London has just been through one of its public engagements with the Mahabharata. Thirty years after his acclaimed nine-hour version of the original text, Peter Brook has just brought a short play called ‘Battle’ to the Young Vic; the reviews were very mixed. In January, at London’s Round House, the choreographer Akram Khan staged his ballet Until the Lions, based on the text under review here. The reviews of Khan’s ballet were uniformly ecstatic.
In the introduction to her book, Karthika Nair states that the aim of the text was originally to be ‘a re-imagining of the Mahabharata through the voices of eighteen women’. Nair’s final version offers the monologues of nineteen characters, three of them male, and a couple of them wolves. There is a dazzling range of forms from pantoums and ghazals, to Spanish glosa and sestinas; all of which is carried off with considerable aplomb and bravura technique. In addition, there is an introduction with outlines the genesis and development of the text; a family tree and a dramatis personae. At the end, there is a lengthy bibliography and five pages of acknowledgements. All in all, a very weighty text indeed.
The contents are carefully divided into those voices, of which two, in particular, interleave the text: Satyavati introduced as ‘The fisher princess whose beauty and determination change the course of the Kuru destiny’, Kuru being the dynasty whose history the Mahabharata ‘explores’. Satyavati’s eleven sections are all called ‘Fault lines’. And the second set of voices is called Spouses, Lovers, and they have six interleaving sections. The ‘Fault lines’ section often begin with and usually contain the exhortation ‘Listen, listen’ and narrate the stories of two particular characters, Bheeshma, an elemental god condemned to a lifetime on earth, and Vyaasa, son of Satyavati, and the author of the original Mahabharata. In these sections, Bheeshma and Vyaasa trade insults, in particular about what Vyaasa might or might not include in the story.
All of this might sound rather schematic and it is true that this book is both ‘heavily researched’ in Nair’s own words, and very tightly organised. But within that there is a seething energy. On the one hand, the relationships are often very violent and violently portrayed; thus the portrayal of war in the original Mahabharata is maintained and replicated here. On the other hand, the notion of the story within the story which is so crucial to the original is built in to Nair’s layering of the story into the sections.
A seething energy is also present in the language, which is impacted and adjectival. But Nair is also not afraid to use anachronisms such as ‘my stepson could be a real prune’, or ‘he spoke when I called him a quisling’. Such is Nair’s skill that these anachronisms do not seem to jar.
The title of Nair’s book is taken from an interview with Chinua Achebe in which he comments, ‘There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Achebe also famously wrote “the price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use.’ Here, Achebe writes as a Nigerian writer writing in English. Perhaps that particular post-colonialist battle has been won; post-colonial writers don’t have to defend their choice of language in a way that once they might. But what Nair has done in Until the Lions is recast the Mahabharata in language which reaches deep into the core of the original and makes it triumphantly, vibrantly new.