I MADE MY FIRST STAB at literary censorship at an early age. I was barely 10 when I took it upon myself to read out C Rajagopalachari’s translation of the Mahabharata to my mother. For days on end, as she did her housework, I followed her about with the book in my hand, omitting not a sentence—with one exception: I would bowdlerise any passages that presented my personal hero, Karna, in an unfavourable light. Thus, the command to disrobe the Pandavas and Draupadi was transferred from his mouth to Duryodhana’s. The Kauravas’ disastrous expedition to the forest to mock their exiled cousins—an adventure stirred up by Karna—found no mention in my selective retelling. The killing of Abhimanyu, in which Karna had a hand, was toned down.
By that age I had devoured at least three more Mahabharata retellings (those by RK Narayan, P Lal and William Buck) along with uncounted Amar Chitra Katha comics. Much of my interest was centred on Karna’s unhappy life. This is not an uncommon reaction among young Mahabharata readers who are introverted by nature and whose literary heroes tend to be loners and outsiders: the Pandavas’ illegitimate elder brother is one of ancient literature’s major tragic figures, and some of the most stirring episodes in the final third of the narrative are built around him. But I may have taken this hero worship too far. Perhaps I had subconsciously linked Karna with the social outcasts played by another childhood idol, Amitabh Bachchan, in films like Deewaar and Kaala Patthar.
I felt a sense of vindication, even pride, while reading passages that stressed Karna’s virtues—such as an introduction to Shanta Rameshwar Rao’s retelling, which proclaimed that he could be viewed as the “real hero” of the epic. Later, I would revel in Kamala Subramaniam’s gentle, humanist retelling (still a personal favourite) that emphasised the nobler qualities not just of Karna—or Radheya, as she refers to him throughout—but of most figures in the epic (Subramaniam even cast Duryodhana as a Shakespearean hero doomed by a single fatal flaw). When BR Chopra’s TV version premiered in late 1988, I spent much time fuming about the show’s simplifications to anyone who would listen. Sharing my seat on the school bus was a friend who disapproved of Karna (because he was on the side of the bad guys); our Monday-morning discussions about the previous day’s episode were frequently heated.