On recovering native reading habits, and Mrutyunjay: Conqueror of Death by Shivaji Sawant

Mrtyunjay

One of the unfortunate realities of the socio-economic class to which I belong to, here in India, is that with age we grow progressively estranged with our native languages, in particular when it comes to dealing with them in the written word. Exclusive regional language schools do exist across the nation, but they carry a stigma – often justified, too – of ineptitude, and are generally viewed with condescension as backward dead-ends. Global economic reality compels parents to commit their children to an English mode of education, but this is a decision which, along with financial pragmatism, also carries a conscious desire for making future generations more socially mobile. There is status and pageantry associated with being able to conduct one’s affairs in English here; one’s peer groups and general chances in life often come to be decided by just how conversant they are in it.

I went to a school run by Jesuits, myself. It operated under the state board, the equivalent of a Western public school, and carried a standard curriculum entirely taught in English, but a part of which also included the mandatory learning of two prominent languages of the Indo-European family: Hindi, and my own native dialect, Marathi, both a prakrit or derivative of Sanskrit. The quality of education acquired was abysmal, the treatment given to the two regional languages step-motherly, but for better or worse, I was compulsorily saddled with them till the onset of adulthood. I never complained about it. Through unreasoning force of young habit, I became serviceable in them, at least to the extent of getting good grades in a rigged examination system. My fascination with words and their interplay began at an early age, and knew no bias of script. I remember I would read the Marathi newspaper in the morning, before taking up the English version. Though reading for leisure was primarily in English, from time to time I would rifle through my father’s collection of works by Marathi writers like P. L. Deshpande and G. N. Dandekar. The language was intricate to my still-developing sensibilities, but the intent was there all the same.

However, somewhere along the line, this balance between reading in English and Marathi, lop-sided as it was from the very beginning, was lost entirely. Social pressure, convenience, operations of life that, of necessity, had to be performed in English, and a growing awareness of self – overwhelmingly in English, too – outran by some distance the possibilities provided by material in the maayboli or mother-tongue. The thirst for knowledge is a worthy pursuit in all cases, and language is after all only a medium to communicate thoughts and ideas. I will admit that I never suffered pangs as Marathi slipped into obscurity without fanfare; I was too busy soaking up works of the Western canon after my own haphazard, untrained fashion. Where was the time to introspect? Perhaps, the passage was also eased by the fact that Marathi was still spoken at home, and I still retained the requisite language processing to get by when needed.

But once one starts looking at language as more than just a means of acquiring pure, materialistic knowledge, one realizes that language is also a store of a people’s ethnicity and identity, their memories and their experiences, their struggles and their aspirations. It is the very thing that roots them to their soil of birth and, by relation, to each other. Those who’ve been polyglots through upbringing, think about it for a minute: without your language, what else is there? To reduce it then to some kind of an auxiliary fallback for filling out the occasional government form, or for deciphering road signs and shop names, seems like an injustice and worse, a betrayal and a murder of who you are as an individual.

Those pangs which never were, then, slowly asserted themselves with some force over time; increasingly so the more I stopped caring about boilerplate dogma and the more I began trusting my instinct and native powers of observation, absorption, and internalization. It got to be a thorn in my side; to not be able to write or converse as fluently as I wished, and ought, in my mother tongue as I could in English. To be at a loss for words and by default have to change to English to explain a certain sequence of thoughts, to be at the receiving end of amused, patronizing looks of people who I wouldn’t otherwise consider on the level; it was intensely frustrating.

I was too far gone in the other direction but it wasn’t an irreversible course. I dived headlong into a much beloved classic of Marathi literature, Shivaji Sawant’s Mrutyunjay. Mrutyunjay in Sanskrit means the one who triumphs over death. It is the story of Karna, a classic figure from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Sawant tells the story from multiple perspectives; that of Karna, himself, and those closest to him. By doing so he ruptures the simplistic dynamic of good and evil that the epic is so often prone to, and in its place endows the principal characters with humanity and all the vicissitudes that it entails.

The story itself is far too layered to go into any kind of detail here. The most cursory of introductions can be read as follows:

In the time of the Kuru dynasty, there were three brothers, Pandu, Dhritarashtra, and Vidura. Pandu was the heir apparent and eventual king of Hastinapur. His wife, Kunti, when she was still a maiden, was granted a boon by a temperamental ascetic. The boon was that she would be capable of conceiving by simply meditating and praying upon a heavenly deity, and that her son-to-be would then be endowed with the powers of that deity. A demigod, in short.

To test out the potency of this blessing, Kunti, still a maiden, prayed upon the Sun. Soon enough, her womb was gravid with life and the first son she would bear, Karna: fair of skin and hair, with earrings of flesh and an unbreachable body armor. To avoid the disgrace of having a child out of wedlock, Kunti floated him down the river, where he was eventually rescued and raised by the royal chariot-master of the kingdom of Hastinapur as his own son. 

Kunti would later on marry Pandu, but, shortly after, Pandu abdicated his throne and took a vow of ascetism, leaving his half-brother Dhritarashtra to rule in his absence. He retreated to the forest with Kunti, where she utilized her boon once more to grant him five sons, the Pandavas.

The rest of the book traces Karna‘s journey, from the idyllic stables of his childhood along the banks of the Ganges to the kingdom of Hastinapur, where he allies himself with the Kauravas (the sons of Dhritarashtra) against, then unbeknownst to him, his brothers, the Pandavas. Their conflict is eventually captured in the great Hindu poem, the Bhagavad Gita.

Sawant’s style is florid, expressive, and exclamatory (perhaps far too much so), but also without a trace of irony. Every bit as detailed as Dostoevsky, no less socially acute than Dickens or Austen, Sawant’s chief concern in Mrutyunjay has to with what it means to be a man and a warrior. Karna is indeed the very greatest of men, but he isn’t infallible. Strength, honor, duty, a sense of justice, courage, nobility of spirit, charity: these are all inbred in him on account of his divine origins, but at the same time he is not immune to other human failings. There is jealousy, insecurity, entitlement, and hubris to his build, things which cause him to lash out at times, at others to sink into inexplicable bouts of depression. Things which ultimately make him such a remarkable, conflicted, and sympathetic anti-hero.

I had to slog through Mrutyunjay because of rustiness, but it was an enjoyable and spirit-stirring slog, the feeling of accomplishment, by the time I completed its 800 pages, real and unadulterated and unrivaled by anything else I’ve known in recent memory. These themes…they are eternal, aren’t they? And by the same token, they really are metal, too. What else but this is there that we talk about when we go eloquent and balls-out about our music? Ideas, values, traditions, they are transmitted across spans of time, precisely because they have something of the indestructible about them. Modern thinking would have us negate them in favour of homogeneity and inclusivity, destroy language, destroy culture, destroy metal in pursuit of some shimmery mirage of utopian brotherhood. But how can you belong to the world when you take every pain conceivable to disown who you are and where you come from in the first place?

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