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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


M.T. Vasudevan Nair

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To purchase Bhima

Title: Bhima
Author: M.T. Vasudevan Nair
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 380 pages
Original in: Malayalam
Availability: Bhima - US
Bhima - UK
Bhima - Canada
Bhima - India
  • Lone Warrior
  • Malayalam title: രണ്ടാമൂഴം
  • Translated and with a Note by Gita Krishnankutty
  • With an afterword, 'Travelling with MT', by Anoop Ramakrishnan
  • Previously translated as Second Turn by P.K. Ravindranath (1997)

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Our Assessment:

B : fine re-telling of familiar story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Business Standard . 25/9/2013 Arundhuti Dasgupta
The Hindu . 4/1/2014 K.Srilata
Outlook* . 24/11/1997 K.Kunhikrishnan
Times Higher Ed.* . 9/2/1998 Radhakrishnan Nayar

[* review of previous translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "The author does not conjure anything new, nor does he add new characters to the epic. He simply presents us with a different perspective. (...) The author not only reveals a new dimension, but also expertly demonstrates the important role that a narrator plays in telling an epic." - Arundhuti Dasgupta, Business Standard

  • "M.T’s daringly original Malayalam text is amply served by Gita Krishnankutty’s powerful translation (.....) M.T’s out-of-the-box Mahabharata employs Bhima, the oft-over-looked and under-valued Pandava, to probe and question the Kshatriya universe and its obviously skewed values." - K.Srilata, The Hindu

  • "The lyrical charm and idiom, and the nuances of the original book lend themselves with difficulty for translation. There has been some abridgement in portions, and in certain others the narrative is a literal translation with well-structured syntax and idiom, though it could have been bettered by editing. Yet, the translation is satisfactory and brings out the rich flavour of the original." - K.Kunhikrishnan, Outlook

  • "Vasudevan Nair is deeply learned, and his style is fluent; the world of the Hindu epics is often vividly pictured. However, he concentrates on the blood and thunder of warfare; little of the wisdom of The Mahabharata is seen here." - Radhakrishnan Nayar, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bhima is a modern retelling of (much of) the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, with a focus entirely on -- and largely from the perspective of -- Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers (after Yudhishthira).
       As Vasudevan Nair explains in his Epilogue, he did not add any new characters for his version:

All I did was to look a little more closely at people whose image remains blurred in the general perspective.
       Bhima is already a significant character in the Mahabharata, the towering figure of immense strength, but in the epic he is overshadowed by elder brother Yudhishthira and the third, Arjuna -- renowned as the greatest of all archers. The focus on Bhima makes for a slight shift in perspective, even if the stories themselves remain unchanged.
       The tale is, of course, an epic one, of the extended conflict between the Pandava brothers and their Kaurava cousins. From Yudhishthira gambling away everything they have to the five brothers all being wed to Draupadi -- they each get her for a year at a time -- to their long years in exile and disguise, their triumphant escapes and returns, and the final great battle to try to settle all the scores, even just the outlines are of an enormous, decades-spanning tales with much action and many twists and turns. Beyond that are the side-stories along the way -- Bhima has other wives, and a son who comes to join the fight when he is grown (Bhima admitting that keeping track of everyone whom everyone is and has been involved with can be complicated: "We princes so often forget our children who were growing up in other places"), and characters go their own way for significant periods of time.
       In his focus on Bhima, Vasudevan Nair offers a neat, full character-portrait; Bhima is very much the leading figure here, his exploits central in the novel (even as they weren't always as prominent in the Mahabharata itself). The family dynamics and relationships are also well-handled, from Yudhishthira -- whose gambling-weakness brings great hardship to the family, and whose decisions are sometimes questioned (though everyone ultimately gets behind the eldest, as they should and must) -- to the often very sly mother, Kunti (as also in her handling of the marriage(s) to Draupadi), or Bhima's forest-dwelling son, a very different kind of character from the royals.
       There's neat invention, well-described: the fine palace the Pandavas wind up in, built to be a death-trap (and Kunti's cold planning to ensure that some bodies are found there after the place goes up in flames), or Bhima's mortal enemy, Duryodhana, training so that he can take on Bhima:
'Duryodhana had a sculptor from the Pandya kingdom make him a huge metal statue of a man. An attendant turns wheels from behind it and its arms and legs move very quickly in combat postures. Duryodhana's principal pastime these days is waging war with that statue.' The old man laughed softly and added, 'I hear the statue looks like you, Bhimasena.'
       Bhima's great strength is something the family can rely on, and they know how important he is -- Yudhishthira reminding their mother (when it looks like she's sacrificed Bhima):
We sleep in peace only because we rely on Bhimasena's strength.
       This is a world of vows and promises, with even the rules for war strictly negotiated beforehand (anyone who abandons the fight and flees is no longer to be a traget, for example) but trickery, cheating, lies, and other ways of circumventing what should be unbreakable promises abound. This is also a world of destiny, with fates foretold -- and nothing to be done to change them. All in all, it makes for a grand, large-scale story, with any number of fascinating human conflicts and any number of great characters (Draupadi and Kunti, in particular, along with Bhima himself) -- though of course it is a lot to fit in in a volume of even this size.
       Bhima of course reads very differently, depending on the reader's familiarity with the source-text. Yudhishthira and Arjuna, for example, are fairly secondary characters here, but anyone familiar with the Mahabharata comes to this side of the story with a much stronger impression already firmly in mind. Nevertheless, while the reader unfamiliar with the Mahabharata might miss some of the resonances, Bhima stands comfortably on its own as a grand adventure tale with some fascinating characters. If more interesting and effective seen as a familiar story from a different vantage point, it stands up well enough on its own, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 August 2014

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Bhima: Reviews (* refers to previous translation): M.T. Vasudevan Nair: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Malayalam-writing Indian author M.T. Vasudevan Nair (എം.ടി. വാസുദേവൻ നായർ) was born in 1933.

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