Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean
Via Amruta Patil
Harper Collins, Rs 799
Adi Parva is the richly imagined and stunningly executed first volume
in Amruta Patil's forthcoming Parva trilogy, a pictorial retelling of
the Mahabharata. As different as Adi Parva's jewel tones and lush forest
glades are from the spiky, angsty, black and white world of Patil's
first book, Kari (2008), they would both be described as graphic novels.
Yet the two narrative endeavours could not be more unlike each other.
Kari's authorial voice is so intimate and personal that at least one
reviewer felt it read "like a reconstituted memoir". In contrast, Adi
Parva positions itself self-consciously as a retelling of what is
perhaps our most enduring story — if one can refer to the innumerable
nested narratives that make up the Mahabharata as a single story.
In an essay called 'The Storyteller', Walter Benjamin made a
characteristically fertile, provocative suggestion: that the rise of the
novel marks the end of storytelling. "What differentiates the novel
from all other forms of prose literature — the fairy tale, the legend,
even the novella — is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes
into it," wrote Benjamin. In a 1977 lecture, the anthropologist Claude
Levi-Strauss made a similar throwaway reference to the moment "when myth
disappeared as a literary genre and was replaced by the novel." Both
Benjamin and Levi-Strauss gesture to a binary in which myth — and its
community of oral re-tellers — form one end of the spectrum, while the
novel — and its solitary, textual originator — forms the other.
And Patil understands this clearly: the place of her book, and
the place she must clear before she begins. Adi Parva is not "by" her,
but "via" her. And when her preamble invokes the sutradhar —"Trust the
humble storyteller who knows how to unravel thread. Beware the braggart
who embellishes and confuses" — one can hear the echo of Benjamin's
words — "it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from
explanation as one reproduces it".
Her telling does steer clear of unnecessary explication. But the
storyteller's voice is a very particular one: cool, wry, but always just
this side of dramatic. The narrator is Ganga, "queen of celestial and
earthly rivers", a central character in the origin-myth of the
Kuru-Pandavas. She first appears here as a mortal in a white sari,
telling her tale to a rapt street side gathering, even as passing men
gather to challenge this woman "sitting brazenly talking to strangers in
the middle of the night". Ganga and her listeners form a kind of Greek
chorus, their comments and questions helping clarify the main narrative.
Choosing a female narrator (rather than Ugrashravas) is a simple but
radical move, allowing Patil to focus on the women with natural ease and
empathy. We think, perhaps for the first time, of whether the mountain
princess we have always only known as Gandhari had a name except that of
the kingdom she represented, and of how Kunti must have felt when her
husband King Pandu died making love to her rival queen Madri. (And we
wonder how this will change in the next volume, when the narrator, we
are told, will be Ashwatthama.)
There are occasions when Patil's narrative feels too clever, too
knowing, too full of backchat. But textual pleasures are the least of
the joys afforded by this book. With artwork that ranges from black and
white sketches (for Ganga and her audience) to magnificent textured
collages, with Patil drawing on and reworking everything from
Botticelli's Birth of Venus to Matisse's La Danse to ancient Egyptian
motifs with delicious abandon, Adi Parva is perhaps the most beautiful
book you can own this year.
Published in the Indian Express.