Writing fiction based on our epics is easy. Writing fiction based on our epics is tough. Somewhere along this dichotomy lies the secret to writing a story that achieves the twin feat of holding the reader’s attention and interest while at the same time staying faithful to the original source. Anyone picking up Saiswaroopa Iyer’s Rukmini is likely to know the story to varying degrees of detail. Whether it is the Harivamsha (considered a part of the Mahabharata, but referred to as a ‘kheel’—appendix) or the Puranas, the Bhagavatam primarily, the basic story goes like this: Rukmini was the princess of Vidarbha, daughter of King Bhishmaka and sister of Prince Rukma (or Rukmi).
Her marriage was arranged to Shishupala, king of Chedi, without her knowledge or consent. Shishupala was a commander in Jarasandha’s army and an implacable foe of Krishna. Rukmini sent a message to Krishna at Dwarka that she would marry none other than him. On the eve of her marriage, Krishna and Balarama descended on Vidarbha. While Balarama’s armies held off Vidarbha’s, Krishna carried off Rukmini in his chariot. Interestingly enough, while the Mahabharata has many references to Rukmini and her sons, there is no mention of Krishna’s marriage with Rukmini. You will find this in the Bhagavatam.
When writing a novel based on the Mahabharata, or any other epic for that matter, an author’s job is made easier owing to the fact that people know the characters, the basic plot, the ending, and so on. The reader has an affinity with the story, identifies with these characters, and when it comes to the Mahabharata and Krishna, one can never have enough. On the other hand, because everyone already knows the story, the characters, and has read and re-read about them in umpteen stories, how do you make your story different and memorable? It is a difficult path to tread for any author. In trying to make things ‘memorable’, the temptation to cross over from ‘different’ to ‘distortion’ is but a line, a paragraph, a chapter away. Creative licence can become a synonym for casual corruption. There are many examples where an author is unable or unwilling to differentiate between the two, leaving the reader with a book where only the characters’ names are familiar, but the narrative exists in a discombobulated, parallel, corrupted universe.
Given all this push and pull, how well does Rukmini the novel measure up? The novel is Rukmini’s. Krishna is student, god, lover, husband, but the story is Rukmini’s. The plot moves ahead with Rukmini, key episodes are told from Rukmini’s point of view, and through her we get to know Krishna, Draupadi, Satyabhama, Mitravinda, and others. Whether it is Shishupala’s death at the hands of Krishna, Subhadra’s abduction by Arjuna, the exile of the Pandavas, or even the Kurukshetra battle, we see and experience the story through Rukmini. Some incidents are either mentioned or described post-fact, or described very briefly, to not distract from the story and its core—Rukmini.
Rukmini’s strength of character and strong will come out alive through her words and actions. Her defiance of her father’s decision in the face of Jarasandha’s might, her undisguised contempt for Shishupala and what he represents, the flutter of the heart and the longing for the one whom she knows she belongs to, or the inevitable pangs of envy, we read and feel Rukmini’s emotions in her words and thoughts. A mix of dialogue and narrative, intelligently interspersed, brings alive the pages, and neither element overpowers the other. It is a successful case of ‘showing’, rather than ‘telling’.
If the beginning of the book reveals to us Krishna the youthful and mischievous romancer, as the book approaches the end, an indescribable sense of foreboding and sadness descends on the entire narrative. You know what’s coming—the end of Dwarka. You know Krishna’s end too is near and you feel the approaching desolation. Lessening its gravity would be doing injustice and inventing an alternative, happier ending a graver disservice and distortion. The book does not take the easy path. If you enjoy the romance and bliss of the youthful Rukmini, you must also live her pain and travails.Does Rukmini succeed in being ‘different’ without ‘distorting’? Yes, it does. It retells a story we all know in a way that engages us, holds our attention, and in the end, moves us. It stays faithful to the ‘bhaav’ and ‘rasa’. Do read this one.