Book Review: Bhima the Lone Warrior

Bhima: The Lone Warrior, by MT Vasudevan Nair is a retelling of the Mahabharata from Bhima’s point of view.

Many years ago, when social media was a distant glint in a very far away horizon, there used to be a network of bloggers who I followed regularly. I remember reading at that time, on Prem Panicker’s blog – a labour of love. He had translated MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham into English, chapter by chapter on his blog. I read it, and recall being tremendously touched by the narrative. Unfortunately, Prem took that version down from his site, never to be seen again in cyberspace. When I found another translation available on Kindle, I got it.

some fabulous Bhima Concept Art available here

Bhima has always been my favourite Pandava. For me, he was the hero of the Mahabharata. The only husband who stood up for Draupadi. I believe, he would have made a better king than Yudishtara – someone who always seemed to hide behind the cloak of dharma to make weak decisions.

In MTV’s rendition of the Mahabharata, all is not so hunky-dory with the Pandava brotherhood. Yudhishthira is shown as a weak, dithering man. Bhima’s relationship with Yudishtara is rather dismissive and disdainful. That he has contempt for his older brother is very evident. The contempt deepens post the gambling session where the King manages to lose his brothers, his kingdom, and his wife as a wager in a game of dice.

The story begins with the the ascent of the Pandavas and Draupadi to the heavens, and the fall of Draupadi, and as Yudishtara dismisses the death without emotion, and Bhima contemplates his own grief, the story of the Mahabharata unfolds.

It starts with the young Bhima arrive at Hastinapura after the death of his father, and the hostility that he faces. MTV’s Mahabharata, has little or no deux ex machina’s – while there are the priests and sacrificies, the focus on the miraculous is much less. So, in Bhima the Lone Warrior, Kunti and Madri’s sons aren’t accepted by all as the gift of the Gods. The young boys are taunted about their mother’s chastity – and their legitimacy, and no one more than Bhima.

‘Yudhishtira from Dharma, Bhima from Vayu, Arjuna from Indra. You are all absolute idiots, as Uncle Subala says. Couldn’t your mother have thought of better tales to tell?’

As he faces his murderous cousins, you hear Bhima’s thoughts, his insecurity, and his wry sense of humour. His perspective is definitely modern. And, that is one of the remarkable things about the story – the fact that you don’t see the characters as they were laid out in the original, but as people perceived by Bhima – with all his biases. For example, Karna, is not a very nice character in this telling of the Mahabharat. He is a wannabe social climber, who eggs on Duryodhan’s mischief. After their first murder attempt of a young Bhima, Bhima finds himself rescued by the Nagas, who advice him

‘You must never show an enemy kindness. He will acquire greater strength from your kindness and become invincible. This is our law: you can let an animal escape, but you must never give a human being a second chance.’

And this becomes the way Bhima fights throughout. It is less the Kshatriya duel that follows pre-defined norms, and more the brutal battle to the finish. It is this that helps him take down Hidimba and then Baka, both of which become the stuff that bards sang songs about. You see Bhima’s embarrassment at the tall tales told about his prowess as a warrior

I squirmed in embarrassment, praying for the bard to end the verse in which I killed Hidimba, Baka and several other demons whose names I had never heard, all as formidable as Ravana.

Bhima’s life has two important, yet friction ridden relationships that are buried under the politeness of the Aryan life. The first is with his mother Kunti – he is amazed at her coldness – be it the burning of the tribal woman and her 5 sons at the Palace of Wax – or the instruction for Draupadi to be married to all 5 brothers to keep them together

Women have been described in so many ways: as wombs that receive seed, fields meant only for sowing and so on. You who described them thus, you have not seen this woman, my mother!

His relationship with Draupadi is complex – to say the least. This version of Bhima resents his brother Yudishtra having the first right over Draupadi. And, he resents himself for feeling that way.

In a world that is kind of stratified – Bhima the Last Warrior is much more egalitarian than his peers. Be it his affection for Hidimba, or his love for his Ghatotkacha – is unmistakable. He doesn’t see them as being less equal. The author’s angst at the sheer discrimination in the Mahabharata towards them comes to the fore, especially when Ghatotkacha is killed in battle at Kurekshetra.

I remember Prem Panicker’s translation being a lot more fluid, and soul stirring. the translation by Gita Krishnakutty is functional, but it somehow manages to lose the soul of the version I remember reading. However, if you don’t read Malayalam (and I don’t), then this is a good way to get into MTV’s works

Bhima – The Lone Warrior is definitely worth reading.

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