Monday, October 3, 2011

Mrityunjay - Shivaji Samant - The Story Of Karna

If one took a poll on the popularity of the various characters of the Mahabharata, Karna would rank amongst the top. His is the legend of a tragic hero. 'Mrityunjay' written by Shivaji Samant is the re-relling of Karna's story. Written originally in Marathi, the English translation of the novel is from the Hindi version of the original. This work reputed to be among the best of contemporary Marathi literature, has an interesting narrative technique. The novel is split into 9 books, each of then narrated as a monologue by Karna and other characters like Kunti, Krishna, (each of the 3 have 2 books of monologue), Duryodhana, Vrishali (Karna's wife) and Shom (Karna's step-brother).

The monologues of Karna are the best of the lot. Though the book is a sort of paean to Karna, it never goes overboard with it and tries to show his flaws as well. For all his poweress, Karna comes across as internally turmoiled, insecure man, insecure due to his origins about his place in society and obsessed about being recognized as the best archer of all.  But sadly he was never given the oppurtunity of a level playing field to prove it. If he was denied by Drona during the archery competition at the beginning,  then the curses that are heaped on him at the later stage also play a part in ensuring that he remains a tragic hero. It is a matter of conjecture as to what would have happened, if Drona had allowed Karna to compete with Arjuna. Maybe he would have won, he may have indeed lost, but either way, he would have been a more peaceful man, contended with himself and not obsessed with being the best archer which drives almost all his actions resulting in tragic consequences. But it was to not be.  Another feeling that he tries to reconcile with vainly till the very end is his origin. Karna is shown in a subtle way as being unable to accept fully his origins. Though he loves his parents, proclaims that he is proud to a charioteer's son, some parts of his monologue subtly let it slip that maybe he is not as confident and secure about his origins as he shows. Maybe he craved that he were born elsewhere, or to put it clearly he may have desired that his parents had been the same but of a higher standing in society. It is borne out by his reactions to the relevation that he is Kunti's son. It's not any great happiness (or anger) that he feels towards Kunti. What comes through mainly is the relief that he is Kshatriya after all, that he cannot be insulted for his birth. It implies that he accepts the social order for all his posturing and that instead of trying to remove it, he is more than happy to know that he has actually jumped up in the order. Interestingly, Samant brings a twist to Karna's much lauded generosity using this turmoil. It is mentioned that his generosity is due to his craving for recognition. This does not reduce the value of his generosity, but only serves to enhance to the reader, the pain that a person must feel on being insulted repeatedly by society for no fault of his own, other than being born in a particular caste and the extreme lengths that he can go to overcome it. This obsession results in giving his body armour to Indra, therby divesting himself of his greatest protection. 

The books of Kunti and Krishna (more than one for each) are middlingly good, but rarely offer any great insight into either Karna or themselves. Kunti's monologue is the usual one we have seen/read earlier of a woman torn between Karna and her other sons. The initial parts of her monologue are her reminiscences about her childhood, her being gifted by her father Surasena to Kunti Bhoja, her marriage to Pandu, in both cases without anyone asking her preference or her feelings are the best of the lot. Krishna's monologue too is pretty much the usual one you come to expect. The monologue of Duryodhana is different in that he is shown as a scheming character who treats Karna as more of his personal employee, a weapon to counteract the Pandavas than as his friend. Yes, I agree that their relationship need not have been as close a friendship as is known generally, but a complete flip around of it results in the  relationship becoming completely one-dimensional, with no layers to it. Looks like the author decided to do a paradigm shift of popular perception, but in doing that he actually does Duryodhana an injustice. It cannot have been only personal benefit that made him ally with Karna, as it cannot have been only the goodness of his heart. (If he had been so devious, he could very well have forced Karna to fight under Bheeshma during the first 10 days of the war, instead of agreeing with his decision).  Interestingly Aswaththama seems to have a more deeper friendship with Karna than Duryodhana. But ironically, even he abuses Karna in a fit of anger as a charioter's son during a tense moment in the war. This in a way exemplifies Karna's relationship with most people. However close he gets to them, how much ever he feels respected  by them, at some point his origins are used by the same people to taunt him. That brings us to the other 2 books, that of his wife Vrishali and Shom his step-brother. It is with them that he does not feel the insecurity of being insulted at any time. But he rarely opens up his innermost feelings to even them. The two monologues are basically adulations of Karna by the two, who literally worship the ground he treads on. I had read  somewhere else that Karna did not have a happy marital life as his wife who supposedly was royalty, was contempous of his origins and was insulting to him, but here Samant gives us a different version. Maybe one of the above books could have been done away with for a monologue of Arjuna, it sure would have been interesting to get know his views on his arch rival. 

