Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Thirteenth Day by Aditya Iyengar, 2015

The old warrior lay on a bed of arrows.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two great epics that most Indians hear about from childhood. At the heart of the larger-than-life stories about royal succession and moral dilemma are dynastic conflicts that take place on a grand scale.

Although the narratives are more mythological than historical, many scholars cite archaeological evidence to suggest that the two wars in the epics actually took place thousands of years ago. Each battle of right and wrong and good versus evil occurs during a yuga, or epoch, in Hinduism.


Mumbai-based writer Aditya Iyengar has set The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War (2015) in Kali Yuga—the Dark Age or Iron Age—the fourth and final cycle of life, the times we live in. The Kurukshetra War is the main element of the Mahabharata. It pertains to a fierce struggle between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the kingdom of Kuru at Hastinapura, said to be in modern-day Haryana in North India. 

The succession battle eventually leads to an internecine war fought over eighteen days and decides the fates of the cousins and their friends and allies.

Iyengar infuses a fresh perspective into his story by narrating it through the eyes of Yudhishthira, Radheya, and Abhimanyu, three of several principal characters in the epic who are as flawed as they are infallible.

Yudhishthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the five Pandava brothers, fights his own inner battles as he tries, somewhat reluctantly, to prove he is as good as his more valiant brothers. The man who would be king would rather be elsewhere than on the battlefield.

Radheya, popularly known as Karna, is half-brother of the Pandavas. He lends his warfare skills to Suyodhana (Duryodhana), the Kaurava leader, after he learns the truth about his illegitimate birth to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. The stable boy grows up to become a great warrior and an expert archer. In this, he is almost equal only to Arjuna, the third Pandava. Radheya is bitter and confused as he struggles with his feelings towards his royal half-brothers and his desire to rule the kingdom as the eldest.

Abhimanyu, the warrior son of Arjuna, is desperate to prove himself on the battlefield. He resents his father’s instructions to stay in the reserves. Skilled in warfare and audaciously brave, the young prince enters the battleground, vanquishes rulers far more experienced than him, and pays with his life.

The thirteenth day in the title of the book refers to the 13th and most decisive period of the 18-day war when the wily Kauravas lure Abhimanyu into the Chakravyuha, a multi-layered battle formation akin to an onion, and kill him in cold blood. The event is seen as a game changer in the war as Arjuna, distraught with grief, vows to destroy the enemy and avenge his son’s brutal death. 


Author Aditya Iyengar
The author explains the premise behind his debut novel in his synopsis. 

“The 13th day treats the Kurukshetra War as a historical event rather than mythology. So the events are explained as if they really happened—without the fantastic elements: the flying asuras, nuclear potential astras and divine intervention. In doing this, I've tried to explain how real events and people become stories and legends, and eventually the myths that become a part of our living heritage.”

He continues, “In a sense, I've written the story as a parallel to our times and while the story is set a thousand years ago, it acts as a mirror to society today. The underlying theme of the story revolves around identity and deals with our need for a positive public impression and the lengths we can go to secure it. All the characters act with a motive to gain greater glory or public currency from the battle. None more so than Abhimanyu, who wants to be remembered as the greatest warrior of his times and who, like any young person, wants to be spoken of 'in the words of bards and poets' (the mass media of those times).”


In retelling a section of the Kurukshetra War, Aditya Iyengar has tried to remove the veneer of mystery and romanticism from the epic and redrawn its feared and revered characters and made them more realistic and appealing. While he has kept the famed celestial weapons of war out of his narrative, he has described the battle on the ground with graphic intensity. The brutality of the Kurukshetra is reminiscent of violent and bloody conflicts of the modern world.

I enjoyed reading The Thirteenth Day because of my familiarity with the epic. The Mahabharata can and has been interpreted in different ways. Iyengar chose to do so from the point of view of three disparate characters and, in so doing, demolished some of the myths surrounding the powerful warriors and the battles they fought. I saw them as more human and less supernal beings.

Iyengar’s writing is good and his narrative is engaging, though it tends to meander through some of the battle scenes. At 260 pages, I thought my ebook was a tad too long. It’d have read crisper with less, but that's the writer's prerogative. A reader not familiar with the Kurukshetra War will find the book of interest as it provides a glimpse into one of ancient India’s premier Sanskrit literature.

Recommended.

24 comments:

  1. This sounds really interesting, Prashant. And Iyengar chose a fascinating way to tell the story: through those particular eyes, as though the events were historical. It all sounds as though it made for an absorbing story, no matter how much of what happened is actually true.

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    1. Thanks, Margot. I particularly liked the three characters he chose from the Mahabharata. Karna and Abhimanyu have been my favourite characters from the epic since I first read about them in comics. The author has adapted the story to reflect modern times but without taking away its mythological or historical value. There are fascinating stories within stories in both the great epics.

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  2. This sounds interesting - for me it would be a journey into unknown territory, but all the more appealing for that reason.

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    1. Thanks, Moira. It is an interesting rendition of a story most of us grew up listening. "The Bhagavad Gita," the famous Hindu scripture, came out of the Kurukshetra War, also known as the war of righteousness. It looks at the moral dilemma of one's duty as a warrior and the necessity to kill one's own kin, to uphold dharma, or the law of nature.

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  3. Interesting, but you haven't tempted me Prashant.

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    1. No problem, Col. If you are looking to read out of the box, then you might like to take a peek at this book.

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  4. Sounds really interesting Prashant - and, well, this is why I shal have to get an e-reader of some kind as the odds are against me getting it on paper as easily. Thanks.

