Author: Shivaji Sawant
It is often said that the books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own pasts, and not necessarily for the stories we read there, but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them; to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book. The timelessness of the epic is witnessed as we continue to name our children after various characters in the Mahabharata. The brave feats of the epic’s warriors still continue to shape our dreams and inspire our films.
The Marathi novel "Mrityunjaya" is a classic novel written by Shivaji Sawant on the life of Karna, the greatest tragic hero in Indian history. Despite being dedicated to the life and times of the benign hero, it highlights significant characters from the Mahabharata and also a socio-political frame of the time. To begin with, Karna is the eldest son of the Pandava queen Kunti and Surya, the sun God. Due to Kunti's fear of being scorned, she abandoned him in a box. He was found and brought up by Adhiratha, a coachman from Hastinapura and his wife Radha.
Mrityunjaya was written as a semi-autobiographical take on Karna’s life. The book is written from the point of view of six characters: Karna opens and takes us closer to the end of his story, interspersed with chapters by Kunti (his mother), Duryodhana (his best friend), Vrishali (his wife), Shon (his younger foster brother) and a grand ending by the Lord, Krishna. Apart from indulging the semi-autobiography of a fictional figure, the writer Shivaji Sawant touches on one of the biggest realities of human society, one that has not changed since time immemorial. He reminds us of how we, as a society, place an abnormal amount of emphasis on someone's background to form an opinion of them, irrespective of their actual behaviour or worth.
The search for meaning of being is a man's eternal quest and that entirely forms the basis of Mrityunjaya. The book is an outstanding instance of a literary masterpiece in which Shivaji Sawant explores the meaning of life through the persona of the prince from the Mahabharata. It is a remarkable exploration of the human psyche. In Mrityunjaya, Karna is given a three-dimensional personality, something which the original Mahabharata does not provide. The writer also takes a few liberties with the original, but the changes he makes are only to make the story more realistic. The characters of Vrishali and Shon for example, are given such appropriate voices, that you are left wondering whether Sawant had the fortune of stumbling upon some long lost letters written by them.
My only complaints with this book were a few intermittent yet inexplicable errors, such as the turning of the Kuru dynasty into a solar one, which I presume is to reinforce Karna's fascination with the throne of the Hastinapura and also partly because as the son of the Sun when the Mahabharata describes the Kuru dynasty as a lunar dynasty. He has also referred to Krishna constantly as the king though this is not how it is narrated in the Itihasa-purana tradition. If you are into mythology, Mrityunjaya will certainly interest you. As a psychological insight into Karna's life, the metaphors in the book are very apt and the conversations between different characters are thought-provoking. Even if your introduction to Karna is through the Mahabharata alone, you cannot help but feel empathy for the eldest son of Kunti. In fact, Mrityunjaya only deepens it.
Summing up, Mrityunjaya is one of the most eloquently narrated books and is most certainly a book worth adding to one's reading collection.