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In Conversation With Kamesh Aiyer

Ranjani Saigal

Kamesh Ramakrishna Aiyer was raised in Mumbai.  He is a lifelong reader of almost anything. As a child, he wanted to be many things – a scientist, a mathematician, a biologist, a writer, and so on. Science and engineering took first priority, so he studied at IIT/Kanpur, then obtained a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and has worked as a scientist and engineer for over 30 years. He still wanted to write, but the inspiration only came when he thought of re-imagining the Mahabharata.  This brought into play the extensive reading he had done, but also required further extensive research and study of original sources. The new perspective was grounded in research on the ecological underpinnings of the epic and has been published in two scholarly journals – The Trumpeter (Canadian) and The Indian Journal of Eco-Criticism .  Now Amazon’s Kindle has provided the opportunity to publish short excerpts of his writing. "The Making of Bhishma" is the first one, and more will be published in the coming months. The book is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007FGWOR4

Kamesh is married to Geeta Aiyer, founder of Boston Common Asset Management which specializes in sustainable investing.  They have two children and live in Cambridge. He talked to Lokvani about his new book - The Mahabharata Re-Imagined.

Could you tell us a little about your professional background?

Basically, I am a computer guy, a scientist, and an engineer. I did my bachelor's in IIT/Kanpur, then Ph.D. at Carnegie-Mellon University in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science. I have been a professor, worked at Digital Equipment Corporation.  I have patents for some AI-related language features from those days.  Then, through the last two decades, I played a variety of technical roles – some highlights include: I was software architect with Open Software Foundation for Motif 2.0, the leading edge user interface standard; I worked in some tech startups, including as CTO; was a systems management standards guru at EMC; and, have done some software consulting.

What motivated you to write the Re-imagined Mahabharata?

I have always been a voracious reader.  All through my life I have read books about all kinds of subjects even if it had nothing to do with my schoolwork or job. I have read about religions, all kinds of mythology, fiction of all kinds, dance, drama, Japan, Samoa, … you name it.
In 1980 or so, I read an intriguing rationalist theory from the somewhat controversial anthropologist Marvin Harris that matched Mahatma Gandhi's views about the role of the cow in Indian culture. Then in 1991, I saw Peter Brooks' movie version of the Mahabharata, which I thought was very compelling but scenes from it made me go back and re-read Rajagopalachari’s popular version.  That then led me to read many different translations and re-tellings of the Mahabharata.  I realized that all these writings focused on the foreground story but that there were common elements in the cultural backdrop of the Mahabharata that could be related to the origins of cow worship, wars, status of women, the origins of caste, etc..

What did I see in the background? There was an unacknowledged environmental disaster in the background (Balarama says so in the Mahabharata, while the Harivamsa says so in a prologue); there is more than one massacre of forest dwellers by city-dwellers; there is massive de-forestation by fire; there is perhaps even an energy crisis caused by building a great new city in the middle of arid land; there is the beginnings of the jaati/caste system. The story of Krishna the cowherd shows a society going from worshipping Indra as the storm-god to worshipping the cow as the supreme giver! The story of Balarama is the story of somebody who gave up cow-herding and became a farmer whose implement is the plough.  Even that has a deeper significance, which I get into in my version.

What value do you see in using names of characters from the Mahabharata and twisting the story away from the original to suit your point of view?

In the beginning I was worried that I was doing something illegitimate.  Then I discovered ancient Indian literature.
I talked with the great scholar and poet A. K. Ramanujam briefly before he passed away. He had edited a book "300 Ramayanas". But he also said that if there are 300 Ramayanas, there are 3000 Mahabharatas, or more! I did not know this when I started my project. The research has been eye-opening.  The different Mahabharatas go all over the place.  The Jatakas have the story of the "Ten Slave-brothers".  The names of these brothers are fascinating -- the first two match  Krishna and Balarama, the last five match the names of the Pandavas!  Their mother is a variation of Devaki. Then there is the Bhil Mahabharat, which has all kinds of detail you don't find anywhere else.

I realized that others had preceded in proposing re-imagined versions.  Irawati Karve wrote a collection of essays (Yuganta) analyzing each of the major characters -- she suggests that Karna was Durvasa's son and that Yudhishthira may have been Vidura's son. The list of writers who have made other modifications to the story is also long.  I felt that I did not need to be reticent about changing the story.
So, first, there is no harm in re-imagining it.  I am not the first. I am maybe the 33,334th person to re-tell the story.
So what is my point-of-view?

The Mahabharata is a story of conflict over which social policies to follow in response to an environmental disaster. The social policies espoused by the winners (the Pandavas) become core practices of "Hinduism", or Indo-Gangetic culture.  These include: cow worship, caste/jaati, sharing the forest as commons with some respect for the rights of forest-dwellers, a limited definition of empire to the watershed of the Ganga, the use of the bullock-drawn iron-clad plough.  Some practices such as forced migration died out as less land was available for settlement.  Some practices may have been tried but abandoned such as infanticide and polyandry.  It is likely that some of the conflict was caused by a transition from matriarchy to patriarchy (or at least from matrilineal to patrilineal inheritance).

What is the value of this point-of-view?  

Scholars like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) discuss cultures that faced disaster and failed to respond effectively. He could find no examples of a cultural response that worked over thousands of years.  I claim that the Indo-Gangetic culture is the only one in history that faced disaster and responded so as to survive long-term! The economy and culture had its successful aspects, but we also know that it was not robust enough in the face of extractive European colonialism. This point alone would be worth our understanding.

Our world is in the middle of an environmental crisis – maybe it is already a disaster or at least heading that way.  What is the value of understanding what has succeeded or failed in the past? How about understanding things that worked in the short-term but failed in the long-term, like the Indo-Gangetic culture.

