Friday, August 30, 2013

Interview with Bibek Debroy on the Mahabharata

Icing on a Delicious Cake

People following my blog will know that I started reading and writing about Dr. Bibek Debroy's unabridged translation of the Mahabharata in 2012. Some time ago I asked Dr. Bibek Debroy if he would be willing to answer some questions I had on the Mahabharata and its unabridged translation he has been doing. He graciously consented, and soon enough I typed out a list of fifteen questions. Within a couple of days I got his detailed response to my questionnaire.

This is the complete, unedited question and answer set that I had sent to Dr Bibek Debroy. I have added some formatting and links as well as some explanatory sentences - which are clearly marked out.

Q: Can you share which versions of the Mahabharata you read in your earlier days? Can you share your thoughts on what it felt to read different versions, regional adaptations, retellings? Can you recommend some? 
BD: As with several people, one began by reading versions in the vernacular.  In my case, that was Bengali.  At that time, most children in Bengal read Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury's versions, written in Bengali.  I never read any Amar Chitra Katha types.  At a slightly older age, there was Rajshekhar Basu.  He did abridged translations of both the Ramayana and the Bharata.  Finally, there was Kaliprasanna Singha's unabridged translation, based on the eastern version of the Mahabharata.  This was done in the mid-19th century and was interestingly, dedicated to Queen Victoria.  In English, the perennial favourite, though abridged, is Rajaji.  There were many people who wrote on the Mahabharata and stimulated one's interest.  Examples are Irawati Karve, Durga Bhagwat, Shivaji Sawant, Buddhadeva Bose.  Some of these were in Marathi.  But I picked that up, enough to read, in Pune,between 1983 and 1987.  In recent times, John Smith's unabridged translation is a good one.
[Abhinav: Some of Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury's (Wikipedia, Banglapedia) books on the Mahabharata are "Chotoder Mahabharat" (1909), and "Mahabharater Galpa" (1909). 
Rajshekhar Basu's (Wikipedia) wrote "Krishnadvaipayan Vyas krita Mahabharat" (1949), Valmiki Ramayan (1946), Kalidaser Meghdut (1943), and "Shrimadbhagabat Gita", among others.
Kaliprasanna Singha was a philanthropist who had the Mahabharata translated to Bengali, under the supervision of Vidyasagar.
"Rajaji" is, of course, C Rajagopalachari, and his abridged retelling of the two epics are still very popular today - Ramayana and Mahabharata
Irawati Karwe wrote Yuganta, which won a Sahitya Academy Award in 1968.
Durga Bhagwat wrote Vyas parva.
Shivaji Sawant wrote Mrityunjay - based on Karna.
Buddhadeva Bose wrote a play, Kalshandhya, from the Mahabharata.
John Smith did an edited translation of the Mahabharata in 2009]

Q. When did you start to want to read the original (or at least an unabridged version), and what were some of those unabridged works that you read?
BD: Kaliprasanna Singha is unabridged.  In addition, Aryashastra brought out an unabridged version, with a translation in Bengali.  Those were the first unabridged versions I read.  This was primarily to do "research" on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  Those "papers" were published in Bengali and in English (in Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute) and eventually published as a book in a collection of essays in 1989, titled, "Some Essays on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata".

Q: You translated excerpts from the major Puranas several years ago. Was it a conscious decision to do an abridged translation (given that the Puranas run into 400,000 shlokas), thus allowing you to cover all the major Puranas?
BD: At that time, Motilal Banarsidass began to publish unabridged translations of the Puranas.  For reasons I don't know, that project ended, without completing the series.  Meanwhile, the publisher (D.K. Publishers as Books for All) thought there wasn't a market for the Puranas in unabridged form.  So he wanted all of them reduced to 100 printed pages.  This meant serious abridgement for something like Skanda Purana, less so for something like Markandeya Purana.  It was more a publisher decision, rather than mine.  It is not always easy to get publishers.
[Abhinav: the abridged translations were published as Great Epics Of India Puranas (In 19 Vols.), by Dipavali Debroy, Bibek Debroy.
The Skanda Purana is 81,000 verses long, almost as long as the entire Mahabharata. The Markandeya Purana, on the other hand, is 9,000 verses long.]

Q: Did you at any point consider doing an abridged retelling versus an unabridged translation of the Mahabharata? 
BD: No. That's not what I want to do.  There are others doing that, the abridged retelling business.  Even if I don't do it, there will be no vacuum.  But if I don't do the unabridged, I don't see anyone else doing it in a hurry.  There is always a trade-off in terms of time.  There are other things I want to do with my time.

Q: Why did you choose the Critical Edition for the translation? The Clay project used the Nilkantha version as its basis for instance. The Critical Edition also excises several incidents which are firmly embedded in the popular imagination - like Krishna's intervention in the Dyuta Parva, Ganesha as the scribe, Urvashi's curse, and the story of Shikhandi which is very different in the Critical Edition.
BD: Everyone uses Nilakantha's commentary, in greater or lesser degree.  Though there can be reservations about the Critical Edition and what it did, it was put together by a board of scholars after a great deal of effort.  Scholars regard this as the authenticated text.  There was not much scope for choice and I knew that Clay was doing the so-called vulgate version.  I wished to do something that was not just popular, but, in principle, could also be used for "research".
[Abhinav: Nilkantha Chaturdhara was a Sanskrit scholar in the 17th century who lived in Varanasi, and whose commentary on the Mahabharata - Bhāratabhāvadīpa - is still widely used.
See this Wikipedia article on the Critical Edition. Also see the web site of the The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for more information on the Mahabharata Project.]