Karna's worship of the Sun-god, the unexplainable (to him, but not to the reader) connect that he feels towards the Sun god are very evocative, as is the part where the Sun god teaches him about the astras. (Yes, it is Surya devta who is mentioned as Karna's teacher in the book, because Drona is pre-occupied with teaching the Pandavas and Kshatriyas.). Some other parts too stand out, one being the killing of Sisupala where Karna's eyewitness account of it is almost psychedelic. The other being Karna's turmoil when Draupathi is being insulted after the game of dice. Torn between wanting to stop Duryodhana and held back by Draupathi's earlier insult of him during her Swayamvar he finally makes the fatal decision of joining Duryodhana. The tipping point for this is rooted in the human ego as Samant slips in a subtle variation of the events. As Draupathi asks everyone in the royal assembly for help, she sees Karna, meets his eye and then moves away without asking him anything. This spurs Karna to insult her. (Ironically it is revealed later that Draupathi did not ask for his help since she was already regretting her insult of Karna at her Swayamvar and did not feel worthy of his assistance). The part where Karna cuts off his armor to give to Indra and the subsequent description of his skinless body which is translucent is bound to shock you.   But alongside such parts, others like the description of the events of the war  get monotonous at places as do Shon's and Vrishali's monologues in their adulation of Karna. 

This is a good, but at times uneven read. Personally for me, the best take on the Mahabharata still remains Bhyrappa's Parva. If you have not read Parva and are interested in reading variations on the epic, the first option should be Parva. 

A digression from the novel. At the end of the novel, I found myself thinking about another character in parallel to Karna. If Karna can be said the victim of injustice throughout his life, then what of Eklavya. Probably he was the one who was subjected to the most cruel injustice of them all. Why is he not mentioned as reacting the way that Karna did, why for instance did he not join Duryodhana, (Parva mentions Eklavya as joining Duryodhana ) what happens to him after he gives his guru-dakshina to Drona? Why is  he not spoken  about more like Karna, why is he not so much entrenched in the general consciousness like Karna. Is there any contemporary work that shows Eklavya in a different light than the obedient, almost naive character that he is portrayed as generally. At the beginning of the book, Karna tells that he wants to tell his story because the truth has to be known, so why is the truth about Eklavya not told. Is it because that Karna was a Kshatriya after all and so had to get his share of fame, albeit posthumously while Eklavya is always in the lower echelon of the social order and hence need not betaken seriously? These thoughts do not have anything to do with this particular novel yes, but it seemed pertinent to discuss and compare both Karna and Ekalyva together. 


  1. eklawya; i think had not got advance archer learning after guru-dhakina .
    on the other hand karna , continue with his learning making it with parsuram (guru of bhism,dron) .
    he wad not only an archer only he had beatten bhim in wrestling ,nakul sahdeva in sword war individually who were best at their marshal arts
    moreover his obsession goes on with information of aswathama ,
    1. when he was told that arjun only allowed to hit on bird eye as he can see only eye of it , at that stage he hit opposite eye than one visible to him.
    2. insult was more heavy than to win dropadi ,he proved to aswathama that he is a better archer than arjun hitting at ceilling fish ,just seeing only once in water .
    personally he was never against pandava ,dropadi,or any one but he wanted a recognition in society .

  2. Very nicely written review, thanks.

    1. I completely agree with you. It was very helpful too.

  3. As a human karna was very great. He is the real hero of Mahabharata