Tunnel of Varanavat: Mahabharat Reimagined
When Duryodhana attempted to poison and drown Bheem during their childhood, it was a shocking incident, but one that was quickly forgotten by both the Pandavas and Kauravas. It was perhaps an accident. It was perhaps committed by a child's intellect. But this was manifestly not so when the Kauravas attempted to burn to death all the five Pandavas and their mother Kunti at Varanavat.
by Gautam Chikermane
The plot the Kauravas hatched was devious - to send the Pandavas off to Varanavat on the pretext of attending Pashupati's festival, to get them to stay in a palace constructed almost entirely of flammable materials, and then have Purochana set it on fire in the middle of the night. It was premeditated murder - had they got away with it. As far as pivotal episodes in the Mahabharata go, the Varanavat conspiracy has to be possibly the most pivotal of all. It ranks, along with, Droupadi's humiliation by the Kauravas in the gambling hall, or the killing of Shishupala at Yudhishthira's Rajsuya yagya, as one of those moments that had conveyed a sense of fatality, of inevitability.
The Mahabharata itself does not dwell too much on the conspiracy. In the Adi Parva, the Jatugriha-dava upa-Parva deals with this episode. But even within this short parva of less than 400 shlokas, there is the introduction of the grown-up Pandavas and the capturing of Drupada as Drona's gurudakshina covered. Less than ten chapters are devoted to the entire episode - Duryodhana's cajoling Dhritarashtra, Vidura's coded advice, the entry of the digger, and the eventual escape of the Pandavas. The epic entices the reader to imagine and fill in the tantalizing details it leaves out, and the questions it deliberately refuses to answer. Like, who was Purochana, the evil executioner of the evil plot - what were his motivations beyond the orders of his king and the lure of immense riches? Or how did Purochana manage to get so much of inflammable materials without arousing the suspicions of the people of Varanavat? Or who was the skilled digger - the tunnel digger - that Vidura sent? Did he work alone? How did he manage to stay hidden even as he dug a tunnel from under the palace to a place far away, that would ferret the Pandavas to safety?
All these are tantalizingly unanswered questions that Gautam Chickermane seeks to answer in his taut thriller, "The Temple of Varanavat."
Secret passageways and tunnels - "surang" as they are also often called - used to be the favoured means of escape for kings. These allowed kings to exit the palace undetected during times of peace, and to escape quickly in times of war. Thus, when Badri, expert miner, civil engineer, and architect of tunnels, is approached by Vidur, the prime minister of Hastinapur, with a mission to save the future of the Kuru dynasty, he cannot refuse. Surangraj - the honorific by which Badri goes - sets out to Varanavat, accompanied by his dog, Veer, and horse, Kadak. The forests are not safe any longer - by design, for a reason. Once at Varanavat, he meets Purochana, the formidable giant of a man who stands between him and the lives of the Pandavas. Purochana himself has a history. Then there is Rishi Kedar's ashram, that binds several of the characters together, including Badri, Purochana, and a woman of mystery.
This is not to say that the plot is complete and watertight. There are elements of the inapposite. Like Drona - what Surangraj thinks of Drona is made clear, but why is not elaborated. Perhaps there is no need. But this is like the gun in the thriller that makes an appearance in chapter two but is never fired throughout the novel - it feels like the itch of a phantom limb. Or like the tension between Purochan and his erstwhile guru Kedar and his ashram is brought forth palpably in the initial part of the book, but once the Pandavas arrive at Varanavat, this thread is more or less abandoned. Or the romantic angle between Badri and Urvashi feels oddly extraneous - evocative but unfulfilling.
The plot is tightly woven, and the narrative is built skillfully. It maintains a tautly-woven tension throughout. The pages flip by. The words are skilfully employed to make the characters and situations vivid. Humanizing Purochana is one of the successes of the book. As is imagining the role of Kunti in determining one important aspect of the escape from the palace - what it is I will leave for the reader to discover! Much in the same vein as the Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the Temple of Varanavat is one of the more satisfying re-imaginings of the Mahabharata. If it makes you want to read the full epic, in its unabridged glory, it would have served its purpose even completely.
This review was first published in Creative India Academy on Jan 16, 2017.
Paperback: 306 pages
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (19 February 2016)
Buying info: Flipkart, Kindle US, Amazon US, Kindle India, Amazon India
© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.