The victor wins not just the war, but all the rights of retelling the story- the chance not only to shape history, but also to shape the narrative that will be known as history. And imagine if the war is touted as the war for Dharma.. what chance does the losing side have, to present a parallel, if not alternative, narrative?
Perhaps 5000 years should be enough time and distance to entertain another perspective. Ajaya: Roll of the dice is Anand Neelakantan’s effort to present the Mahabharata from the perspective of the Kauravas. The name of the book itself is interesting- while book descriptions everywhere explain this as the opposite of Jaya (i.e. Mahabharata from the Pandavas’ perspective), ‘Ajaya’ also of course means ‘that which cannot be beaten/defeated’.
And it seems that is the theme running through the book: of Suryodhana (allegedly cruelly nicknamed ‘Duryodhana’ by his Pandava cousins and Dronacharya to shame him for being a child inept at weapon-use), who in the face of repeated humiliation and unfairness, consistently adopts the moral high ground. And thus, while he seems to outwardly lose, he is always unbeaten because he retains his integrity.
Even while writing I realize how contrary the above statement sounds to the popular notion of Duryodhana as the ultimate villain in Mahabharata. However the author presents him as a soft-hearted, sensitive child, even poetic in nature. A young Suryodhana is shown anguished by the fate of the poor and destitute- he thinks nothing of touching an untouchable, or befriending someone from a lower caste- his friendship with Karna at a later point being a prominent example.
As the crown prince, he is seen as dangerous by the establishment of priests and their powerful allies, as he shows open disregard for the caste system and insists on meritocracy. In fact, a younger Suryodhana is shown not so much insisting, as harbouring a predilection for meritocracy, without really intending to confront anyone. He is not alone in this. Kripacharya, Bheeshma and Balram (Krishna’s elder brother) are all working with the secret ambition of ridding the country of casteism and the resulting inequality and poverty. They become his mentors at some point.
Their efforts are opposed not only by the wider establishment, but their own kin, including Krishna (who believes caste system is important for social order), and Kunti who plays hand in glove with the priests to ensure her eldest-born takes the throne. Thus they have on their side those who will define Dharma.
And so it happens that it is not Adharma when Arjuna elopes with the betrothed of Suryodhana days before their wedding (and Suryodhana refuses to use force against his cousin once he is told that Subhadra held the reins on the carriage), or when the Pandavas eagerly decide to share a wife among themselves, or that Kunti attempts to put on the throne her illegitimate son (obviously not Pandu’s son) over the king’s legitimate heir Suryodhana. Not even when the Pandavas kill a family of untouchables by setting fire on the house of lac, so that their bones may confuse a conspirator to think it was Pandavas who were dead.
As for all the mischief, including the building of a house of lac for the Pandavas, the author points all fingers at Shakuni, who is operating with a vengeance to destroy the family and the country that destroyed his.
The author does fairly well at building the alternate narrative convincingly. He also presents the detailed back-stories of Eklavya, Karna, Kripacharya and the beggar Jara with his blind dog Dharma, to portray the impact of the social ideal that the Pandavas hold, versus that which Suryodhana and his mentors hold.
Through this book, Suryodhana does remain unbeaten in his moral superiority. However the book ends in a strange place- just when Draupadi has been gambled away by Yudhishthira as a slave to Kauravas. I was a little disappointed that the book ends at that point- because that would have been the real test. What can possibly explain the Kauravas’ actions next? There is no way to justify undressing of a woman in public.
But then, the book continues in a sequel- Ajaya: The rise of Kali. I’m assuming the Kali here stands for Kaliyuga. I wonder if that means that Suryodhana will actually ‘fall’ in his morality at the very juncture where the next book will begin (i.e. Draupadi’s humiliation), symbolizing that it’s time for Kaliyuga (age of demon)- thus Kaliyuga starting not with the death of Krishna, but the fall of a potentially just and fair ruler of a vast country, into sin.