The Mahabharata is an epic tale of tales stacked one onto another like Russian babushka dolls, woven against the dramatic meta-tale of feuding families in ancient Northern India. There are no definitive authors of the opus, and the stories have been passed down by a combination of Sruti (knowledge that is heard) and Smriti (knowledge that is remembered). The stories in the Mahabharata deal with themes that continue to resonate with readers even today.
Kamesh Ramakrishna, in the introduction to his novel, The Last Kaurava, fondly recalls listening to his grandmother’s narration of the stories of the Mahabharata- the author and his siblings would sit around her on the floor come dinner-routine as she would hand out balls of rice laced with sambar and narrate a scene from the epic. A memory of dinner-time routine that many readers of this blog will no doubt share with the author. The Last Kaurava is the result of Ramakrishna’s life-long fascination with the epic tale. A student of Mahabharata and history cannot but wonder about the overlap between lore and reality. What must have the societies of ancient India experienced to produce a multi-generational saga such as the Bharatam? War, justice, love and heroism are all common leitmotifs across much of history’s great novels and poems, yes, but what are the social, political and environmental contexts that undergird the creation and transmission of the epic tales? The Last Kaurava is Ramakrishna’s attempt to answer some of those questions.
Ramakrishna’s rendering of the Bharata is, quite like the original, a tale set within a tale of a bard and his scribe - Vaishampaayana and Bhargava. The meta-narrative of bard and scribe is set in 800 BCE and the story of the Hastinapura and Ramakrishna’s rendering of the Mahabharata-the tale within the tale-around 2000 BCE.
Devavrat, the regent, is wounded in war and captured by Yudishthira, the king of the opposing faction. At the behest of the king, who is also related to Devavrat and has enormous respect for the regent, Devavrat shares the story of Yudishthira’s ancestors, starting from Kuru, the founder of the eponymous dynasty. What follows is a story of a war that is fueled in part by social policy and climate change and by societal dilemma over how to embrace change brought on by immigrants and refugees. In narrating the story to Bhargava, Vaishampaayana the bard or poet, reflects on the parallels between the crises overcoming his current host city of Kashi- over-run with immigrants and refugees fleeing natural disasters in their homelands- and the story of Hastinapura, which, 1200 years before Vaishampaayana’s narration, was undergoing similar transformations from external and internal forces. History is known to repeat itself, argues the bard, so the recording of history is essential to prevent future generations from repeating the mistakes of those who came before. This in essence also provides the rationale for Bhargava to put to writing the story of Hastinapura.
Ramakrishna does something in this novel which is arguably an easily forgotten yet central point to history and historiography-the role of narration, recitation and re-telling historical events for the sake of posterity. The Kavi Sanghas or the poet guilds play a central in The Last Kaurava. The author does a deep dive into the evolution of the sangha as critical to how history is remembered. The Egyptians, Vaishampaayana points out, had their hieroglyphic inscriptions and cartouches on the walls of tombs and pyramids. Ancient India and the people living in the times when the Mahabharata tales would have likely been set relied on the oral rather than written tradition to pass down history.
Students of history will appreciate the references to great civilizations of ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Abyssinian societies. Vaishampaayana first learns of the Egyptian papyrus through Bhargava’s son, Chandrasekhar. Shouldn’t we be using it instead of palm-leaf, wonders Vaishampaayana - a conversation that may very well have taken place between a bard and his scribe in ancient India.
The Last Kaurava is a book of historical fiction that transports readers on a journey of imagining what might have been, of how things might have happened and how history may have been created by the rich, varied and sustained traditions of oral story telling in ancient India. In doing so, the author reveals to the reader the thoroughness of his research, the historical analyses and the attention to period-specific details that make the reading of this novel not just an exercise in fantasy but also a master class in history and literature.