Kamala Subramaniam: An epic life well-served

I feel I know Kamala Subramaniam very well through her books but I don’t have a face to put to the name. She achieved the truly epic feat in the 20th century of translating the Mahabharata, the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Ramayana from Sanskrit to English, which came out in 1965, 1979 and 1981 respectively. Her books were published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and have been in constant reprint ever since. Yet Subramaniam was so modest and self-effacing that she did not allow her photograph to be used on the book flaps.

Regarding the epics, many of us learn our theology in childhood via our grandmother’s tales, children’s storybooks and Amar Chitra Katha. I did, for one, graduating to C Rajagopalachari’s retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I did not have access to the Srimad Bhagavatam then. Did you know that Mahavishnu actually has 26 avatars of which Kalki will be the last? Subramaniam tells us this astonishing fact in her introduction to the Srimad Bhagavatam.

“...Mahavishnu actually has 26 avatars of which Kalki will be the last. Subramaniam tells us this astonishing fact in her introduction to the Srimad Bhagavatam.” - Renuka Narayanan
“…Mahavishnu actually has 26 avatars of which Kalki will be the last. Subramaniam tells us this astonishing fact in her introduction to the Srimad Bhagavatam.” – Renuka Narayanan

We may tend to stop our epic readings at Rajaji, though many interesting books inspired by the epics are published year after year, well into the present day.

In passing, please note that I say “theology”, not “mythology”. It is a colonial imbalance in the English language that we may not even be aware of and could consciously correct. Nobody calls it “mythology” when the Red Sea parts for Moses. That is ascribed to “theology”. Why, then, is it “mythology” when the Yamuna parts for Sri Krishna? So I have banned the word “mythology” from my personal vocabulary when talking about our scriptures in English. I feel Subramaniam would have approved since the epics were so intensely experienced by her.

This is unsurprising, I realize, since in depth and range, the epics are the ultimate Asian drama with not a thing left out – kings, queens, weak people, wicked people, staunch people, family and friends, supernatural beings, a big fight against overwhelming odds and heartbreaking love stories, infused with the uplifting anubhuti or sense, of divinity.

The drawback with some of the English renditions that we grew up with is that they often left out charming details because there was no room. So they did not touch the heart. Or, there was modern mirch added to the masala, because of which it was fashionable to call Krishna “cunning” on account of Kurukshetra. Whereas, he did try to stop the war; he humbled himself to go as the messenger of peace to Duryodhana and offered the most minimal terms, just five villages. But “not one needle-point of land” was Duryodhana prepared to give the Pandavas.

“Subramaniam cut short the overly flowery passages from Sanskrit because while they were natural to Sanskrit they were not to English. But she did not depart from Valmiki in the Ramayana or Vyasa in the Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam.” - Renuka Narayanan
“Subramaniam cut short the overly flowery passages from Sanskrit because while they were natural to Sanskrit they were not to English. But she did not depart from Valmiki in the Ramayana or Vyasa in the Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam.” – Renuka Narayanan

However, it is not uncommon in the modern Anglophone urban life to hear startling and confusing comments on the epics. One very fashionable Delhi lady told me bluntly at a luncheon, “I think Ram is a wimp”. Since she was my hostess, I did not wish to quarrel and just said, “Well, he isn’t”. My confidence came from having read Subramaniam’s Ramayana, wherein he is far from being wimpy but is a textured, interesting persona.

The epics in their fuller form are replete with nuances, told with a great understanding of the complexity of human nature. Lacking the ability to read the original, it is due to Subramaniam that I discovered these three great books in greater depth, relishing how real the stories became through her detailed, lucid rendition.

Subramaniam cut short the overly flowery passages from Sanskrit because while they were natural to Sanskrit they were not to English. But she did not depart from Valmiki in the Ramayana or Vyasa in the Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam. She says so herself, and the forewords to her books by eminent men of the time – KM Munshi, GD Birla and Swami Ranganathananda – affirm that.

I found a very relatable detail from the Srimad Bhagavatam, thanks to Subramaniam. It is just one line, that Mother Yashoda gave Sri Krishna a packed lunch of curd rice and pickle when he went out to herd the cows with the gopa boys: In his left hand, he held the ball of curd rice (on a leaf) and in the fingers of his other hand, he held the accompaniment. I was so charmed by this incidental fact that I asked a Sanskrit scholar what Vyasa had said, and it was exactly that: “Vaame paney masrula kabalam tad phalam angulyishu”. Thereafter I chanced to have an earnest discussion in Hindi at my local temple on whether it was lemon pickle or mango people. We felt elated to think that we still ate the food that Sri Krishna ate.

