Mahabharat retold through the eyes of a commoner

Gautam Chikermane is a writer whose passion lies in tracking the worlds of money, power, faith and mythology. A former journalist, who worked at Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Financial Express and the Outlook Group, he has served three terms as director on the Board of Financial Planning Standards Board India and one as its vice chairman.

Currently the media director of Reliance Industries and a director on the board of CARE India, Chikermane has authored several books in the past. In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about his need to present a subaltern view of the Mahabharat, the characterisation process of his unusual protagonist and the upcoming books in this Mahabharat Reimagined series.

There have been numerous books which have been written on the Mahabharat. So, what really inspired Tunnel of Varanavat? How did the idea come about?
I have been in awe of the majesty, the depths and the complexity of the Mahabharat for years now.  This journey began at the age of three, when my grandfather first narrated the story to me. At some point, there was an inner calling that kept telling me to write my own interpretation of the Mahabharat. But I have been running newsrooms from 1998 ever since I launched Outlook Money. Now, that is the equivalent of doing two full-time jobs and naturally I could not find the time to write the book.

But with the grey in my hair rapidly increasing, I felt that I would be frittering away a lifetime if I didn't write the book. That's how my journey to explore the Mahabharat, ancient India, our culture, our dharm, trees, animals, our great land and its beautiful people, began.

While most books on the Mahabharat chose the royal heroes as protagonists, your book has trodden on the offbeat path and brought to light the life of an unsung hero  - a miner who was crucial in saving the life of the Pandavas from the lax palace fire. What prompted you to choose this particular character as your main hero?
Since enough has been written about the characters of Krishn and Arjun, Karn and Duryodhan, I chose to adopt a subaltern approach to it as I saw this great text through the eyes of average people.  I wanted to explore the life of an average person 5,000 years ago and Tunnel of Varanavat is my first step towards examining this dimension.

I was working on several themes  - all slivers of exciting incidents from the Mahabharat. The unsung miner caught my attention because in him I found a character without whom there would be no Pandavs and no Mahabharat. Had the Pandavs died in the Palace of Lak, there would be no story.

Another reason why I chose this miner was because I was trying to explore the subaltern view for which I needed a treatment that would lay the foundations for my future work in this Mahabharat Reimagined series. I found that the character of the miner enabled me to define and lay this foundation in a convincing manner. 

It also helped that this character was a clean one who had no past as such. This gave me the flexibility to build and mould him the way I wanted to. He, being a single character and not a group, gave me the ease and ability to get into his human psyche through whose eyes I could make the readers view the image of ancient India. It also gave me the freedom to delve deep into his consciousness and shuffle it the way I wanted to.

So how did you go about the characterisation of 'Badri' - your protagonist, who managed to occupy not more than six lines in the great epic?
As I mentioned earlier, I had a clean slate to work around his character. Since a lot of who we are is determined by the work we do, I began with his profession of being a miner. Therefore in order to build his character, I had to study mining, geology and their interplay on the lives of miners. For instance he worked a lot underground and being earthy eventually made him a practical man.

With regards to his naming the character, I realised that Ved Vyas didn't even give this miner a name. When I initially started out, he had a different name. But as his character developed, the name didn't go with his personality. Therefore I would say, the name 'Badri' was something he bestowed upon himself as my book progressed.  Eventually and gradually, the rest of the characters aligned around him.

Being a miner was more dangerous than being a Kshatriya is a line stressed by your protagonist. Yet Badri seemed to find more solace being constantly embroiled in the darkness of tunnels rather than basking in the limelight of being a war hero. What was the reason for this?
Badri was merely hiding from a world he dreaded facing. He was silently waiting for death while trying to smother a past that resided within him. In order to get by, he was following his outer dharm (vocation) of mining, despite being a Kshatriya. To make matters complex, he was defying his inner dharm (duty), which was that of a deadly warrior. At various points, the Kshatriya in him surfaces which he tries to suppress. Therefore, Badri was a man standing on shifting surfaces, trying to hit a moving target.

He could have chosen to lead a glamourous life but chose to take refuge in the tunnels. When I say tunnels, they are not necessarily the physical ones he builds but the psychological ones that run within him and haunt him continuously. Tunnel of Varanavat tracks this grey yet transformational journey of Badri.

Your book involves an in-depth description about the technology behind tunnels which must have involved extensive research. How did you go about the entire process?
While a lot of research has gone into the writing of this book, I hope it is not something that will not overshadow the story. The idea was to help readers transition into the time of the Mahabharat and the space of a journey in north India through adventure, romance, love, dharm and of course, violence. The main thrust of my research are five streams - tunnel engineering, geology and geography, anthropology, flora and fauna, and finally culture and spirituality.

To visualise the tunnels of 5,000 years ago, I had to study the tunnels of today. This I learnt from books in various universities. You will be amazed at the sophistication of civil engineering in this small domain. With this knowledge of construction, ventilation, dust prevention and so on, I worked backwards to reimagine a world without them and then built the tunnels.

