Until the Lions: Echoes From The Mahabharata

Karthika Naïr

Archipelago Books 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020 https://dannyreviews.com/
In the linked poems in Until the Lions Naïr re-envisages aspects of the Mahabharata from the perspectives of some of its marginalised characters, mostly women. Revisiting familiar events, she gives minor characters a voice, foregrounds the reality of rape and death and powerlessness, and introduces some surprising twists. The title comes from a proverb rendered by Chinua Achebe: "until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter".

Naïr roughly recapitulates the central plot of the Mahabharata, but the reader needs at least a basic familiarity with that to properly appreciate Until the Lions, since some of the latter's power comes from a judo-like reflection of the Mahabharata's assumptions. There is a family tree showing the key relationships and a brief glossary of the key characters, but these will work better as a refresher than an introduction. [For those unfamiliar with the Mahabharata, it occupies a place in Indian culture something like that occupied in Europe by the Iliad, the New Testament, and the works of Shakespeare put together. The full work is colossal, at some 1.8 million words, but there are multitudinous retellings.]

The central narrative perspective of Until the Lions is provided in eleven poems by Satyavati, the fisher-princess who sits at a key nexus in the complications of lineage and dynastic politics which compound to produce disaster, the "fault lines" which lead to the climactic battle of Kurukshetra. And there are six poems attributed only to generic "Spouses, Lovers".

They are here. Again. Night rises in my gut. Skies capsize.
Henchmen. Overlords. Allies. High priests. Demigods. Perhaps
even kings. Here. A constellation of despots and lies.
Do not speak to us, Masters. Do not blaze Faith Honour Duty
Allegiance to God and Country
in hearth and head until we
Yield: pledge future, selves and reason. Do not hail prophets, holy
Spirits, the saints. Do not invoke heaven and hell. Do not
Browbeat, do not cajole. Do not feign pity, nor kinship, nor
Entice with promises of unseen treasures — justice, safety
Freedom. You would arrive, we knew, with the threat of gifts — and more.

Others get to speak just once. They include figures important to the story, such as Amba, the princess reborn as Shikhandi and masculinised as Shikhandin, sworn to take vengeance on Bheesma, but also more marginal ones, such as the unnamed wife of Dhrupada (and mother of Shikhandi, Draupadi and Dhrishtadhyumna). And the servants: Poorna, the maid who takes the place of her queen Amba in being impregnated by the sage Vyaasa to produce an heir, and Gandhari's maid Sauvali, raped by king Dhritarashtra.

Here Gandhari vows to wear a blindfold not from devotion to her blind husband but as a token of vengeance for her destroyed family. Her craving for revenge is undermined by her ties to her children, but not that of her brother Shakuni, here depicted as deliberately working to bring down the Kaurava lineage.

If only they'd killed you when you were still a child,
my brother, my almost-son. There are times I think
I have been walking with your grave these many years.
Were you not the only being to know my name,
Shakuni, my brother, I think all my sons could
still live long and prosper, though Kuru would then bloom.
But you'd known my being, my name, my true name: not
Gandhari, the dead suffix to land I've become.

And Hidimbi, the rakshasa (demon) wife of Bheema, tells her story to her mother-in-law Kunti.

Satyavati is less prominent in the second half of Until the Lions, with the perspectives on Kurukshetra dominated by mothers and wives and sisters mourning their dead. Ulupi, the serpent wife who bears Aravan to Arjuna. Mohini, the female incarnation of Krishna who briefly exists just so Aravan can die married. Uttarra and Bhanumati and Vrishali, the wives of Abhimanyu and Duryhodana and Karna. And Dusshala, who offers short couplets on every one of her hundred brothers, including the usually neglected ninety eight (this is reminiscent of Alice Oswald's Memorial, memorialising the minor characters who die in the Iliad).

KUNDASHI, the one with a quarter-
moon on his cheek; earth and sky to his little daughter.
were melomaniacs — their aubades, the day's happiest troth.

And Kunti agonises over her failure to acknowledge Karna.

Some other marginalised voices are heard: a father and son from among the anonymous foot soldiers, the Padati or "pawns", and a dog, Shunaka. Very much the odd one out among the voices of Until the Lions, Krishna himself features in an address in which (following Tamil retellings of the Mahabharata) he urges Yuddhishtira to sacrifice Aravan: Yuddhishtira, someone must die. This perhaps serves as an ironic undercutting of the Vaishnavite devotional strand running through the Mahabharata.

Until the Lions is a poetic tour de force, deploying a variety of verse forms and making varied use of "concrete poetry", with lines right-aligned, centred, or laid out in shapes. Naïr occasionally seems to strive too hard for unusual words — a reference to a bolt made of "inconel", a modern nickel-chromium alloy, seems anachronistic — but that is a minor complaint. Her poetry is engaging and moves along at a rapid pace.

Until the Lions doesn't present a jarring modern perspective, but smoothly extrudes itself into the interstices of the Mahabharata tradition and then wrenches, finding fault lines and cleavages but preserving the central structure and force of the original. There is real emotional and dramatic power here.

March 2020

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%T Until the Lions: Echoes From The Mahabharata
%A Naïr, Karthika
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2019
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781939810366
%P 284pp