In the past few years that I have been reading Mahabharata, I have come across various modern retellings of the epic. Some are plot-based, some character-centric. Some are heart-touching but atrociously biased, while others are lucid and illustrated with an almost neutral pen. And Now Let Me Sleep by P.K. Balakrishnan is easily one of the best books ever written on the epic. Originally written in Malayalam as Eni Njan Urangatte, the book is a testament to Balakrishnan’s mastery over writing as well as deep understanding of human emotions.
What is the story about?
Eni Njan Urangatte or And Now Let Me Sleep tells us the story of Karna, through the eyes of Draupadi and Yudisthir.
Synopsis of the novel:
The great Kurukshetra War is over. Queen Draupadi finally breathes a sigh of relief, as her husbands, the Pandavas have emerged victorious in the eighteen-day gruesome battle. Fourteen years ago, she had suffered public molestation at the hands of the enemy, the Kauravas and their accomplice, warrior Karna, the memories of which had given her sleepless nights throughout the long exile. But now that the perpetrators have been slaughtered for their misdeeds, and justice has been served, Draupadi finds some respite.
But, her relief is short-lived. Within hours, a raging survivor from the Kaurava army, Ashwathama barges into Pandava camp, and slaughters her sons and kin in their sleep.
The bigger shock, however, is yet to come. As a devastated Draupadi and her husband King Yudisthir gather along with other mourning relatives to pay obeisance to the deceased in the funeral processions, her mother-in-law Kunti discloses a deadly secret about Karna that shakes the very foundation of Draupadi’s marital life.
The revelation drives Yudisthir into a state of despair. Depressed and burning with the guilt of killing Karna, he decides to give up kingdom and renounce all worldly pleasures. His brothers make multiple attempts to pacify him, but they fail. His guilt trips, however, take the greatest toll on his wife. Leaving the luxuries of palace-life behind, she is compelled yet again to lead a life of poverty on account of Yudisthir; this time for the sake of his repentance.
Draupadi feels hurt at Yudisthir’s breakdown over an enemy’s death, when years ago, this same man had shown little remorse during his own wife’s molestation. His indifference makes her question her value in the lives of the Pandavas.
In this moment of despair, as always, her best friend Krishna comes to her rescue. The God Incarnate untangles the dilemma in her mind by showing her that the Karna she knew all her life, the one who had humiliated her at the dice-game – was just one side of the man. There was also another side to him, a kinder, softer side, which she had never seen.
With this, unfolds the story of Karna in flashbacks through the eyes of Yudisthir, Sanjay (the minister of Duryodhan’s father Dhritarashtra) and Krishna. Various characters now reveal different sequences from the now dead Karna’s life which were previously unknown to Draupadi. Will she be able to forgive Karna for his behavior towards her after hearing his tragic story? Will she finally find rest in the arms of sweet slumber ever again? Read the book to find out…
What I liked:
To say that Balakrishnan’s narration is flamboyant would be an understatement. Though I read only a translation in English by K.C. Sarasamma, the loftiness of the language of the original was very much palpable.
Interestingly, the book does not revolve around Karna alone. Balakrishnan spends considerable amount of pages, exploring the various philosophies of human existence. There are long, thought-provoking conversations between various characters about human dilemmas, some of which are derived from Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva of Mahabharata. The author’s superior articulation of some of the most complicated ideas is worth reading.
For most part, Balakishnan adheres to the canonical text of Mahabharata. This is a murky trail, where most authors writing their fictional takes on the epic slip off and fall. He does take creative liberty for sure. For instance, the entire retrospection of Draupadi post war is entirely his figment of imagination. So is Krishna’s non-existent fascination with Karna. But the flashbacks and incidents which cause this said retrospection are mostly faithful to Vyas’ Sanskrit epic, especially Karna’s abominable role in Draupadi’s Vastraharan and his bitterness towards the Pandavas.
What I didn’t like:
Apart from the fact that the printing by Sahitya Akademi publications was horrendous with pages all mixed up, And Now Let Me Sleep leaves little space for criticism. But if I have to point out its flaws, I’d say there are two.
Firstly, the book – though merely of some 200 pages – is not an easy read. Epic lovers looking for entertaining books might lose interest among the philosophies and religious dogma of this one.
Secondly, like most other authors of Mahabharat related books, P.K. Balakrishnan is, above all, a great admirer of the protagonist (in this case, Karna). And his fascination for his hero is, at times, a bit too overwhelming. But that’s hardly a flaw. From admiration comes the urge to write a book, so I wouldn’t mind that.
My pet peeve, however, is with the fact that while the author honestly portrays the “well-known” shortcomings of Karna (dice-game, hostility with Pandavas), he completely leaves out some other lesser-known, uncomfortable truths about the tragic hero. For example, Karna’s kingdom Anga Pradesh was a hub of human trafficking. This fact – not so known among the masses – comes forth in his venomous exchange with Shalya in Karna Parva, Section 45 (K.M. Ganguly’s English Translation). Another point is, Vyas’ Karna was not above the casteist sentiments and extreme misogyny that were prevalent in that era. That is quite opposite to the general “anti-caste revolutionary” perception people have of him. Many times, it was he who instigated Duryodhan. These days, poor Shakuni takes all the blame like a scapegoat in TV serials.
I would have really liked to read about these lesser-known grey areas of Karna through the lenses of master-storyteller P.K. Balakrishnan. But alas, that wish remains unfulfilled. As for rating, I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.