Next was to study the geology and geography of India. These are essential tools to understand the land intimately. From rock formations and soils to gradients and water tables, all these influenced my reimagining of our land. For this, I mostly depended on reports from the Geological Survey of India, while powering that knowledge with fundamental knowledge of this fascinating field.

Anthropology came next. Since this is a series on people of India, how they organised their lives, what they ate and wore, how they worked, I picked up various texts that explored the tribes of India. I struggled for long months around discovering the tribes. And then, when I was on the verge of giving up, almost magically, I stumbled upon the Lakheras, a tribe that plays a key role in this book.

Then came the flora and fauna of India. For this there is enough material in fields of botany and zoology, from general sources on birds and animals to specific texts on trees and flowers.

Above all, I needed to delve into the nature of consciousness and the accompanying inner and spiritual lives of my characters. For this, I have drawn heavily from the works of Sri Aurobindo. The entire evolutionary piece comes from his conclusion of man being a transitional being. This was difficult because in order to write with conviction, one needs to experience it.

Then , there were specific research journeys into horses, dogs, saddles, bangles, weapons.

Having done all that, I have worked very hard at ensuring that all this research does not smother the story. I don't want readers to see the research, I want them to live it.

The story of the Mahabharat sees elements like treachery, chicanery, jealousy and malice-which are carried forward in the modern day scenario in almost every field. How does a person combat these elements?
It is true that the Mahabharat delves into all these traits and more. In fact, it goes so deep in them that you can almost put a face to a trait. But nobody can combat them. They serve an important function of sharpening our beings, sculpting them into our destined godhood. Besides, the fact that we are disturbed by these traits shows that they exist within us. As long as we vibrate to a particular trait, either through disgust or repulsion or even pride, be sure the trait is sitting strong in us. Only once we overcome them can we be free. So, we need to look at these characteristics as tools of our transformation into perfect beings.

At another level, these can be seen as differences, individualities, expressions that comprise a spiritual unity.

That said, there are enough instances of dealing with such traits on a practical level in the Mahabharat. You can use tools of persuasion. You could use negotiation. And of course, when all fails, there's battle. In the age of the Mahabharat, battle was physical - you killed, you maimed, you destroyed. Today's battles are mental, vital, and economic - you fight with ideas, you shame, you impoverish. But the essence of barbarism remains the same.

So, if you want to combat these elements, you will have to combat yourself. And that's what the Mahabharat is all about.

A devil incarnate for all, a godfather for children is a line mentioned in your book, which highlights the dichotomy of a certain character. Do you believe that good and evil always reside like the two sides of the coin and that even the most detested person has an angelic side?

I do not believe in black and white. All of us live in varying shades of grey. If you were to give a colour to the Mahabharat, it would be grey. And it is in that spirit I've written Tunnel of Varanavat. So, you will find darkness in my protagonist and light in the antagonist.

But why believe me? Look around yourself. Choose the worst person you know. And look at him carefully. You will definitely see light. Can any single person be labelled as one or the other?

Even better, look within and you'll see light and darkness.

Publisher: Rupa Publications / Price: Rs 395  
'Tunnel of Varanavat'
is to be the first book in the 'Mahabharat reimagined' series. So how many books will the readers see as a part of this series? What will your next book be about?
The Mahabharat is so vast that I could spend this and the next few lifetimes simply writing book after book on theme after theme. Right now I have no idea about how many books lie ahead --- several, I hope. I am already a quarter of way down in my next book.

It is fun to revel in the imagination of writing several books. But that's a romantic notion. The reality is that you write one word. Then the next. Then it becomes a sentence. Then the next. Then a para and next. Then a chapter and you celebrate. Then the next chapter and the next. Soon it becomes a manuscript. Then you edit it and weep and cry and tear your hair. Then you proof it. It is a long and laborious process but you do it because it's what you do, it's who you are, it's what you leave when you move on to the next body.

As far as the next book goes, all I can tell you is this: if you like Tunnel of Varanavat, you will love the next one.

Your book emphasises several philosophies. What message do you expect readers to take back with them after reading the Tunnel of Varanavat ?
First, there is no message except to enjoy the story, explore ancient India, understand our culture, smell the earth, climb the mountains, feel the cuts and the blows, meet interesting characters, sense Ved Vyas's Mahabharat flowing in your blood, sitting in your bones, resonating in your cells within you the way I do. Be the Mahabharat.

Second, walk the three journeys with Badri --- the physical, the emotional and the spiritual --- and the accompanying three transformations.

Third, explore the science behind spiritualty --- the movement of consciousness in this book --- as examined and propounded by Sri Aurobindo.

The Mahabharat is the story of India and it is our story. It is the greatest epic ever written or even imagined --- at 100,000 shloks or 200,000 lines, it is 10 times larger than Iliad and Odyssey combined.

From war and governance to dharm and spirituality, the Mahabharat has it all. Think of any character anywhere and you will see her reflections in the Mahabharat. Track any incident in the past or present and you will see it in the Mahabharat.

As a student of Ved Vyas and Sri Aurobindo, this is my small contribution, a drop in the ocean that is the Mahabharat.

(See: Book excerpt from Tunnel of Varanavat )