I keep reading Mahabharata in one form or another- it’s like comfort food- easy to digest, having read the stories so many times- and yet nourishing. Bhima- The Lone Warrior, by MT Vasudevan Nair, is written from Bhima’s perspective.
Hold that thought for a while.. what do we know about Bhima or his perspective? Apart from the fact that he loved to eat, was massive and strong, skilled with the mace, and quick to anger? What did he feel and think? We don’t know.. that’s the thing with stories that are told too often- the characters lose their humaneness, their inherent multi-dimensionality. We only know the piece of them that is relevant to the story.
He’s often portrayed as primarily a physical being, politically unskilled, and rather simple-minded. Now remember, he was the only man in a hall full of royal and wise men, to protest against Draupadi being dragged and humiliated in the dice-hall, by Dushasana and Duryodhana. He was the only one among the five husbands, to stop for Draupadi when she fell down on the way to Mount Meru. This was against all rules of attaining salvation, but he did anyway.
Perhaps he didn’t understand the politics, and the rules. Or perhaps he was guided more by his heart – and it would seem, his heart was in the right place. Yet history relegates him to a secondary place, perhaps because he didn’t understand (or care enough for) the rules of how history works either.
Vasudevan Nair presents Bhima as the one who could have led, who could have been king, who could have been loved- but wasn’t. The one who was always kept second to someone, despite superior potential, skills, and intent. While reading this book, the cruelty of a class, status and rule-based society jumps out at you. Especially when, on many occasions, the sole redeeming point about Yudhishthira seems to be his ‘eldest son’ status.
Yudhishthira is almost never portrayed in flattering terms. In this book in particular, he outdoes his own mediocrity and incompetence. He reminds one very much of those present-day business managers who make grandiose pronouncements every now and then, leaving it to the junior Pandavas to devise outrageous solutions, and to foot soldiers to get themselves killed.
What left me a little unsettled was the portrayal of Krishna. He’s typically my favourite. But forget for a moment that he was Vishnu-reincarnate, and leave out his Virata-roopa, or that he was the one who had the big-picture and Dharma as his aims. These are all things we ascribe to him– this is the back-story we always tell. But if, for a moment, you consider all his actions entirely as another human being- he resembles a remarkably manipulative, singularly goal-driven, emotionally distant sociopath. You know, the wall- street kinds.
This book humanizes the characters. And perhaps that’s why I felt disturbed reading the familiar war stories. I had to put the book away several times.
What stayed on in my mind throughout, was the first scene from the book- when Bhima decides to turn back from his ascent on Mount Meru, to pick up Draupadi who has fallen down- the one he loved, the one who never returned his feelings. What a precious thing to achieve, I thought, to love someone enough to give up the salvation of your soul..