Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 9 : 2 February 2009
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
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         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Subtlety, Mockery and Dharma in
Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel

D. Samrajya Lakshmi, M.A., M.Phil., M.Ed., Ph.D. Candidate

Cover of Tharoor's Great Indian Novel


"The Great Indian Novel is a literary de force undermining the age old Indian complacency displayed in accepting everything ancient and anything foreign. It is a strange vision of contemporary India retold in the garb of the ancient tale of story-telling"
-Ayyappa Paniker

Shashi Tharoor's title, The Great Indian Novel (1989), is perhaps derived from the concept of "The Great American Novel." Philip Roth uses this concept and gives it as his title for his novel published in 1973 (The Great American Novel). While Philip Roth takes the American pastime, baseball, as his background, Shashi Tharoor's novel distinctly relates to the ancient epic The Mahabharata. In Sanskrit, 'Maha', means 'great' and 'Bharata' means 'India'. Thus, Mahabharata is Great Indian Story.

Shashi Tharoor established his name in Post-Modern English Literature with the publication of The Great Indian Novel in 1989. The story narrated in the novel is more or less a political commentary on the history of India since the advent of Gandhi. Characters in this political novel bear the names of characters from Mahabharata. Gandhi is Gangaji, Dhristarashtra is Jawaharlal Nehru, and Priya is Indira Priyadarshini. The story begins with Gandhi or Gangaji and moves to the days of Jawaharlal Nehru as the Prime Minister of India, and then to Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. The novel ends with the days of National Emergency and the emergence of Janata Party, its grand alliance, success in the polls and its defeat later on.

The novel does not really focus on the historical events, but the emphasis is on the personalities that dominated the scene and guided the destiny of India during the period under description. It is a running commentary on the political events that took place, on the weaknesses of the leaders and the institutions of this nation, and on the general apathy of people in India. For those who were part of the generation that watched the events unfold, the novel is easy to understand and perhaps would even provide some enjoyment while reading it. It is hard to visualize how the readers of future generations would deal with this novel. It will certainly be part of any academic and scholastic pursuit in Indian writing in English.

It is difficult to read this novel without some understanding of the story narrated in Mahabharata and its characters. At times one wonders whether this artwork is a novel at all, since depiction of the political processes seem to overtake the story elements in many parts of this work. However, the characteristics of the individuals as they participated in the political processes are portrayed in an interesting manner. The novelist has his own opinions about these characters, which may be at variance with what people in general consider these characters to be.

India in an Advanced State of Decay

The Great Indian Novel is a modern English prose novel whereas Ved Vyasa's Mahabharata is an epic poem in Sanskrit. The writer assumes a correlation between ancient Hastinapur and pre-independent India. He opposes the idea that India is an under-developed country, since those who say so have no knowledge of history. If they read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and about the golden ages of Mauryas, Guptas and Mughals, they would realize that India was once a seat of glory. He says,

'I tell them that if they would only read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, study the Golden Ages of the Mauryas and the Guptas and even of those Muslim chaps the Mughals, they would realize that India is not an underdeveloped country but a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.'

Over-developed, Advanced

The writer is not blind to the fact that India is at present in a state of moral degradation. At the same time, he takes pride in the fact that not only has India's culture advanced, but also overdeveloped.

'I tell them, that, in fact, everything in India is Over - developed, particularly the social Structure, the bureaucracy, the political process, the financial system, the university network and, for that matters the women.'

A close look at the novel

The protagonist of this novel is none other than Ved Vyasa who asks Brahma, the creator, to provide him with an assistant to write whatever he recites. Then Brahma selects Ganapathi with 'elephantine head', 'broad forehead', 'enormous trunk', 'shrewd', 'intelligent eyes' and is said to be a South Indian'. He starts writing the epic for Vyasa.

Mr. Veda Vyasa starts the story narrating his origin wherein he presents the class discriminations, which prevailed in the past. In the past, Brahmins, the travelling sages, journeyed a great deal in spite of the non-availability of proper transport system. They did not need hotel bookings. Any household felt honoured by a visit from a holy man with a sacred thread. Along with a lodging, he would be offered his host's hospitality, food and bed with his host's daughter. The duty of the host to his guest, 'Atithi dharma' produced a great saint and storyteller, Ved Vyasa. On one such occasion, Ved Vyasa was born out of seduction of Satyavati, an angler's daughter by sage Parasharan.

The writer proceeds to introduce Ganga Datta, the son of Shanthanu and Ganga. Ganga leaves her son abruptly. Thus Ganga fails in her 'dharma' towards her son Ganga Datta. She leaves him to his fate. Soon after Ganga leaves him, Shanthanu is in search of a new wife. However, Satyavati's father rejects the offer because already Shanthanu had a son as the heir to the throne. So, Ganga Datta takes a vow of celibacy thereby providing an opportunity for his father to marry again. From then onwards he is named "Bhishma", as he has taken a 'terrible vow' of celibacy. Though his father had failed in his parental dharma, Bhishma performs his filial duty by choosing to remain a life-long celibate.

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

Development of Stroop Effect in Bilinguals | Subtlety, Mockery and Dharma in Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel | Language Alternation Strategies in Nigerian Hip Hop and Rap Texts | Faithfulness and Adequacy in Translation - A Case Study of the Translation of a Poem Written by Bharathiar | Indianized English in Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence | Naipaul's Perception of India | Teaching English Word Formation in Academic Writing - Analysis and Remedy | Sabotaged Submission - Interpreting the Role of Women in Scriptures | Socio-economic Profile of Women Prisoners | Study on the Levels of Living of Self-help Groups in Coimbatore District, with Particular Reference to Thondamuthur and Perianaicken Palayam Blocks | Agreement in Tamil and Telugu | Etymological Analysis for Some Words of Body Parts in Semitic Languages (Especially in Arabic & Hebrew) | HOME PAGE of February 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

D. Samrajya Lakshmi, M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D. Candidate
Department of English
Andhra Loyola Institute of Engineering and Technology
Vijayawada - 520008
Andhra Pradesh, India

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