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‘The Book of Vows’ – Amit Majmudar’s Mahabharata

Updated: May 6

In an impassioned introduction providing context for this greatest of stories with countless retellings, Amit Majmudar explains why he too wrote the Mahabharata (The Book of Vows, The Mahabharata Trilogy, Volume 1, published by Penguin Random House India), and how to read it, stating his aim to “recreate the feel, though not the form, of its poetry and its fate-haunted magical air.”


The Book of Vows by Amit Majmudar (image courtesy: India Currents; author photo credit: slantbooks.org)


Amit Majmudar is an immensely talented individual, a Renaissance man for sure.  A radiologist by profession, he has nevertheless found time to create impressive amounts of literary work. Named the first poet laureate of Ohio in 2015, he has published several works of poetry. Relevant to the Mahabharata, in 2018, he published Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary, a stunning translation in verse of the very heart of Hindu scripture. His writing is lively and captivating.


Lyrical, yet colloquial

Majmudar brings this devotion, care, and eloquence to The Book of Vows. Imagine a deer prancing through the woods, or a butterfly flitting from flower to flower in a garden. This is what Amit Majmudar has achieved, drawing attention to one lovely form after another, drawing you in with nimble, attractive prose.


While the language is lyrical, and poetic, this is a Mahabharata like no other, infused as it is with American references, contemporary colloquialisms, and modern-day slang. Majmudar’s narrative style is often that of one shooting the breeze with one’s American buddies, with colloquialisms and slang thrown in. I was reminded of Nina Paley’s film Sita Sings the Blues, with similarly light-hearted and amusing interjections by youngsters trying to get straight the details of the Ramayana and its multiple characters. Here, the author draws comparisons to familial feuds more familiar to the Western world: Hatfield-McCoy, the Capulets, and Montagues.


In The Book of Vows, the modern vernacular is amusing at times e.g. when Bheem makes his opponents “pee their dhotis.” At other times, it is jarring, for example, when Karna says to Arjuna at an exhibition match at which Arjuna asks for his credentials, “Don’t ask for my name, bitch.” (Gasp. Really?) But the style works well overall, and the experience of reading it is quite enjoyable.


Pitch-perfect rhyme

The rhymes are delightful, which came as no surprise. King Shantanu falls in love with Satyavati, a fisherman’s daughter whose body has an irresistible fragrance. Her astute father, wanting only the best for his daughter, extracts a promise from Shantanu’s son and heir, Devavrat, that he will relinquish any claim to the throne, and furthermore will remain celibate so that no offspring of his could lay claim to the throne. Devavrat made this fearsome promise (earning the name Bheeshma) so his father could marry the woman he loved, and Satyavati’s children would be assured a place on the throne.


The people, however, loved Devavrat, and wanted him as king. Furious at Satyavati, they chant outside the palace: 


“No one cares how good you smell, Satyavati, go to hell!” 

“Fry your fish and have your fling! Give us Devavrat for king!” 


With two lines of pitch-perfect rhyme, Majmudar draws us a picture of an angry, fist-shaking throng.


Connecting threads

Majmudar’s insights into the parallels within the epic are fascinating – he comments on its architectural symmetries, for example, the outsized role played by the wife’s brother. Dhritarashtra’s wife Gandhari’s brother is Shakuni: the ever-winning dice-thrower, the architect of the Pandavas’ 14-year exile. Pandu’s wife Kunti’s brother is Vasudeva, the father of Krishna. And again, Vasudeva’s wife Devaki’s brother is Kamsa, a killer of newborns, fearing the prophecy that Vasudeva and Devaki’s eighth child would cause his death.


The significance of the eighth child is another interesting parallel: Shantanu, enamored of the river goddess Ganga, vows that he will not question anything she does. After she drowned seven of their newborns, he could no longer bear it. He breaks his vow when the eighth is born – that child is Devavrat, who becomes the powerful Bheeshma. Similarly, Vasudeva kept his eighth child alive – the all-powerful Krishna.


Graphic of the Sudarshana Chakra from The Book of Vows


While his observations on the mythology are insightful and thoughtful, the author switches with ease from the sublime to the irreverent. The modern colloquialisms can be quite humorous. In introducing the sage Durvasas, “known for his short temper and long-winded curses”, Majmudar writes of the Seven Sages “who wandered the cosmos in (and as) stars, smelling of tulsi and hydrogen fusion.” Ha. Narada, the mischief-making sage sowed doubts in the minds of the Pandavas about the wife they share, the extraordinarily beautiful Draupadi, telling them he has stories of brothers falling out over celestial women from every planet “from here to Betelgeuse.”


Delivery for Bakasura

The Pandavas learn that the demon Bakasura terrorizes the village in which they have sought refuge, demanding humans, animals, and a cartful of food for his feast every solstice. In this account, Bakasura’s demands for a cart heaped with “subzi, fresh naan” with everything else had me in splits. He is given to devouring humans after tearing them from limb to limb, and I was amused by him taking on the persona of a modern-day patron of a local Indian restaurant, waiting for his vegetarian fare to be dropped off by DoorDash or Uber Eats or Swiggy.


Like other narrators, Majmudar seems to have inserted himself into this telling – into Dhritarashtra’s new palace in Hastinapura no less, where the fateful game of dice is played, where Draupadi is disrobed, where the Pandavas lose everything. As the sightless Dhritarashtra proudly shows the Pandavas the palace room by room, he describes them as described to him by the architect, “a Brahmin named Amit from the Saurashtra kingdom.”


This volume ends dramatically, with the Pandavas making their way into the forest for their years-long exile from Hastinapura, their voices merging ominously in a dirge for the Kauravas.


Majmudar is an exceptional storyteller, imaginative and wonderfully expressive. Will his fresh telling of the Mahabharata endure? As with everything in the universe – heaven, earth and in between – time, Kaalam, will tell. The second and third volumes of this Mahabharata trilogy, The Book of Discoveries and The Book of Killings, will be a welcome addition to this lovely first.


This review was published in India Currents on April 25, 2024.

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2 Comments


bhattacharyasamir
May 05

"Pandavas making their way into the forest for their 14-year exile from Hastinapura,..." 14 year exile? That was Rama's no? I thought Pandavas had to go for a 12 year exile first, followed by another year of exile in disguise.


Thanks for the review.

Samir

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Raji Writes
Raji Writes
May 06
Replying to

Thank you for the careful read, Samir! You are right - I have modified the text.

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