It is unusual to begin a Book Review with a question, but we must ask this one. The real question is – How do you read Puranic fiction? As I began to read Saiswaroopa’s Rukmini, this question ran through my mind – much of this review is a response to that fundamental inquiry. Puranic fiction brings unique challenges. More so, if they are based on epics like Mahabharata, which are part of our active consciousness. Despite modernity’s assault, we continue to see our experiences of today in the light of these epics. Therefore, it is impossible to read Puranic fiction in isolation, keeping aside the epic perspective with an absolute detachment. However, in itself, this need not be a limitation. There would be no need for the genre of Puranic fiction, if absolute detachment from the Purana were a necessity. There are definite unique possibilities for Puranic fiction in the light of the epic perspective. What then are those possibilities? We can explore this at two levels – Characters and Realism.
At the level of a character, a Puranic Novel offers a deep dive into specific characters. Our epics are full of understated personalities, yet full of possibilities. Each unique in one’s own way, each occupying a metaphor space. In traditional discourses, beauty of each such character is brought out elaborately, in the backdrop of the larger perspective of the epic. The Tradition has gone a step further. Our classical and folk literature is full of re-imagination around such personalities. Often, very less known or even non-existent characters come to life to decorate the epic. The perspective of the epic is large enough to contain such possibilities. The Modern novel finds a space in this universe – the form encourages reimagination in its own way. In its light, we may see personalities in greater depth and epic in a deeper perspective, at least from some angles.
That is not all. The form of a modern novel operates in the plane of the real world. No doubt, when an epic is reflected on a real world plane, it loses timeless-ness. Some truth can only be reflected in a timeless world. The Epic creates its own universe and time. How does the modern novel achieve greatness then? The real question is what does a Puranic novel offer in the context of the epic itself? Can it throw more light on a specific aspect of the Epic? Can it bring us a step closer to the Epic? Can it create definite and meaningful paths into the epic? Can it throw light on our civilization which makes us understand contemporary realities better? Can it build important bridges – from our world to the Epic and the Epic to our world? To be closer to the Epic on the plane of the real world, requires great literary imagination and a new set of literary instruments – especially when writing in English. Is the novel, Rukmini, upto that challenge?
The real question is whether the book realizes these possibilities or not. With these two broad concerns in mind let us delve into the reading experience of the Novel.
The Setting of the Novel
The book is set in 4 parts. In Part 1, the young Rukmini rapidly transforms into a confident woman. She makes her own decisions against the will of her ecosystem and politics of her time. Part 2 is all about Rukmini’s settling down in Dwaraka and assimilating into the Yadava life on her own terms. In the Part-3, Rukmini gets back to the public and political life of her times, playing an active role and making her presence felt. In the Part-4, it is the deterioration of her times leading to the Kurukshetra, the resurgence and finally the devastating end of Dwaraka. Of course, this abstraction says nothing. The trajectory is derived from the epics, puranas, the organization of it within the book brings focus and together they present Rukmini’s journey and the politics of her time. The setup offers a rich opportunity to reimagine various Mahabharata and Bhagavata characters for our times.
It is an episodic novel. Each episode reads like a beautiful independent short story standing on its own. One may just read an episode in isolation and enjoy it without reading any other part of the book. That is significant crafting. Each episode provides a thick peek into Rukmini’s universe. Her past and future comes along with that of the times. Each character comes alive in isolation, much like in a short story. The book strives to achieve an epic tone and sense in every episode. The novel liberally uses epic metaphors and from their midst springs up its own, throwing many a surprise. The opportunity provided by the larger universe of Mahabharata is well enhanced by reimagination. In spite of being episodic the novel achieves this integrity.
What does the journey look like? The life of the novel is in three interwoven journeys.
- Rukmini’s Journey
- Srikrishna’s Journey as Rukmini’s husband
- The Yadava Journey in the midst of Mahabharata politics
The most visible aspect of the novel is obviously Rukmini’s journey. As the subject and the protagonist, Rukmini occupies every page of the novel with intensity. Her persona appears in three dimensions
- As an individual
- As a Princess and a member of the Royalty
- As Krishna’s wife
The novel is a brilliant success in this portrayal and unfolding. Rukmini captures our imagination in all these dimensions. In many ways, the novel presents them with unity and integrity, with the individual triumphing. Yet, it must be said that the individual and the princess/royalty stand out in comparison to the wife. Rukmini’s journey is brightened by many marginal characters of Mahabharata. They are reimagined purposefully within Rukmini’s journey and without conflict with Mahabharata.
