Book Review: The Forest of Stories by Ashok K. Banker

Now there is a little story about Ashok Banker’s writing and me . Last year when I got pregnant a lot many elders advised me to read religious texts. Given my impatience for spirituality and anything close to religion, I was ready to skip this advisory when Ashok Banker’s literature jumped out of the bookshelf! I picked up the first of the Ramayana series, expecting very little. Personally between the two greatest works of Indian mythology I love the Mahabharata unconditionally and to me Ramayana until AB’s version meant a plastic, robotic Arun Govil as Ram! Like the unexpected AB’s narrative caught me unaware and I found myself falling in love with his story telling. A fine example of colour writing, reading Banker was like watching a 3D film with tinted glasses and reclined seats.

With Mahabharata my expectations and excitement grew manifold. It is indeed the greatest epics of all times and like they say  you can find almost any situation in the Mahabharata replicated in the real world, I too have had a long term association with the text and its characters.

Banker calls the Mahabharata his MBA, a crafty take on the exercise of writing this book. His introduction takes you by surprise and its only there that you see and hear Ashok Banker the author of the book. He clearly puts it, it is a simple retelling of Vyasa’s Mahabharata. A retelling of the Sanskrit shlokas, with the sole purpose of making available this massive epic to his reader. My mother picked up the book the moment it arrived saying, “Oh! So this is the Mahabharata! How far has he covered in this part?”  The answer lies in its nine ‘pakshas’. Banker in his own words, says he has stuck to Vyasa’s text as close as possible in structure and actuals. There is very little imagination or deviation from the original, something that I had expected  after the Ramayana series. But then with the Mahabharata, the lesser you play around with it, the better it is!

The book gets its name from the title from the first Paksha, Sauti’s Tale. Set deep into the Naimishavan, at the ashram of Kulapati Shaunaka arrives a dusty traveller with sad tidings: Maharishi Krishna Dweipayana has passed on. Yet the great collator of the Vedas has left behind a fabulous legacy, the epic narrative poem called Maha Bharata. The traveller is the renowned Kusalavya, Ugrasrava, son of Lomarasana, fondly called Sauti. Sauti like the patient, trained, well informed narrator takes the ashramites and acolytes through the magnanimous tale of Maha Bharata and with them he hand holds the reader. As Sauti navigates through what is like the preamble to the text he sets up characters, explains their genealogy, their lives and predicaments. Most of the characters he paints before us are crucial to the text of Mahabharata and have a significance in the great narrative. One of the principle points being the role and importance of Krishna Dweipayana in  the lineage of the Kurus. I had quite forgotten that Vyasa sired Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura!

Equally enchanting are the myriad other tales retold in the book. The Tale of Parashuram is the finest as Banker in his typically descriptive writing takes us through the story of Jamadagni and his son Parashuram who takes on the mighty Kshatriya King to bring back Indra’s calf. In this early action packed chapter the reader can actually ‘see’ the action unfold before his eyes. Thereafter the narrative more or less simply accounts the tales of the other characters – from charting the lineage of the Bhrigu, the story of Chyavana and Ruru, to the story behind King Janmajaya’s sarpa yagna, Ugrasrava takes his listeners (and us) through the stories of Amrit Manthan, Garuda, the great Naaga Vasuki and Shesha. The story of Satyavati and the birth of Krishna Dweipayana is narrated, for it is from there that the legend of the Kauravas and Pandavas originate. The ninth Paksha is dedicated to the Dushayant and Shaktuntala. Way back, almost a decade ago this love story was part of my curriculum in college. Re-reading it in Banker’s words brought back the memories.

The original Mahbharata as Vyasa wrote it was composed in 8800 shlokas, known as Jaya that covered the history of the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas. With further retelling, Vyasa expanded it to 24,000 shlokas, making it the original text and narrative of the great Bharata.  After a point the names come and go, leaving the reader a wee-bit dizzy but then it is hardly Banker’s fault! Vyasa’s book was never up for review, and recounting every little alphabet of that text with such minute precision is a momentous task! This is just the first book, there are seventeen more to go! Going by Banker’s commitment and penchant for mythology I am certain my bookshelf will be soon filling up.

A word about the publisher too – I am loving the fact that Westland is picking up innovative story tellers. After Amish and Ashwin, Ashok is a great addition!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!


12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Forest of Stories by Ashok K. Banker

  1. Hats off ritu! For such patience! Such tongue-hammering names! Nw I undrstand y u had to take notes while reading this one!!!! No doubt, motherhood gives u a bank of patience! Gr8 job done as usual! Simmmmmmply superb! I’m speechless! All bows n amens!

      • Naaah! Reading is jst not my cuppa tea! But wil recommend my sis surely! She’s big time into readng!

  2. I have heard so much about Banker’s work! But like you, even I have always had a special affinity towards the Mahabharata than the Ramayana. I love Mahabharata and every single twist, turn and sub-plot it contains! So I’m really tempted to go and buy this version now 🙂
    On an aside, if you love this epic you are sure to love “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Diwakaruni. Its beautiful, lyrical and an awesome way of retelling the story of the great war through Draupadi’s eyes. A must read!

  3. I have heard so much about Banker’s work! Now your review is another reason why I’m tempted to pick up his books. Like you, I have always had an affinity for Mahabharata more than the Ramayana. I love the twists, turns, sub-plots, characters and greyness that Mahabharata has… So if you like this epic as much as I do, I would recommend “The Palace Of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Diwakaruni – a fresh, poignant, lyrical, moving retelling of the story of the great war as seen through Draupadi’s eyes. I’m sure you will love it!

    • 🙂 To know Banker’s style read his Ramayana series. It’s like reading a Harry Potter! If you’ve liked Amish Tripathi, Banker is one step ahead. Draupadi and Karna are my fave Mahabharata characters. I’ve read excerpts of Chitra Banerjee’s book. Get your hands on ‘Yajnaseni’ that’s another book on Draupadi.

  4. Pingback: The Reading Challenge | The Little Things That Matter…

  5. I read the book in a 7hr sitting on a train journey! i haven’t read the Ramayana series yet, but have read about it (if its like harry potter, i’ll pick it up soon). I picked up this book expecting something similar. I was pleasantly surprised on reading his claim that he has stuck as close to Vyasa’s original. If AB’s retelling is even one-tenth as interesting as the original, i really should get my hands on Vyasa’s original (and learn sanskrit while i’m at it!). My initial idea of Mahabharata is from BR Chopra’s version, which is really good. But only after reading AB’s version that i realized how abridged it is.

    To me the most interesting character in Mahabharata remains Krishna. He holds the strings of all the characters in his hands like a puppeteer, And the only one who knows the reasons and outcomes of all the actions.

    • To a certain generation Doordarshan’s versions of the epics is what mythology was all about! And yes, you must read AB’s Ramayana. I’ve only read the first book and that totally blew my mind. I am in the process of clearing by bookshelf of all the books bought and waiting to be read, I’ll read that the following books later.

      My favourite in the Mahabharata was and will always be Karna. Like I am in love with Achilles in the Iliad! There is something dramatically similar and magnetic about these great heroes.

      Thank you for dropping in and writing to me.

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