 Would it not be better to write a historical fiction different from the Mahabharata to suit your point of view?

"Better" in what way?  People who are going to be upset by the changes I make should probably read the 30,000 Mahabharatas out there and get really upset!

Do you feel that the contemporary ideas of life and morals work well when super-imposed on a time scale that is so far removed from us and hardly understood?

Ah-ha!  This is exactly the grand tradition that I boldly seek to follow.
The Mahabharata itself says that it was originally 8000 verses. then 24000 verses then 96000 verses. There is internal evidence of interpolation, re-interpretation, misunderstandings, and so on. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita is almost certainly less than 2000 years old, whereas the Mahabharata is believed to have been written down between 400 B.C.E and 400 A.C.E. (but was orally transmitted before).  The extremely long “Instructions of Bhishma” may precede the Bhagavad Gita but is almost certainly post-Ashoka, i.e., more recent than 250 B.C.E. 

Some of this expansion was done by people who had no conception of what was going on and unfortunately it shows. The story that Draupadi married all five Pandavas because of what Kunti said sounds like a confused story-teller trying to come up with a reason for something he/she did not understand! Almost everything that happens in the war was written by a bunch of poets who had never seen a battle.  The reader will see only a few episodes that ring true.  Among these are: the killing of Abhimanyu (the last scenes when he defends himself with a chariot-wheel and then is killed by Duhshasana’s son as he lies wounded on the ground), the killing of Karna as he tried to free his chariot, the shocking manner in which Aswatthama kills  Drishtadyumna and the children of the Pandavas.  But much of the rest of the war narrative is weak.

That is to say, I am not doing anything that hasn’t already been done.  The Mahabharata is an enduring tale because of our interest in what happens to its characters.  I do not want to lose that.  I have kept the basic story intact by retaining major turning points.  I try to shine a bright light on anomalies, especially ones that have the potential to engage the reader.  For instance, in the just published “The Making of Bhishma”, I have Devavrat being attracted to Satyavati.  She is beautiful and more or less the same age as Devavrat.  All the standard re-tellings ignore the possibility that they could be attracted to each other. Why would they not be attracted to each other?   Such attraction has ramifications – he is a headstrong young man who says things without thinking and I use that to explain his behavior. On the other hand, Satyavati thinks too much, tries to be clever, and is trapped into marriage to Devavrat’s father. I develop the consequences of this otherwise unexplored mutual attraction.

When I get to it, I plan to have Bhishma kill Sikhandin.  Why?  You will have to read it to find out

Would you consider yourself a religious Hindu?  Are you spiritual?

I am an atheist and a scientist. I was raised in a Hindu family and have read various Hindu scriptures as well as other religious texts extensively. My bookshelf at home not only contains the RigVeda, the Upanishads, and the Puranas, but also the Ashokaavadhana, the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran; it contains the Brihathkatha-saritasagara and Vikramaditya’s Vetaal stories along with collected folk-tales from a large number of countries and ethnic groups.  I have freely read of philosophy, scriptures, mythology, and so on.

My scholarly papers on the Mahabharata have explored the cultural background but the Mahabharata is more than a dry history. The story holds you captive.  As B.R.Chopra’s Indian TV program showed, it can hold its own against any other form of entertainment.

You and your wife work actively to protect the environment. Could you describe some of the important actions that you have taken?

We are active supporters of activist and non-profit groups in the environmental, artistic, and social justice arenas. We try to support organizations that seek to protect the environment.  Geeta is on the board of WorldWatch Institute, and has been on the board of Boston-based CERES. Geeta also works in sustainable investing and her company, Boston Common Asset Management, actively engages global corporations on the subject.

Sustainable living is an important quest in our lives. Like Charity, Right Action begins at home.  We've replaced almost all our incandescent bulbs with CFL or LEDs, we've insulated our house, we moved to a smaller home in Cambridge close to public transportation and have cut our carbon footprint by more than half.

How has your deep interest in environmental issues influenced your writing?

We are a generation that has lived with one global environmental threat after another.  Every decade since 1950 has seen a global environmental crisis (see below).
Almost the first idea I had when I started writing this re-imagined Mahabharata was that the burning of Khandavaprastha and the construction of the great city of Indraprastha would have necessitated wide-spread damage to the environment!  Even when a city grows slowly and organically, it damages its surroundings – Indraprastha was a city built overnight by an Asura.  How much damage would it have inflicted on its environment?  Why was there no mention of this damage in the story?
With only slight exaggeration, I could argue that much of our thinking in the last sixty years has been influenced by environmental crises. The global environmental issue has been the source of my inspiration to write.

• Deforestation and hill-side erosion in India (and in the world) created trouble in the 1960s;
• the indiscriminate use of DDT in the 1950s and 60s caused small animal populations to crash all over the world in the 1970s;
• the hole in the ozone layer that opened in 1979 threatened every creature on earth and was solved by international action to limit CFCs;
• the Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island disasters of the 1980s awoke us to the global catastrophe inherent in the nuclear power path we were following;
• the global energy crises of the 1970s and the 1980s that worsened the cold war before the Soviet Union broke up;
• the inability of the world’s powers to take action despite the realization that man-made climate change had accelerated in the 1990s and the 2000s;
• the continuing inability to solve this problem as a unified world despite the scale of the problem.
The list seems endless. 
How can environmental issues not be at the forefront of our thinking?

Any special message for our readers ?

The bottom line is: We are living in a world that we must maintain.  Possibly, Hindu "dharma" sustained its world through a crisis.  This book is about how that came about, where it succeeded, where it failed, and how it failed. I hope what I write helps us think about our problem.
That is a very dry way to put it. I have created a pseudo-historical narrative that tries to make that story come alive. I hope you like it.

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