By Kabir Altaf
According to Hindu mythology, The Mahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes. Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind. The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn. She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear. Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom. These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela’s Book. The story revolves around Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, an eminent professor of Sanskrit and his relationships with two sisters, Meera and Leela. Twenty-two years before the novel begins, Vyasa had seduced Meera, who died after bearing him a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. After falling out with her sister regarding her relationship with Vyasa, Leela had gone into exile in New York, making a vow never to return to India. Now, two decades later, Leela is forced to return because her husband’s niece is marrying Vyasa’s son. Although the family thinks that they have arranged the wedding for their own selfish purposes, events are really being directed by Lord Ganesha, who is trying to save Leela, his beloved heroine, from Vyasa.
Many sections of Albinia’s novel are actually narrated by Ganesh. The god wants to correct the belief that Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata. As he tells the reader, “I freely admit that my sworn enemy is Vyasa, pedestrian composer of India’s too-long epic, a poem called the Mahabharata, every word of which I wrote” (Albinia 26). Ganesh also wants to reveal Vyasa’s true character. He says: “Now, in the Mahabharata, Vyasa portrays himself as a holy sage, with matted hair and an otherworldly air, an expert teacher, the counsellor of kings, the wise old grandfather of his characters. He builds up a fabulous portrait: comforting yet aloof, clever yet alluring. I have only one problem with this benign vision: it is totally untrue. In these pages of mine, I will correct the misapprehension under which mortals have languished for so long. I will show how Vyasa disrespected ladies, failed to dissuade his descendants from mutual carnage, gave students of literature headaches with his prose.” (29).
Ganesh also confesses that he added his own original characters into Vyasa’s story. Two of these were Leela and Meera. Ganesh tells the reader: “Without mentioning a word of it to anyone, I simply dropped [Leela] into Vyasa’s tale, at one of the few places in the epic where a character didn’t have a name – Vyasa’s own bed, as it happened – as the amorous slave-girl he impregnated by mistake (after his late brother’s widows had had enough of him)” (31). Leela and Meera have been together through eight avatars, and the present story (their ninth avatar) is Ganesh’s last chance to get things right and save Leela from Vyasa.
Another interesting element of Albinia’s novel is her use of poetry as an integral part of the narrative. Meera Chaturvedi had been a poet and after her untimely death, Vyasa had published a book of her poems. However, he had omitted one of the poems because it reflected badly on him and on his relations with the two sisters. At the beginning of the novel, this previously unseen poem is published in the newspaper. It comes to the attention of Vyasa’s daughter Bharati, who is doing her doctoral dissertation on her mother’s poems. The poem seems to hint that Meera had a literary collaborator and also hints at some dark family secrets. The poem is a retelling of the incident in the Mahabharata in which Vyasa impregnates his brother’s wives. It is worth quoting in full (223-224):
THE LAST DICTATION
Book one, a hundred chapters in,
Vyasa tells how his bastard
Birth, his mother’s marriage with a
Brahmin king, and the princes’ death,
Leaves the line without an heir. But
His fish-born mother, resourceful,
Has a plan. She summons her dead
Son’s pretty young widows and says:
Vyasa is here: your husband’s
Hermit brother. Go. Lie with him.
Do exactly as I say. And
The two sisters, fearful, obey.
But seeing the seer, hairy and
Naked, in her bed, the first girl
Shuts her eyes in fright. Vyasa
Is displeased: Due to your error,
Lady, your baby will be blind.
His mother sends the second girl.
She, too, turns pallid with disgust.
Again, the seer blames his lover
For the child’s flaws: And your son
Will be ashen, pale, wan as death.
The third time, then, the sisters take
Revenge. They dispatch a servant
In their place, dressed in royal robes,
Who caresses and kisses him
And charms him with her ardent moans.
Vyasa, soothed by her pleasure,
Bestows a boon: Your son will be
The wisest of men. And Meera
Smiled and said: Look, my own sister,
Learn from the fate of these women.
As we write, defend our children,
This last poem is our weapon,
A sisterhood of blood and ink:
Proof of our collaboration.
Bharati’s journalist boyfriend convinces her that the poem means that her mother’s collaborator was her sister. He suggests that she must go and talk to Leela. The ensuing conversation leads to the revelation of family secrets that Bharati is not prepared for.
Though Albinia’s reworking of the Mahabharata legend and her use of poetry as a central part of the narrative is innovative, the present-day story itself is too melodramatic. Long-lost aunts, turn out to be mothers. The bridegroom turns out to be a closeted homosexual in love with his new wife’s brother. One character, a Hindu nationalist who has disowned his own daughter for marrying a Muslim, is revealed as the rapist of his daughter’s Muslim maid. Though this present-day story is readable and allows Albinia to draw on her knowledge of contemporary Indian life, it feels as if the author has tried to include every possible aspect of Indian society – the rise of Hindu nationalism, Hindu-Muslim tensions, and inter-class relations. The revelation of family secrets at a wedding is also an old plot device, being used for example in Meera Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. Though Albinia’s characters, particularly, Leela, are interesting and the novel is mostly well-written, the body of the novel doesn’t live up to the innovative use of the Mahabharata in the frame story.
Overall, I would recommend Leela’s Book to fans of family soap-operas and to non-Indians looking to get a sense of Indian society. Subcontinentals might enjoy the innovative use of Hindu mythology.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.