Books: The Last War
Author: Sandipan Deb
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
According to legend, the Gandiva, last wielded by Arjun of the Mahabharata, was a very special bow. Created by Brahma, it is said that just plucking its string caused a thunderous rumble that made hardened warriors quake. Given the aura of power that this legendary weapon carries, it’s a little odd to read of a gun that is affectionately nicknamed “Gandu” and realise that this is the modern-day version of the Gandiva.
Gandu and its owner, Jeet, appear in Sandipan Deb’s The Last War. Deb sets the story of the Mahabharata in contemporary Mumbai and casts the Kauravas and Pandavas as two rival gangs vying for the position of top dog of the underworld. Abuses fly as do bullets. There are car chases, cricket bookies, cell phones and all the other staples of the seedy underworld as we know it from Bollywood. Much like a masala flick, The Last War has lots of drama, many cliches and very little logic.
In 1955, a Parsi smuggler called Rustom Pestonjee spots a street performer on Marine Drive whose trick is to place apples on the heads of three small boys only to knock them off using a bow and arrows. The archer is Yash Kuru and the three boys are his nephews: the frail Shiv, the blind Shankar and Satya, who is the smartest and least privileged because his mother was a maidservant. Pestonjee hires Yash as his hitman when the archer’s aim with a gun proves to as sharp as with bows and arrows. Soon enough, Yash becomes Pestonjee’s right hand man and on his deathbed, the Parsi inexplicably leaves his business to Yash.
Eager to establish a line of continuity, Yash gets Shiv and Shankar married off to women who are considered suitable for various reasons. Shankar’s wife comes from a family that is in dire financial straits and whose businesses Yash wants as a cover for his illegal activities. For Shiv, whose heart is too weak to handle the exertion that is part and parcel of the sexual act, Yash finds a young woman who is considered unmarriageable because she had a child out of wedlock. To Yash, this past proves her childbearing potential . Also, because she’s had that one pre-marital, sexual relationship, Yash is confident he can arm-twist her into having sex with men of his choosing once she’s married. These sexual encounters will lead to babies and the Kuru line will be healthy and lengthy. It’s a wonder Yash managed an empire with such absurd logic.
Deb hurtles through these early episodes and strips all the bits from the original epic that he felt were extraneous. For example, the Pandavas are three instead of five in The Last War while the Kauravas are essentially two (give or take a sister who is largely inconsequential). Deb has no time for Nakul, Sahadev or any of the Kauravas other than Duryodhan (had Draupadi not bayed for Dusshasan’s blood, Deb would probably have axed him too).
The Last War pits two trios against one another. Representing the Pandavas are Rishabh, Vikram and Jeet, who are to be confused with Yudhishthir, Bheem and Arjun respectively. Helping them out is Kishenbhai (no prizes for guessing his epic identity) and Jahn, Deb’s attempt at Draupadi. Opposing them is Rahul, the modern-day Duryodhan, ably assisted by Karl Fernandes (Karna) and Ranjit (Dusshasan). Their Kurukshetra is Mumbai with its grimier neighbourhoods like Chembur, Andheri and, of course, Dharavi. Cars overturn, warehouses blow up, boys and old men are killed. The police watch and do nothing because the gangsters are only killing each other, not civilians.
The Mahabharata fascinates us even today because the questions and issues it raised continue to perplex us. The Last War is disappointing because it blunts the edge of so many of the political and moral dilemmas that enrich the Mahabharata. Too many of the characters are flattened into stereotypes. Those who were fiery in the epic become brash and obnoxious in the novel. Diplomats are turned into doormats. Deb was clearly impatient to get to the bit where the boys play with their toys and this has robbed complex characters like Karna (Karl), Gandhari (Aditi) and Vidur (Satya) . Even Jahn, who gets much of the author’s attention, is a crudely-wrought character who bludgeons her way through the story.
However, The Last War is successful in its aim of turning the Mahabharata into a pacy thriller. It’s an easy read, which is both its strength as well as its failing. The novel strips nuance from the stories of the Mahabharata like scales and guts are ripped off and out of a fish. What emerges is a meaty story but one that’s denuded of much of its beauty and glinting insight.