In many ways, Part-1 of the book tends towards greatness and showing great promise. Mahabharata or Bhagavata does not have much to say about Rukmini’s past before her eloping with Krishna. In an amazing creative reimagination, Saiswaroopa dwells into the past of this episode, connects multiple dots and brings alive Rukmini’s journey from multiple contexts, with Krishna at the centre. The stunning reconstruction is almost akin to a missing piece of Mahabharata. It also portrays an amazing evolution of a curious, innocent Rukmini into a woman who understands the rough ways of the world and one who is hardened enough to take tough and painful decisions. This staged evolution is another brilliant achievement of the novel. In the sight of Krishna, Rukmini finds the purpose of her life. Thereafter Rukmini’s journey continues on two lanes. Her personal evolution in response to her times and her exploration of Srikrishna. Rukmini’s purposeful journey can be imagined only in the Bharateeya parampara, in the light of our epics. Thus, the novel builds a pathway into our epics through Rukmini’s personal journey.
The Dimension of Srikrishna
Although Rukmini is the protagonist, the novel is in many ways Srikrishna’s journey as well. We are familiar with Srikrishna’s journey as a Yadava chieftain, as Arjuna’s friend, as a Pandava well-wisher and the very Bhagavan himself. However, Srikrishna as Rukmini’s husband is only partially revealed in Mahabharata and Bhagavata. The novel is about Krishna’s journey on the plane of Rukmini’s life.
What then are the characteristics of this journey? It is imagined in two ways. Rukmini strives to reach the enigma of Srikrishna. He himself strives to ensure he carries Rukmini with him all along. When the divine purpose makes it impossible, Srikrishna himself suffers, along with Rukmini, but finally creates a way for both to be with each other. Divine purposes make it harder for Rukmini. In steps and leaps, Rukmini understands the enigmatic phenomenon of Srikrishna. In the unfolding, we see a side of Srikrishna, one whose glimpse can be found in the epics but not fully articulated. The Rukmini of this novel shadows Srikrishna. But that is active shadowing. It is a consequence of seeking Krishna. In the process, she discovers both Krishna and her own self. In many ways, the novel is an assorted collection of stories of Rukmini connected by Srikrishna’s personal journey. We discover Rukmini through Srikrishna’s journey. In the process, Rukmini of the novel becomes the representative of the timeless Vyasa in the 21st century.
This rich interplay between Rukmini and Srikrishna has other collateral benefits. All characters who played a role in the lives of Srikrishna and Rukmini get an ascendence in their own directions. Their roles become more pronounced and come alive with flesh and blood, in full consistency with Mahabharata/Bhagavata. The imagined characters play their role perfectly. Everything happens in Rukmini’s personal sphere. But all of them play a role in the larger context of the world. Rukma, Damaghosha, Shishupala, Bheeshmaka all of them represent some significance, some found in Mahabharata and some in the extended imagination. This complex interplay also results in beautiful and playful dialogues that makes for an enjoyable repeated reading. In addition, the level of detailing makes the novel unputdownable.
The most lovely aspect of the novel is the beauty with which the love of Krishna and Rukmini evolve on the world stage. The world is an integral part of their love. Yet, it is an extremely personal story and relationship. That is how our Devi-Devatas are portrayed in the Puranas. Realizing that in a modern novel is an achievement.
The Mahabharata politics
The backdrop of Rukmini’s shadowing Srikrishna unfolds in the larger canvas of Mahabharata politics. It is this that brings the epic dimension to the novel. In the Mahabharata, politics is viewed from the stand-point of the Pandavas. Other views either submerge within this larger view or spread across the text serving as metaphors in respective places. Bhagavata certainly brings another view of politics of the time but it is highly centred around Srikrishna’s Leela. This novel brings a combined perspective of politics of the time.
This politics reveals itself in two ways. Jarasandha’s domination and the Kuru-Pandava conflict – both viewed from the Yadava confederacy stand-point. More importantly, as affecting Rukmini’s personal life, making it interesting and insightful. It reveals an aspect of Mahabharata that is not easily seen. How did the Yadavas view the political development of those times? What does it have to say about Mahabharata? What does that mean to our civilization itself? The novel throws a great amount of light on this. It provides a fantastic entry into Mahabharata from this standpoint. Jarasandha’s metaphor is often lost in Srikrishna’s leela in the Bhagavata. In the Mahabharata, it is too small in the larger canvas. With Yadavas as the central focus, one sees Jarasandha crystal clear in the novel.
It is possible to dismiss it as a historical perspective that is not greatly relevant. However, that would be a great travesty. The metaphors in this journey are equally revealing. Of course, all this comes to life through Rukmini’s life, her experiences, her struggles against Jarasandha’s domination and her support to Srikrishna in this fight. That brings the novel to life and enriches our reading experience.
The Success of the Novel
Finally the beauty of the novel lies in the etching of Rukmini’s persona. What an adorable person she is! We always think of Rukmini as a quiet, by the side of Krishna, at best a detached philosophical observer of Krishna’s indulgences. All important and do not need any discounting. Yet, Rukmini has earned her status through her own struggles and strife. She is a lady with her own standing and Tapasya. It is the same Rukmini, but recollecting her own life, on a swing waiting for Krishna to join her. The assurance emanates from the confidence of ascendence achieved by performance.
