Mrityunjaya, The Death Conqueror: The Story Of Karna

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Mrityunjaya, The Death Conqueror: The Story Of Karna by Shivaji Sawant

I must start off by admitting that this review may be extremely biased. Biased by the fact that I consider the Mahabharata the best epic ever! Every character has an interesting story, and despite a few supernatural elements, every human character is…human. Human, with all the flaws and strengths, and no one is more so than the protagonist of Mrityunjaya, Karna. Since this review also goes on my blog and there is a slight problem with the spoiler HTML tag on my blog, I have removed it. Please stop reading further if you do not want to be exposed to spoilers.

As a kid, I had heard a lot about Mrityunjaya, and seen the book at home, but the fact that it was written in Marathi dissuaded me from touching it. Even though Marathi is my mother tongue, I have never studied it formally and therefore have a greater comfort level with reading English than Marathi. So a combination of my new Nook, Barnes and Noble gift cards from my company (yeah baby!) and Goodreads, revived my interest in hunting for a translated copy. Thanks to an Indian version of Amazon (www.flipkart.com/india), and my sister, I finally laid my hands on a beautiful hard-bound English translation. And then I lived the phrase “lost in translation” right from the first sentence! However, despite the clunky phrases, I was able to translate it back to what it would have sounded like in Marathi in my head and enjoy the beauty of the book.

Even if you haven’t read this book, even if your introduction to Karna is through the Mahabharata alone, you cannot help but feel empathy for the eldest son of Kunti. Mrityunjaya only deepens it.
Mrityunjaya was written as a semi-autobiographical take on Karna’s life. The book is written from the POV of six characters. Karna opens and takes us closer to the end of his story, interspersed with chapters by Kunti (his mother), Duryodhana (his best friend), Vrishali (his wife), Shon (his younger foster brother) and a grand ending by the Lord, Sri Krishna himself. Apart from indulging the semi-autobiography of a fictional figure, Sawant touches on one of the biggest realities of human society, one that has not changed since time immemorial. He reminds us of how we, as a society, place an abnormal amount of emphasis on someone’s background to form an opinion of them, irrespective of their actual behavior or worth . It never even crosses our mind that each person is the architect of his own attitude, built off of their external environment. Even though the protagonist was in reality the son of the Sun-God himself and as radiant as him, the fact that he was fostered in the hut of a poor charioteer stacked up unfairly against him. The society then treated him as someone of low status and unfortunately, because things haven’t changed by an iota now, nothing would have changed for him, if he were alive today.

Karna is given a three-dimensional personality in Sawant’s version, something which the original Mahabharata does not provide. Sawant also takes a few liberties with the original, but the changes he makes only make the story more realistic. The characters of Vrishali and Shon for example, are given such appropriate voices, that you are left wondering whether Sawant had the fortune of stumbling upon some long lost letters written by them. Kunti’s character is fleshed out very well too, although you can’t help but wonder, what kind of a mother would choose her own honour over her son’s. One revelation on her part would have brought back his lost glory and honour, although it is commonly believed that the war would have happened anyway. Sawant also gives the Pandavas’ characters a darker shade of grey than in any other version of the Mahabharata. Duryodhana’s character remains the same, although it now makes me want to explore Bhāsa’s “Urubhanga”, which is Mahabharata retold from the POV of Duryodhana! Some day!

Despite the atrocities heaped upon him throughout his life, Karna grew to be an invincible warrior , a gentle and fair ruler of Anga (after Duryodhana bestowed the title upon him), a loving husband, an indulgent brother, a loyal friend and above all the epitome of generosity. So generous, that when a poor brahmin comes begging even as he lays dying, he breaks his golden teeth to give them away as alms!

While you commend Karna for being a rebel and not succumbing to the unfair norms of the society, you hit upon the obvious flaw in the hero. His egotism. You wonder why he was so ashamed of being recognized as his charioteer father’s son, despite loving his parents immensely. And if that shame, and the resultant blind loyalty to his lone supporter, Duryodhana, was the result of his downfall. The Mahabharata is an epic more complex than anyone can ever imagine. You can discuss, debate and argue about it until eternity, and yet cover only a fraction of it.

(thanks Pallavi)

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