The Great Indian Novel is a book by the Indian author Shashi Tharoor. It was his debut novel and was published in 1989 to much critical acclaim. The novel takes its name from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata which when literally translated becomes The Great Indian Novel. (maha=great and bharata=india).
It juxtaposes events of the Indian National Movement with events from the epic creating interesting parallels. Mahatma Gandhi is recreated as Gangaji or the indomitable Bhishma of the Mahabharata and the character of Karna in the original epic is transcreated to that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The play with names apart, the novel is full of biting humour and insights into human behaviour. He also accompanies this with an incisive analysis of the three great political figures of modern India- Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The book concludes with a recreation of Yudhishtir's conversation with Yama, the God of Death and a short note on the nature of Dharma. Tharoor argues that there is no one method of looking at Dharma and that it is manifest in the way we live our lives.
While some of the parallels are a bit far fetched, the book is both thought provoking and makes some pertinent about modern India. It takes on various issues that dominate contemporary political discourse such as the bread vs freedom debate or the question of the Emergency in 1977 and places them in the broader perspective of a developmental agenda.
He also uses various narrative styles including a hilarious poem recreating the death of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose that would have most nationalist Bengalis livid, as it shows him dying in the middle of intercourse with his wife!
Here are two of the reviews it received on publication:
"An outrageous feast, spilling over with myths, rhymes, tales of ancient treachery and wisdom, and tales of modern foolishness and heroism... An ambitious and often eloquent retelling of India's recent history... with modern and ancient drama woven into this wildly original extravaganza.... Combining creativity with scholarship, the author... uses his skill as a stylist... to humanize both historical and mythological figures. We need no special knowledge of India to find Tharoor's book fascinating.... The period of British rule is for him a fitting target for both hilarious lampoons and impassioned frontal assaults.... This feast of a book... will appeal to many diverse tastes.... The prodigious scope of Tharoor's knowledge matches his formidable stylistic talent."
- Edward Hower, The Chicago Tribune
"The Great Indian Novel is enormously successful, because it manages to be at the same time strikingly original and faithful to its source... but it stands splendidly on its own. The characters may bear the names of their predecessors in the original epic, but they are entirely convincing in and of themselves - and utterly fascinating to boot. Even better, they are frequently very funny.... Characters are treated with the most appealing blend of respect and irony.... Tharoor's style is worthy of the content.... His descriptions are vivid, the suspense is often dramatic, his characterizations are convincing and his title is fully justified: This is, indeed, a great Indian novel."
- Olivier Bernier, Newsday, New York
See www.shashitharoor.com for more information