In the beginning Rukmini’s universe is small. Her personality is revealed through the interest she shows in everything small around her. Her personal universe engages with the larger universe indirectly and in that process the novel tends towards the epic. Gradually, the universe expands and assumes the proportion of Krishna’s universe. Through and through, Rukmini retains her ability to respond to everything small and big around her, with equal sensitivity, grace and concern. It is an active, talkative, highly engaged Rukmini but with the same quiet, grace and poise that we are all familiar with. She is a force with speed, she is adventurous and always reaching out to the extraordinary, enjoying every bit of her adventure. She responds to the challenges of her times but without knowing the enormity of what she is doing. Her responses are within her personal life, yet they become important in shaping her times. The portrayal of this evolution is remarkable.
If you stay within a protected area, your appreciation will be limited. Rukmini stretches out of her comfort – from the palace to the forest, facing people, & seeking Truth, finally she finds Krishna. The one who reaches out to Krishna and jumps onto his chariot taking over its reign, has to be extraordinary. She loves the dynamic. She can cut through a forest, surf through the waters, breeze through the cities, reaching out to the far worlds – carving a niche for herself. She begins small, but gradually gets drawn into bigger things in life. Does she know what is in store for her? How does that matter! It is true – the context elevates us, but we need to have that something in us to be elevated. Rukmini dares therefore she finds. It is impossible to not adore this Rukmini.
And Rukmini’s raising up to the challenge is how a brave Dharmikaa of Bharatavarsha would have faced atrocity bravely, without letting the challenge subdue her and emerge victorious. Rukmini’s response to her situation is an archetype of Bharatavarsha.
The Personal and the Political
It is a great achievement of the novel that Beautiful blending of the Personal and the Political. How distant and looming large politics impacts daily life experiences and our interactions with people! How that influences our actions in a cascade! In addition, the author achieves a Puranic Dhvani by drawing metaphors from the Puranas that are deep in our psyche. They are presented in the novel realistically serving the general reading purpose of the uninitiated. To a reader in the Tradition it does more, brings an element of the Puranic enormity. The Novel operates in personal situations and personalities very intensely. At the same, frequently, it jumps to outer space, to look at life from a very far away distance where one can see everything at a single point in time. It cuts a slice of Mahabharata/Bhagavata that cannot be seen clearly but is easy to feel/perceive and brings it to clarity. This requires some Tapas, repeated reading, enormous connecting of dots. Requires an overall understanding of the Tradition & its perspective beyond the story.
The novel presents a Rukmini that is a definite possibility in Mahabharata and Bhagavata but never pronounced in the way the novel does. Kudos to the author for the most amazing re-imagination. It sits perfectly over the world presented by Vyasa, one that he would have liked to tell the 21st Century audience. The realistic reimagination results in both the personal and the political triumphing in the novel.
How does a Modern Novel become an Epic
Our strengths often become our limitations. The book goes to depths building relationships, etching characters and bringing situations fully alive in front of us. However, the same level of detailing and etching takes away some opportunity to take metaphoric leaps. This is a great dilemma faced by every Puranic fiction writer. To its credit, the book contains and portrays many angles from which we can view Mahabharata. However, only a few meet their fulfilling end. They are insufficiently explored. There are many narratives that develop enough to show promise. But they end up serving Rukmini’s personal journey alone, as the novel is conceived as Rukmini’s journey. Other other opportunities merge into Rukmini’s journey. For instance, the Yadava perspective of Mahabharata politics could have run deeper. There was a definite possibility to run other narratives end to end with equal prominence. In turn, that would have increased the space to explore Rukmini’s personality further. The same can be said of characters. There are far too many cameos. Rukma himself ends up being one. In a larger narrative, each would have their entire Purushartha portrayed in the novel. Rukmini is so keen to explore the enigma of Krishna and in that intensity other characters go to the margin. It would have been interesting to see where Damaghosha ends up after Shishupala’s death, after having made an impactful entry. It must be said that Part-1 of the novel builds a great Jeevana-Drishti apart from Rukmini’s journey. However, in the remaining chapters, it continues as Rukmini’s personal journey. It would be interesting to see what form the novel would have taken if the Drishti were to be furthered. End of the day, philosophy is important.
All this does not take any element of brilliance away from the individual episodes of the novel. Shishupala’s misadventure at Dwaraka, Sage Durvasa’s divine entry and Srikrishna’s entry in the beginning are all re-imaginations of the finest order that makes a Puranic fiction a classic. They hold their fort with both the learned audience and the absolute newcomers. They bring the possibility of the epic to the former and curiosity towards the epic to the latter.
The novel begins as a search light in the forest of the Epic. It ends as a beautiful lamp at its feet, and it is Rukmini who takes us through this journey.
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