Book Excerpts

What if the Mahabharata had been live-tweeted? Here’s what your timeline might have looked like

Epic Retold, by Chindu Sreedharan

#Mahabharata #Bhima #140Characters

Epic ToldI wake to pain. My chest feels like it is in a giant fist. Iron fingers crush my ribs. I scream.

Muddy water fills my mouth. I am drowning. My hands are tied behind me, my ankles bound tight. O Vaayu, is this the end of your son?

The sand is soft at the bottom. I kick hard towards the surface. Slowly, I begin to rise. Then a tug. The rope on my ankles has snared.

A fury of panic engulfs me. Bending my knees, I kick out. My feet strike something solid, sharp. I repeat – again, again.

Suddenly, I am free. The rope on my ankles has loosened, allowing some movement. I begin to rise, lungs bursting.

The surface is far, far away. As I feel the last of my breath burning out, my head bursts through. I gulp in a shuddering, sobbing breath.

I drift, paddling with my feet to keep afloat. I do not know how far the current has carried me; it is a long time before I can think.

When I look up, I see land in the far distance. Rolling on to my back, I begin to paddle, slowly, focusing only on holding my direction.

It feels like hours. My legs are cramping and, just when I feel I will drown, my feet find sand. I can stand; the water is neck-deep here.

I half-wade, half-swim the rest of the way. It is hard to climb on to the bank with my arms tied. Dry ground again! I sob.

In the dark, I stumble on something and fall heavily. A sudden wave of dizziness overcomes me as I struggle to rise. I close my eyes.

It is light when I awaken. I am shivering. But it is not the cold that has disturbed me.

A man crouches next, pressing a knife to my throat.

He is small, wiry. Black hair falls past his shoulders. Eyes like the night search my face.

‘Who are you?’ he asks.

I give my name and palace. He looks at me for a long time, then cuts me free. I try to rise, but sink back, exhausted.

‘Who did this to you?’ he asks, helping me sit up.

‘Enemy,’ I say. ‘My brother.’

That does not seem to surprise him. ‘Don’t give him another chance,’ he says. ‘Kill him.’

As I look at him wordlessly, he disappears into the forest. A little later he returns. With him is another, a wizened but nimble old man.

They have brought fruit. I learn about them as I eat. They are of the Naga tribe, the snake people, skilled hunters and bowmen.

When I finish, the old man hands me a bamboo hollow. It contains a green syrup that smells faintly of honey.

I take a cautious sip. Juice of some herbs laced with honey. The old man motions me to finish it. Soon I begin to feel drowsy.

‘Sleep now,’ the young Naga says. ‘We will be back.’

Chindu SreedharanFor the next two days, that is all I do. Sleep. Later, I hunt with the Nagas. On the seventh day, rested, energized, I bid them goodbye.

Everyone is surprised when I walk in through the Hastinapur gates on the eighth morning. I am mud-stained, bare-chested, in deerskin.

Ignoring the questions of the palace guards, I head straight for Mother’s pavilion. Arjuna and Yudhistira are there when I enter.

Arjuna rushes to embrace me. Yudhistira stands by the window. I walk over to Mother, bend to touch her feet.

‘Where were you?’ Mother’s voice is quiet.

Motioning Arjuna to close the door, I sit down at her feet. Then, I tell them.

Arjuna is the first to respond. ‘Come, brother.’ he says, jumping up. ‘Let us teach Duryodhana a lesson he will never forget!’

‘No. You will tell no one about this,’ Mother says. ‘Bhima, tomorrow you will rejoin your classes. Pretend nothing happened.’

Yudhistira makes as if to protest. Mother silences him with a look.

‘There is nothing to be gained by accusing your cousins,’ she says. ‘All of you need to be careful from now on, particularly Bhima.’

I learn that my cousins had said I drank soma, then wandered off. ‘Duryodhana even joined us when we went looking for you,’ Arjuna says.

I nod. It is as I expected. We pay our respects to Mother and walk to our rooms. Her voice follows me: ‘Be careful. Very careful.’

The surprise over my return does not last long. I tell all who ask part-truth: I fell into the river, was carried downstream, then got lost.

No one questions me closely, mainly because a new martial arts guru has the palace’s rapt attention.

The famed Dronacharya is not of the warrior caste, but a brahmin. Word of his arrival has spread; there are many new faces at our lessons.

But missing is a face I have been searching for: Karna’s. I learn Dronacharya has refused to teach him, citing his low birth.

It soon becomes clear to me Dronacharya is partial, even more than Kripacharya. He has definite ideas on what each student should do.

‘The mace is your weapon, Bhima,’ he tells me, seeing me practice chariot warfare. ‘Leave chariots and archery to others more capable.’

I nod with a respect I don’t feel. Inwardly, I vow to practice even harder, determined more than ever to master all forms of combat.

Arjuna is clearly Dronacharya’s favourite. My brother plays up to him unashamedly, spending hours practising archery as the master looks on.

Yet Arjuna is not satisfied. He feels the master is holding back, saving his secret techniques for his own son, Ashwathama.

‘It is not fair,’ Arjuna complains. I smile. Though it is Ashwathama my brother speaks of often, I know he is worrying about Karna.

‘I wonder how Karna is faring,’ I say, just to tease Arjuna. ‘I hear he has found a new teacher – someone who is teaching him everything!’

Arjuna scowls. ‘I am better than him, brother,’ he says. ‘You will see on exhibition day!’

I am also looking forward to the day when we demonstrate our skills before a select audience. I might well get my chance then.

Since my return, I have been waiting to get Duryodhana alone, but to no avail. At the exhibition, though, he might be pitted against me.

I do not see Arjuna much in the following weeks. I suppose he is busy, training hard.

One of mahouts, meanwhile, has found me a charioteer, who helps with my training. His name is Visoka.

Only five years elder to me, he is a master with the reins. Every evening, Visoka and I head out to practise chariot drills.

I soon realize Visoka is no regular charioteer. He is a brilliant strategist, adept at all warcraft, and I grow to trust him more and more.

On the morning of the exhibition day, he is waiting for me. We drive slowly towards the arena. The galleries are already full.

In the royal enclosure I see Uncle Dritarashtra and Aunt Gandhari. Sanjaya, who serves as Uncle’s eyes, stands behind. Mother is there too.

Standing in the middle of the arena, Dronacharya begins to call out names after the rituals are over. The competition has begun.

In no mood to watch, I climb on to the chariot and wait. After a long time, in a silence punctuating the roar of the crowd, I hear my name

Epic Retold attempts to pass a camel through the eye of a needle by rewriting the longest epic in the world using one of its shortest vehicles. The Mahabharata is the story of a war: bitter, poignant, devastating. Told here from the perspective of Bhima, Epic Retold makes a fierce antiwar statement. It is a complex experiment that was originally tweeted.

Chindu Sreedharan is an accidental academic, a journalist who strayed into academia and stayed. He worked for The Sunday Observer, Rediff.com and India Abroad before moving to the UK in 2003. A severe social media addict, he now teaches and researches journalism at Bournemouth University, England. Chindu blogs at chindu.net and tweets as @chindu and @epicretold.

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