The Great Indian Novel, as author Dr. Shashi Tharoor has mentioned, takes its title not from the author’s estimate of its contents but in deference to its primary source of inspiration, the ancient epic the Mahabharata. In Sanskrit, Maha means great and Bharata means India.
There are very clearly two ways of seeing this book. And no other. Either you like what you read, or you are appalled by the way the author has twisted both the Mahabharata and the 20th century slice of Indian history to make fiction out of them.
Indeed, it is the Mahabharata, the people and the scenes of the epic, shot into the twentieth century and ricocheting against the walls of the Indian independence struggle and post-Independence era.
One who wishes to know the story of the Mahabharata and the history of Indian Independence, but does not wish to waddle in the literature of both, could consider both birds hit with one stone, once he reads this book. The skeletal framework of the book remains true to the originals. One could find the men and women of the Mahabharata peering through the windows of the twentieth century and aligning themselves to history. Indeed, the facts and figures as depicted in the Mahabharata are more or less maintained in the novel, except for a few differences I have noticed – that of Gandhari bearing one daughter instead of a hundred sons and a daughter, and Ekalavya refusing to give his thumb off as gurudakshina to Drona, and so on. Ekalavya later resurfaces as the President of India, and Ashwathaman the cockroach (as opposed to the elephant in the legend) is killed to cheat and finish off Drona. I did let out a small chuckle reading the name “Mohammed Ali Karna”, the founder of Karnistan.
The magical events of the Mahabharat have been brought to terra firma with a series of scientific explanations – Ved Vyas, who tells the complete story, employs spies in every nook and corner of the world, Amba undergoes a sex-change surgery to return as Shikandin to assassinate the eminent Ganga Dutta (Gangaji alias Bhishma), Krishna unseats his uncle Kamsa in the elections,… Once we separate the thickly entwined Mahabharata from history, sprinkle a little magic over them, we get more or less the original version of the epic.
Surely the author is not serious when he suggests in his disclaimer that there is no resemblance to anyone living or dead. The parallel is all too clear for everyone who knows Indian history. The story begins with an appearance of the Mahabharata fitted to the twentieth century India and somewhere it melts into history and comes up as the politics of today. In fact, if the book were to have a few more pages, one would have spotted the author himself in the attire of the Minister of State for External Affairs.
One cannot but marvel at the brilliance behind the names “Manimir” and “Comea”, at the same time wonder why he spared Kerala and New Delhi! The narration at places is so hilarious, and at places the author has switched from prose to poetry that one cannot help but admire the author’s literary prowess, with which he dazzles us so much so that we need to keep a dictionary handy as we progress through the pages, and grow tired of occasionally peering into it.
After about three-fourth of the book, it starts becoming a little dry read, on the verge of becoming a drag but things pace up with the appearance of Shakuni and his dice game, and the final Battle of Kurukshetra – which is the General Elections.
More about the book in the author’s own site, here.