Patriotism through parody - my review of Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel

I consider Shashi Tharoor to be one of India's finest contemporary minds. His genius shines through in his every enterprise - be it oratory, writing or political commentary. I recently discovered another arrow in his intellectual quiver, comedy. The Great Indian Novel is a work of comedic genius - a grafting of the Woodhousian tradition of wry, hyperbolic humor over loud and noisy 20th century India. For fodder, Tharoor takes two of India's grandest stories, the Mahabharata and the Indian Freedom Struggle and fuses them into an irreverent comedic masterpiece. The idea to merge these two drastically different stories is a spark of pure magic. In retrospect, these tales possess remarkable synergy that makes this fusion very natural and spontaneous.

In the grandest sense, both these stories ponder the 'Idea of India'. The Mahabharata asks the question whether Bharat is the land of the usurping Kauravas or the Dharmic Pandavas. The Freedom Struggle asks whether India can aspire to be more than a grubby gem on Imperial Britain's greedy crown. And yet, neither of these tales is black-and-white. They are filled with morally compromised characters and possibly adharmic actions that stain every victory with a whiff of scandal. Far too often 21st century India is tempted to ignore these complexities and impose a binary cleanliness to these multifaceted stories. Tharoor picks out these gray undertones like a blood hound and lays them out to dry.

Tharoor's characters are surprisingly well-etched for a work of comedy. Prominent characters from the Mahabharata are paired with ones from the freedom struggle. Bhisma is Mahaguru Gangaji, the enema-loving sage on the hunt for absolute Truth. Dhritrastra is the favored Fabian Socialist disciple of the Mahaguru. Pandu is the Mahaguru's spurned disciple who flirts with fascists out of love for his country. Priya Duryodhani is Dhritrastra's daughter whose political philosophy takes from the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove, sometimes discarding the glove altogether. Karna is the aristocratic, scotch-loving lawyer who convinces the Mullahs of his religious pedigree and carves out the Islamic state of Karnistan out of India. The five Pandavas reflect different aspects of the Indian story. Yudhistir is India's obsession with the notion of Dharma. Bhim is India's kludgy, but immensely powerful army. Arjun is the blessed, but perennially conflicted Indian media. Nakul is India's bureaucracy for whom life begins and ends on quintupled forms. Sahadev is the consummate Indian diplomat, capable of examining every aspect of a problem without ever coming close to solving it. Tharoor manages to make fun of all these characters while simultaneously bringing out their best traits. This book deserves to be read and re-read for the complexity Tharoor imbues into these characters.

As much as I enjoyed the book for its humor, I was forced to ask myself whether this book will get published without controversy in 2016 India? I doubt it. Superficially this book mocks too many of India's vaunted religious and political figures. Tharoor's subtextual or contextual praise for these characters will not be appreciated by many. There is a high chance of the saffron brigade using this book to hammer another dent on the Constitution's 'inconvenient' freedom of speech guarantees. And in the current political climate, I wonder whether the pillars of Indian democracy will do the right thing and protect this work. There is too much political mileage to be obtained from letting a prominent opposition MP get roasted by 'righteous' offended masses. Perhaps it's a good thing that this book is less well known than it deserves to be.

To get back to the book, Tharoor sprinkles it with ruminating passages that ask moral and philosophical questions, primarily through the book's orator V.Vji. I found the last few pages to be its most introspective moments. Yudhistir is about to die on top of a mountain and gets repeatedly tested by his cosmic father, Dharma. Yudhistir successfully clears each test but is left empty-handed at the end. He then wonders on the whole point of these dharmic tests. What is the point of Dharma if it's sole purpose is testing for its existence in every deed? Tharoor leaves this question unanswered to some degree. I think it's the right question to be raised. India and Indians love raising the specter of Dharma in everything. Dharma is almost a kitchen-sink for our every action and inaction; remember the doctrine of strategic restraint? I consider questioning the usefulness of dharma to be a most dharmic rite.

To summarize, I learned more about my country from this work of comedy than from all my school history textbooks combined. I urge every Indian to grab a copy at the earliest.


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