Comments appended to the previous episode of Bhimsen, sent in mail and posted on Twitter indicate a fair degree of ambivalence among readers. Exemplars:
Prahlad Rao: Honestly, I was a tad disappointed with the latest Bhim. May be my expectation was too much. I was expecting more details of the war on Day 1.
Aarushi Chakravarti: You have not yet mentioned anything about sanjay’s role in “live commentary”. I was sort of hoping that there would be some demystifying explanation would come from you.
Those are not the only comments by a long way, but they are typical: What the reader looked for and failed to find [Suresh Anchal wrote in to say he had been “impatiently waiting” for the war to begin, so he could read the descriptors] is detail.
I’d earlier planned on doing an extensive post at the end of the series, addressing a whole heap of issues, but I now reckon a couple of points need to be made if the upcoming episodes are not to invite a similar sense of disappointment in you.
The first, and most obvious, point is about the detailing of the war. When I got to this bit [and I’ll admit to dragging my feet a bit, and making two episodes out of one, simply to postpone the moment when I had to get into ‘war reporting’], I had two directions to go.
Clearly, there is a difference between a fly-on-the-wall narrative that assumes omniscience on the part of the narrator, and permits him to be everywhere, see everything and describe it all in the round, and an individualistic, point of view-driven narrative where the focus would be narrower and events outside the narrator’s experience would not form part of the narrative, no matter how crucial such events were.
There is, for instance, no way Bhim would have had the faintest notion what Krishna was telling Arjuna ahead of the battle, so unlike the many Vyasas who together composed the Mahabharat as we know it today, there was no room for me to get into an extended treatise based on the Gita.
When Bhim fights, what he sees is the enemy immediately ahead and, at best, what is happening in his immediate vicinity — he couldn’t tell you how Arjuna fought Bhisma, or how Drona repeatedly cut the bow of Dhristadyumna, or any of the other incidents that highlight the traditional narrative. The story here is POV-driven, so the trick for me is to keep the narrative limited to what Bhim could have known about or been part of.
I toyed initially with the idea of using the daily evening strategy meetings as a device to talk of the war outside of Bhim’s own immediate experience. In those meetings, I could have the others narrate what they had seen and heard, and thus fill in the blanks.
I blocked out a couple of episodes that way and then jettisoned them. MT Vasudevan Nair, whose novel Randaamoozham provides the source material for this recreation, apparently came to the same decision — he too skims lightly over the details of the larger war, and throughout keeps the narration in tight focus.
The reason — and I hope that will become apparent in future episodes — is because unlike the Mahabharat, Randaamoozham [and its loose recreation here] is not so much the story of a war as it is of a family.
In an extensive footnote appended to his book, MT says he is merely “giving voice to the many silences” in the original.
“Giving voice to the silences” is a speaking phrase; it is the thought I’ve kept in front of me while writing successive episodes. The exhaustive details of the war are, for those who want them, easily available in print and on the net. I didn’t go there in the episode in question, and I’ll be going there even less in the episodes to come.
What is missing from the existing narrative is the sense of what happened behind the scenes. Forget the traditional trope of this being a battle between good and evil — what it is, when stripped down to its essence, is the story of a family fighting for survival.
Bound tight by ties of blood and of shared suffering, such a family would come together against the perceived enemy, yes. But even so, as the pressures mount and stress escalates, there will be disagreements — even violent, bitter quarrels, recriminations.
The popular version of the Mahabharat occasionally glances at such; this version will focus more closely on these, at times in extreme close-up. It will, in that sense, “give voice to the silences” and, in the process, paint a picture not of children of god on a divinely ordained mission where the outcome is a given, but of a group of human beings with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, united by a shared mission yet occasionally divided by their own personalities, their world views.
Long story short, what you won’t find in the episodes going forward is exhaustive detail of who fought who how; what you will find — I hope — is a narrative that slips into the silences that lurk beneath the sounds of war.