Q: Why did you select ten volumes versus, say, five, or any other number? Was the six months per volume  publishing schedule your choice? Did it seem conservative or aggressive at the time? And now, with seven volumes done?
BD: 10 and 12 were nice round numbers.  The idea was not to initially have hardcover, but hard kind of soft cover.  That set a limit on the number of pages that could be handled.  I used the number of chapters to divide up the text into 10 segments.  That was a mistake, because the number of shlokas is not fixed per chapter.  I should have done that division on the basis of the number of shlokas instead.  Consequently, I thought 185,000 word per volume would be right.  It is actually more like 210,000.  So I made a mistake in the number of volumes.  It should have been 12, not 10.  As a result, the Hari Vamsha, which was supposed to be part of the same series in some sense, has now been pushed into a 11th volume.

Q: From your interviews, it appears this translation has been a solitary effort. If you had assistance, would you have taken it, and in what ways would an assistant helped you?
BD: Yes.  It is a solitary effort.  I don't think I would have accepted assistance.  That is true for other work too.  It is very difficult to get research assistants who are good and whom you can trust.  In the last resort, the buck stops with you.  I don't trust research assistants and wouldn't have, in this case too.  Had there been a research assistant, we would probably have had an index and done the cross-referencing better.  But not for the translation proper.

Q: In the three years since your first volume of the Mahabharata's unabridged translation came out, have you gone back to any of the volumes to re-read them?
BD: No, I haven't.  There are too many things to do.  So once something has been done, I don't go back and read it, even for Economics.  The solitary exception is when something has to be revised.  When the 10 volumes are done, there is a case for revisiting and revising.  But right now, I haven't gone back and re-read them, unless someone has a problem and points out an anomaly.

Q: What motivated you to include so many footnotes in your translation? While I do not have a reliable count, I estimate close to a thousand or more footnotes in every volume. While some are routine, some others are quite elaborate.
BD: The idea is to make things as clear as is possible to the reader.  Some footnotes could have been reduced by incorporating them in the text itself, like saying Arjuna or Yudhishthira, instead of Partha. Many translators do that, including Ganguli.  But I wanted the translation to be exactly faithful.  Wherever I thought something would not be clear to the reader, I plugged in a footnote.
[Abhinav: see "A Note on the Footnotes", on the footnotes in Vol. 6.]

Q: Each volume of the translation features a graphic on its spine as a sort of leit motif for the volume, even as the cover has stayed the same for all seven volumes (so far), differing only in colour. What prompted this design decision?
BD: The publisher produced the basic design.  I liked that.  Everyone else seems to have like it, though the design per se doesn't say anything.  It is nice and attractive.  The motif on the spine is done in consultation with me, so that it captures a bit about what is in that particular volume.
[Abhinav: see this post for an explanation of the spines of the first six volumes.]

Q: Since the complete Mahabharata is said to have been compiled over hundreds of years, with additions made by several people of varying abilities, which Parva - from the perspective of Sanskrit and meter - is your favourite?
BD: Across Parvas, this is impossible to answer.  That is, within the same parva, you have variations in the quality of Sanskrit and metre.  To take an example, Shanti Parva is extremely interesting.  But the quality of poetry and metre there leaves a lot to be desired, some times.  Having said this, forced to choose a favourite parva, I would opt for Aranyaka (Vana) Parva.
[Abhinav: Aranyaka Parva is the third parva in the Mahabharata, and is covered in Vols 2 and 3 of Dr. Debroy's translation. Shanti Parva is expected to be covered in Vols 8 and 9.]

Q: Which Parva did you find the most laborious, and which one the most enjoyable?
BD: The Shanti Parva (Vols.8 and 9) proved to be the toughest.  I presume that will also be true somewhat of Anushasana Parva, which I have not yet done.  The reason is the spiritual and metaphysical elements.  Every once in a while, the Sanskrit may be clear, but it is very difficult to figure out the intended meaning.  Stated differently, the distinction between translation and interpretation becomes blurred.

Q: There are several episodes of statecraft and philosophy embedded in the epic, like by Narada in Sabha Parva, or Prajagara and Sanatsujata Parvas, or in several places in the Markandeya Samasya Parva. Is there any that is a favourite of yours?
BD: I will distinguish between statecraft and spiritual aspects.  Statecraft is best enunciated in parts of Shanti Parva, Rajadharma Parva.  For the spiritual aspects, though there are several, it has to be the Bhagavad Gita, because the quality of the poetry there is superb.
[Abhinav: the Bhagvad Gita parva is contained in Vol. 5 of Dr. Debroy's translation.]

Q: Most reviews of the series that have appeared have been what one could describe as the "non-scholarly" variety. Have you received criticism - constructive or otherwise - from Sanskrit and Mahabharata scholars? 
BD: No, I haven't and that's a pity.  Criticism has usually been in the nature of typos.  I wish there was more serious criticism.  Wendy Doniger promised to do that.  She hasn't so far.  Instead, she sent me an email saying the translation was "awfully good" and that she was using it in the course that she taught.

Q: You have mentioned that your next project may be an unabridged translation of the Ramayana. Will you follow the Baroda Critical Edition for that also?
BD: After the Hari Vamsha, the Valmiki Ramayana is next.  But this is not quite like the Mahabharata.  The substantive versions are the Baroda Critical Edition and the Southern one.  The Southern one only has a few more shlokas.  So I am somewhat undecided.  Perhaps, because only a few more shlokas are involved, one should base it on Baroda, but also include the shlokas from the Southern.
[Abhinav: Vol. 8 is expected to publish in Nov 2013, and volumes 9 and 10 in 2014. The Ramayana translation is therefore expected only in 2015.]

Once again, a big thanks to Dr. Debroy!

My reviews: Vol.1Vol.2Vol. 3Vol. 4, Vol.5 (12), Vol. 6 (123), Vol. 7
More info.

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.