The first time I read the Mahabharata, it was the comic book version in which the Pandavas were the heroes, the Kauravas were the villains, and Duryodhana’s friend Karna was a warmongering man in a perpetual state of bitter rage.
The next time I read the Mahabharata, I was considerably older and so fascinated by each character’s shades of grey that I read seven different translations in succession, then dived into analysis, and then plunged deep into books that focused on certain characters from the story.
I could not get enough of the Mahabharata then, and clearly I still cannot get enough of the epic because the second I heard that Marathi writer Ranjit Desai’s Radheya had been translated to English by Vikrant Pande as Karna: The Great Warrior, I wanted it immediately.
And then I opened the book and there was Karna. A man against whom the dice had been loaded from the start, but still a man who tried his best to live an honourable life.
This Karna was bitter because of the circumstances of his life, but he tried not to be. He seemed to genuinely love his family. He was generous to a fault, even giving away the armour he had been born with when Indra asked for it, knowing very well that without that armour he was no longer protected. He was patient, thoughtful and introspective. Best of all, he was the very best friend anyone could have, standing firmly by Duryodhana no matter what.
In other words, Karna was a hero, not a villain, except for one detail: he deliberately set out to humiliate Draupadi after Yudhisthira lost everything and everyone in the game of dice on which the great war turned. Karna could have stopped — or at least argued with — Duryodhana when the Kaurava prince ordered Draupadi stripped, but instead he actively urged on the chirharan in view of all the court.
Today, we would call this Karna’s #MeToo moment. Since we are fictionalising a mythological character here, I would say that this is why Karna is not a hero of the Mahabharata. I admit that I hoped for exactly this point to be made in Desai’s version of Karna — but it wasn’t.
Desai did devote a few words to Karna’s state of mind when Draupadi was dragged into the court like a slave after all the dice games were lost. Karna was not a hundred per cent happy even as he urged on the chirharan, but he did it anyway.
It’s clear that the author sees this as a sticking point for a man who should be a hero. But at the end of the book, when Karna finally dies, his behavior with Draupadi is not an issue at all.
For me, this meant that the book is a fail. I wouldn’t give it a zero on ten — there are things to think about. But definitely less than pass marks for not exploring the deepest of all its hero’s greys.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea...