But Karve, the ground-breaker, memorable for her bold scrutiny and critical acumen, could go only so far. Meanwhile, came my way in 1992, Draupadi, the Hindi version of Yagyaseni, the Oriya novel by Pratibha Rai. Draupadi recapitulating the events in her life and commenting on them from her viewpoint as a woman. It was a new angle, and quite appealing. Besides, it spurred me on to the six-volume edition of Mahabharata of Gita Press, Gorakhpur. Quite an arduous undertaking, but fairly rewarding. In 1994, I chanced upon ‘The Book of Yudhisthir’ by Buddhadev Basu (Sangam Books, Hyderabad, 1986). Its ‘installation’ of Yudhisthir as the hero of Mahabharata seemed curious and decidedly radical.
But most of my questions regarding several characters and events remained unaswered. What I still awaited, perhaps unconsciously, for my persistent doubts and maverick questions to be calmed, was a book in progress over years, the trenchant and perspicacious Mahabharater Maharanye by Pratibha Basu, 85, a renowned Bengali novelist and short story writer. True, I hadn't read her writings. And, it was from an article ‘‘The Mahabharata - A New Interpretation’’ by Oroon Ghosh in a magazine, The Radical Humanist, Nov.1997, Delhi, (pub.now form Bomaby), that I first came to know of her work.
Luckily, a few months thence, a family friend, the Urdu ghazal-singer (classical vocalist), and ex-AIR (Delhi) artiste, Monideepa Sharma, nee Chatterji, a fellow Californian, resident in a neighbouring city, was going to visit her parents in Calcutta. Thanks to her that I got the book and read it in March 1998. The experience was electric. Its scope, its probe, its questions and explanations, went far beyond my cogitations. (Moni also brought me, among other books, Sunil Ganguly's Sei Somoy, a tableau of the creative giants of 19th century Bengal, dedicated by him to Kali Prasanna Singh, the ‘‘vishal manishi’’ in Pratibha Basu's words. Sheer coincidence!) In a very holistic manner the central and peripheral questions seemed answered to my satisfaction. Points of interest and importance that hadn't struck me before, steeped still as I was in many of the handed down shibboleths, were mulled by the author, and, in the light of her rational reading (''as a lay reader", according to her), unraveled and resolved. She seemed to be tearing down the cobwebs of
falsehoods and fantasies fabricated by Vyasa to camouflage and explain away intrigues and crimes. Her blinding searchlight not only illuminated the scene, it shot through even the innards of the conspiracy, surprising the conspirators with its glare. Nothing any more remained sacred as touted, or mysterious as contrived.
Her radical interpretation and reconstruction of epic may not be a religious devotee's cup of tea. Even among litterateurs, let alone the lay readers, her reversal of the grand narrative may be too harsh a pill to swallow. But no discussion of Mahabharata henceforward can afford to ignore it. No analysis or evaluation of the epic hereafter can offer anything fresh and substantive without taking into account Mahabharater Maharanye, the tightly argued critical monograph whose publication in 1997 (Vikalp, 1 Bidhan Sarani, 2nd Floor, Calcutta 700 073) should have been hailed as a historic event. Books of this calibre are rare and infrequent. Its incisiveness, its logical rigour, its vision of the whole, its ruthless resolve not to be distracted by this or that flimsy diversion or feint, its candour, its lack of partisanship of any kind, and its all-encompassing investigation make Mahabharater Maharanye an achievement non pareil. If an author hadn’t written anything else, one such work alone would have ensured him or her immortality as a literary critic of unquestioned authority and major significance in any language.
This brings me to wonder why such a ''controversial'' study of Mahabharata didn't cause a literary furore in Calcutta, and in India. We need not agree with her approach to and her assesment of the epic until we have checked the facts and verified her arguments on the textual touchstone. But to feign ignorance of such a major publishing event speaks ill of the literary scene in Calcutta, justly known to be very aware and vibrant. By now, I had expected a long firestorm of debate following in Maharanye's wake. But nothing of the sort happened. I can only guess the reasons.