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The more things change, the more they remain the same. This is the crux of Sandipan Deb’s first novel, The Last War.
The novel is a retelling of the Mahabharata, but set in the underworld of Mumbai. It is something like the epic unfolding in the environs of The Godfather. The story begins in Mumbai (which was then Bombay) in 1955 when Rustom Pestonjee, an elderly Parsi businessman/smuggler, meets Yash Kuru at the Gateway of India.
Pestonjee is impressed by the marksmanship and demeanour of street performer Yash, who shoots at targets placed on the heads of his nephews — the blind Shankar, the sickly Shiv and the low-born Satya. Picking them off the streets, Pestonjee learns that the Kurus are of royal lineage but are living in penury as refugees from West Punjab. No surprise here that Yash has taken a vow of celibacy to bring up his nephews — sons of his stepbrothers and, in the case of Satya, his maidservant. The warrior prince is the modern-day Bhishma, after all.
Pestonjee hires Yash as a hitman for a single night. On the mission, Yash meets another marksman called B K Acharya, who works for the opposite side; they become friends and allies. They all form a powerful triumvirate and become lords of the city’s underworld by the time Pestonjee dies.
Pestonjee, who dies without any heir, bequeaths his crime kingdom to Yash, making him the regent because Shankar – the eldest of the next generation – is blind. Yash has to turn it over to the most deserving candidate from a yet unborn line of Kurus.
But before his death Pestonjee predicts that the kingdom will be most probably divided between the sons of Shankar and Shiv, and there would be war between them for the spoils.
By this time you must have guessed that the Parsi gentleman has foreseen the battle of Kurukshetra, set in the Bombay of the fifties and sixties. And the three nephews are Dhritarashtra (Shankar), Pandu (Shiv) and Vidur (Satya).
Along the way we also make the acquaintance of Kishen Yadav (Krishna) and also find out that B K is actually the modern-day Dronacharya.
Things move on expected lines from there on, except for the fact that Shankar has two sons, Rahul (Duryodhana) and Ranjit (Dushasana), and a daughter, who is mentioned only in passing. And Pandu has three sons: Rishabh (Yudhisthira), Vikram (Bheema) and Jeet (Arjuna) — all three fathered by different men.
The Kunti of this novel is Aditi, a distant cousin of Kishen. She, of course, has a child out of wedlock; so Karna’s modern-day avatar is Karl Fernandes. And, of course, one cannot have the Mahabharata without Draupadi. So we have Jahnvi, aka Jahn, who is married to Rishabh but is in love with Jeet, with whom she has a son, Abhi.
Rishabh, the personification of fairness, has a gambling habit. First, he takes care of this habit by making an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas. Later, he channels his addiction into the lucrative cricket gambling business and makes a pile of money. But his habit gets the better of him because he bets his share of the crime kingdom – and that of his brothers – and loses it all. He is also implicated in the murder of a bookie and spends a long time behind bars, while his part of the family is exiled to Italy.
After Ranjit’s attempts to rape Jahn, she vows not to tie her hair till she has bathed it in the blood from his heart. Of course, she is saved by Kishen. No surprises there.
The underlying theme of the novel is “dharma” as practised and perfected first by Yash, and later used to good effect by Rishabh. As Yash, the master strategist, says: “Fairness and unfairness count for little in statecraft… One does one’s duty. That is all there is to it.” We find echoes of the same later – in Kishen’s conversations with Jeet – when the ace marksman has doubts about picking up the gun (his Gandiva, or bow, has a more profane nickname in this retelling) against his cousins.
The timelessness of the epic lies in its varied layers. But the author strips away the layers of the epic and the characters he thinks unnecessary to leave us with in a novel with a racy narrative. In other words, it’s a crime thriller loosely based on the main plot of the Mahabharata, and not always with happy results. With the varied tapestry of characters that the author had on tap from the epic, expectations fall flat when one realises that most of them exist only in a single dimension.
Sometimes, the “modernisation” of the epic results in unintended hilarious sequences — for example, the one in which Jeet hides behind the eunuch Chameli to shoot Yash, who wouldn’t fire at a woman. Despite the gravity of the situation, it does seem funny.
The novel ends with Shiv’s children winning the war for control. But the brothers renounce everything and Jahn steps in to take the place at the head of the table. With most people from the other side dead, the last paragraph reminds us that B K’s son Ashwin is still alive and wants to kill Rishabh. This keeps the possibility of a sequel alive.
But since the novel, unlike the epic, exists only on one level, it doesn’t rise above a book you would pick up on your next trip and discard once you’re done.
THE LAST WAR
589 pages; Rs 299