the premise for a very engaging read. The book is filled with juicy tid-bits, some well-known, some only whispered in the political corridors all adding to the great melodrama of this book.

One of the cornerstones of this work is the gleaning of fiction and hyperbole from fact and the mundane. Although, these come towards the end, Tharoor’s thoughts on the Dharma of Yudhishtara and the Karma of Krishna make for great food for thought and debate. I was pleasantly surprised to read his take on the role of Krishna in the Mahabharata but I will not divulge more, for fear of spoiling the experience of those who are yet to read The Great Indian Novel.

I must confess that half-way into the book my exhilaration with the novelty of Tharoor’s literary experiment started to wane. A pertinent question forged into my mind – why did Tharoor write this book? It is a tome of literary and intellectual effort but hidden within the manuscript I could sense an intense self-indulgence. Tharoor’s commitment to writing and delivering this omnibus seemed almost superhuman, considering the fact that writing was not his only vocation. As the Editorial review from Publishers Weekly says, “The epic, the sonnet, the novel and the folk tale all help to shape the narrative, just as history and myth, dream and reality intertwine in every chapter, calling into question the validity of categories. “One must be wary of history by anecdote,” warns the narrator; one must be wary of “history” itself, suggests Tharoor.”

Let’s take the intellectual aspect first. Tharoor builds on each plot and subplot in the Mahabharata, drawing parallels, finding characters from the pre-independent subcontinent to the free India of the 1980s. Sample a few – Bhishma is in the role of Gandhi, Dhrithrashtra is India’s first blind Prime Minister and Duryodhani, the female alter ego of Dhuryodhana, is the new Queen-Empress of independent India, who ruled with monopoly and not without manipulation; Karna draws a parallel in Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Draupadi is manifested as the new bride of Indian Democracy, possessed by many masters yet threatened by many harassers.

For some this book may be a reinterpretation of the Mahabharata but for many it will be the interpretation of India from colonization to post-Independence. The storyline woven with an excellent command over the language makes the writing immensely pleasurable, an intellectual pursuit for a demanding reader.

The narrative is often interrupted by reams of philosophical discourse and Tharoor’s viewpoint on many aspects of Indian life and times – social, economic, political. All, engaging and highly relevant. His thoughts seem to be the reflection of any average, educated Indian who cares for society and country but is overburdened by the crassness of the social divisiveness, political rancor, and economic turmoil of the land.

The reader empathizes, sees the relevance, and revels further into the writer’s grand display of philosophical and intellectual thought. This, I suspect, was Tharoor’s driving force to write this book. He was indulging to produce an omnibus that is today an eclectic mix of mythology, history, fiction, philosophy, linguistic appeal, political conversation and a social treatise.

The Great Indian Novel is a tribute to the rich tapestry of India. It demands a salute to the great intellectual self-indulgence of a brilliant and intelligent writer, who could pull off the exemplary feat of making this book see the light of day. Midway till the end, reading Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel can be exhausting because the levity wanes off.

I put this book down for a week to digest and process whatever I had read. To finish this book from cover-to-cover you need an iota of the same commitment that Tharoor put into creating it because the experience of such erudite manifestation must have been tiring for him also. We cannot hold a grudge against Shashi Tharoor for making our gray cells work overtime because The Great Indian Novel is truly a modern masterpiece. This book has the grandeur and ethos of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie and the tamasha and entertainment of a Karan Johar family drama. It is the priced possession of any discerning reader.

Author: Aneesha Shewani

I am just ME … a soul streaming across constellations, over eons of turbulent changes and tranquil noises, perturbed by the visions that engulf me and ruffled by the oft complacence that challenges the change. Yet, I must travel further across the galaxies, in search of the ultimate metamorphosis. Until then, I sojourn in this life, engrossed in my earthly callings of a wife, mother, professional, writer, dreamer, and seeker. On this blog you will find a spectrum of fiction, poetry, reviews, thoughts, snippets, inspiration, experiences, voices, concerns, excerpts, and everything that the soul has gathered in her fold, over years of reading, searching, finding, losing, and discovering. I regularly indulge in various creative pursuits, like crochet, experimental cooking, reading, and writing, and I hold a managerial/editorial role in a financial services organization with a global footprint. For a long time, social media hijacked my personal writing space, as I was sharing more on Facebook and writing Tweet-sized poetry on Twitter. Social media is instant but temporary gratification. Ultimately, a writer needs their own space, and personal blogging provides that space. I had started a blog more than a decade ago but all things need to be infused with new life, emerge in a new avatar, and so it is with my new blog space. Let your love and encouragement pour into Blue Pen Strokes. Check out Aneesha Shewani (@felinemusings) 

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