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    1. Sergio, the novel resonated with me as I'm quite familiar with the Mahabharata. It was interesting to read a new take on the story.

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  5. This sounds really interesting. I know so little about history and mythology in other parts of the world outside Europe and the US. I bet there are some wonderful wonderful stories to be heard and read.

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    1. Charles, there are also some wonderful stories in the many regional languages of India. I plan to read these and other Indian writing in English in 2016.

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  6. Years ago I picked up a copy of Bhagavad Gita and thumbed through it, but decided I didn't know enough about it to actually read it. The names that appear in these books are difficult to pronounce and hard to remember for one who is not familiar with them and the reading becomes more of a chore than an enjoyment. I need much more education in the subject.

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    1. Oscar, I know what you mean. I find some of the names difficult to pronounce too. Luckily, there are many simple translations of the BHAGAVAD GITA that are easy to understand. It's a great spiritual literature on the way of life.

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  7. Dear Prashant
    Visit your blog after ages n there you are reviewing the book that I've been dying to read!!! I love the MB but have never seen it as a devotional text and have little patience with those who see the power struggle b/w the cousins as a 'dharamyudh'. With both sides indulging in immoral acts (in fact, the Pandavs violate the laws more often) it is difficult to tell who is right and who is not. But one thing is clear, it is definite that their dharma is only to gain the crown of Hastinapur.

    You describe Abhimanyu's killing as cold-blooded. Sorry but I disagree. To me it has always seemed something that happened in the heat of the battle with the older warriors resenting a young warrior's prowess. Shameful, yes; coldblooded,no. I'd say the strategies to kill Bheeshma and Drona, conceived by the Pandavs, were cold-blooded. I remember crying the first time I read about the beheading of Drona in Rajgopalachari's MB. The deaths of Radheya and Duryodhan through unfair means move me a lot too.

    How have the Kauravas been described in this book? If they are shown as evil rather than flawed and conflicted than this book is not for me.

    Hope you don't mind the long comment but MB is my fave text and I love to read about it:)

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    1. Hi Neer! You are always welcome, as are your insightful thoughts.

      I agree, the battle of Kurukshetra is anything but a dharamyudh. Not speaking in context of this book, the epic is about an ordinary war fought by extraordinary warriors who are as brave and fallible as soldiers in a modern war. I like the Mahabharata, too, and especially enjoy reading Rajagopalachari's version for its narrative simplicity. For me, the most important and valuable element of the epic is the message of the Gita. That is the real essence of the war.

      Abhimanyu's end was meticulously planned by the Kauravas and he walked right into the booby trap, in spite of professing secret knowledge of getting in and out of the battle formation, Chakravyuha. I thought the manner of his killing was brutal and cold-blooded, a view I partially attribute to my liking for Abhimanyu's character.

      The Kauravas are not shown as "evil" any more than the Pandavas are shown as more virtuous. In that sense, THE THIRTEENTH DAY is well-balanced. I look forward to reading your review of the book.

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    2. Dear Prashant, thanks for the reply. I have always enjoyed Kamala Subramaniam's fine translation of the MB. Rajgopalachari is good for beginners but seems too simplistic as one moves on.

      I thought the Kauravas constructed the chakravyuh for the elder Pandavs, barring Arjun, who was lured away. Abhi, I think, was unlucky to have got trapped. That's why I think his murder wasn't planned in cold-blood. That said, it doesn't take away the shame of that act and the disgrace it brought to some of the most accomplished warriors of the day. Radhey, one of my great favourites, among them.

      Thank God, the writer has stuck a balance. I am tired of those retellings which show it as black-hearted Kauravs vis-a-vis butter won't melt in our mouths Pandavs.

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    3. Neer, thanks for mentioning Kamala Subramaniam's work on the subject. I will try and read it. The great war can be interpreted in so many ways, as Aditya Iyengar has done in his book. I thought it was a nice idea to look at the war through the eyes of just four of its principal characters.

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  8. Yes, another thing. How has the Duryodhan/ Radheya friendship described? If the writer has shown Duryodhan simply using Karn as a counter to Arjun, than again this book is not for me:) Simply can't abide the fascinating equation b/w Radheya and Duryodhan reduced to some sort of selfish usage by Duryodhan.

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    1. Neer, you'll be surprised to know that Duryodhana, while standing by his friend Karna, has a minor role in the story. I won't say further as I don't want to spoil it for you.

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    2. Oh no. Just once, just once I want a book which describes their relationship lovingly and in detail. Guess, I'll have to wait.

      Incidentally, have you seen Mani Ratnam's movie Thallapathi which transports their friendship to modern day India?

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    3. Neer, I rarely watch Indian films, which makes me sort of an elitist. The reason is that I have no patience for films running beyond 80-90 minutes. That's my limit. Although, Hollywood has been crossing the 90-minute barrier more frequently these days. I will check out THALLAPATHI.

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  9. Just dropped in (in the middle of packing) to say that I'll be off-line for a few weeks, Prashant. I'll be visiting with family for the holidays. In the meantime, Happy Holidays and the Happiest of New Years to you and your family. God bless.

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    1. Hi Yvette! I'm glad you are. I like the idea of taking a break from blogging and all forms of social media. Happy Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family too!

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  10. Sounds like a very interesting book, Prashant, and not overly long. It would be challenging to follow with little familiarity with the story.

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    1. Tracy, you will find the book interesting if you read up on the Mahabharata on the internet. In spite of the numerous, and often confusing, characters, elements, scenarios, and settings, it's not very complicated. The epic even reads like a soap opera.

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