A wall panel at a temple in Hyderabad showing Krishna killing his evil uncle Kansa. (Shutterstock)
A wall panel at a temple in Hyderabad showing Krishna killing his evil uncle Kansa. (Shutterstock)

But for Subramaniam, I would never have known about Ahalya’s sensitive son Sadananda, who became Rajguru to King Janaka of Mithila. More poignantly, I would not have known that Rama did not put his feet on Ahalya. She was not turned to stone in Valmiki’s Ramayana but cursed to become “invisible among the ashes”. She regained her form when Rama set foot inside her ashram. This set right my uneasy feeling of years that he would never have stomped on her; it would have been out of character. Such twists came in later versions.

Via Subramaniam’s translation, we get to know what Rama was like at seventeen from the citizens of Ayodhya. When Dasaratha asks his subjects what they feel about Rama being made the crown prince, there is a roar of approval. The citizens of Ayodhya are so happy at the prospect that Dasaratha thinks, “They love him more than they love me”.

Their opinion of Rama, slightly edited here, is interesting: “He speaks lovingly to everyone and his words have never been false. He respects elders and wise people. He is genuinely interested in the welfare of others. When out riding, he stops and talks to the man on the street. He readily forgives and forgets a wrong but remembers even the smallest nice thing that anybody ever did for him. He is well-read and well-mannered. He is a drapi (meaning he is angry only when rightfully required and in the right proportion)”.

Rama’s nature begins to take shape for us from such passages, which we cannot always obtain from other English retellings in which he comes across as a rather flat character. But reading this Ramayana sends shivers up your spine, it is so full of drama, joy and pathos. You truly feel you are reading the original story for the first time.

The cheer haran: Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi with Georges Corraface as Dushassan in Peter Brook's Mahabharata (1985). (HT Photo)
The cheer haran: Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi with Georges Corraface as Dushassan in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1985). (HT Photo)

Subramaniam’s account of Draupadi’s cheer haran or public disrobing in the Mahabharata is powerfully told. The reader is numbed by the cold, unsympathetic and unhelpful attitude of the elders of the Kuru court and feels a surge of surprised respect for Vikarna, the only Kaurava who stands up for Draupadi.

Kunti’s pitiful words to Draupadi when the Pandavas leave on exile starkly underline the absolute horror of what has taken place and what is happening.

It is from Subramaniam’s graphic telling of the fight and death of Abhimanyu in battle that we understand the full enormity of the adharma committed by the Kauravas – six doughty warriors all attacking a 16-year-old boy, even after disarming him.

Indeed, your eyes frequently mist as Subramaniam takes you through who said what and why, and the feelings of the characters. Thanks to her, you understand why Valmiki and Vyasa are both celebrated as master storytellers, and realize what subtle colouration and how much chiaroscuro or light and shade their stories contain, which vivify characters and situations. Her books are my go-to references like no other when writing about the epics.

“Her books are my go-to references like no other when writing about the epics.” - Renuka Narayanan
“Her books are my go-to references like no other when writing about the epics.” – Renuka Narayanan

For these, and for a multitude of such reasons, I am deeply grateful to Subramaniam for giving me what I call my “epic spine”, which has served me well as a student of Indian culture and given me so much emotional fulfilment. Some years ago, my friends Lata and Geeta in Chennai read aloud from Subramaniam’s translation of the Srimad Bhagavatam to their dying father. Such is the respect that readers have for her work, the deep emotions she triggers and the solace she offers from Valmiki and Vyasa.

What of Subramaniam herself? She was born as long ago as October 4, 1916, in Bangalore. Her father was an eminent Kannada poet, TP Kailasam. She was widely read in both Indian and English literature and reportedly knew the Bible as well as she did the Gita. Her assured use of English testifies to that. A side note: Subramaniam’s phrase “Scion of Ikshvaku” for Rama was used by modern author Amish Tripathi as the title of his first book on the Ramayana.

Subramaniam was married in 1937 to an ENT surgeon in Chennai. Despite the demands of family life, she kept up her interest in literature. In the late 1960s, she underwent an operation for cancer. She was told that she had only ten more years to live. Instead of succumbing to depression, she was fired with the zeal to undertake what she felt was her mission in life – to bring the epics to the modern generation in their fullness. She passed away in 1983, having gloriously fulfilled her task.

In my view, these three foundational books by Subramaniam, which average 800 pages and each include an exhaustive glossary, are a must-have for the Indian home to keep and read as and when time permits. They are a treasure to both dip into and re-read, for each reading is a discovery. Many of us have stopped reading books today, preferring to read short, quick pieces online. But you will not regret reading Subramaniam’s works. They are certainly weighty but are wholly accessible in their unfussy yet evocative English.

Subramaniam entreats the reader, especially the younger generation, “to try and read it in the original” someday. That may never happen for many of us but through her sincere, stupendous work we can repossess our epics more fully through English.

Renuka Narayanan is a journalist and author. Her latest book is ‘Learning from Loss’. She lives in New Delhi.

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