Dipavali Sen
SON OF ARJUNA: ABHIMANYU by By Anuja Chandramouli. Cover Design by Chinmayee Samant Leadstart, Mumbai, 2022, 370 pp., INR 399.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

Abhimanyu is not a forgotten or neglected character of mythology but a live one throbbing in the Indian heart. When slaughtered at Kurukshetra, he was sixteen, roughly the age when a kid today faces the 10th Boards. His is a popular name, associated with prowess in battle. It is not by mere chance that Shah Rukh Khan had the name Abhimanyu Roy in his television appearance as a trainee army man in Fauji (1988). Vernaculars have absorbed the term ‘Chakravyuha’ to mean an impossible trap, and the phrase ‘Saptarathir maar’ to mean an unfair attack.
Here is a study of Abhimanyu by a young author, Anuja Chandramouli, from Tamil Nadu. She brings a burst of fresh energy to the understanding of the Mahabharata in modern India as initiated around late 19th century. Through around ten best-selling books as well as YouTube presentations, she is fulfilling this very essential task of connecting the youth of today to historical and mythological figures. This book is a sequel to her Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince, and its dedication is to Krishna and Arjuna, the author’s ‘eternal favourites’. The Prologue is as per Vedavyasa, describing how in the midst of the battle, Arjuna senses that something is amiss.
The interlude reflects more of imagination, describing the conception of a child by Subhadra, whom both the parents want to be the culmination of their aspirations.
The next chapter is about the ‘propitious’ event of Abhimanyu’s birth, with Arjuna saying, ‘I will teach you everything I know…’ (p. 35). The treatment is vibrant, the approach contemporary. The conversation between Arjuna and Subhadra about whether they would have a son or a daughter ending with Arjuna’s statement that a daughter would be a ‘blessing’ (p. 19) is likely to resonate with the readers of today and is not out of keeping with the essentially tender character of Arjuna. Such touches of imagination, available throughout the book, make the age-old characters more real.
In the fifteen chapters that follow, Abhimanyu grows up as the conflict within the Chandravamsha becoming more and more serious. At the time the war starts, he is still a juvenile in today’s terms but already a married man and prospective father, with military training from both his uncle and father. The book sketches those developments without getting bogged down in details and losing momentum, till it takes Abhimanyu ‘Into the Jaws of Death’.
This is the climactic chapter of the book, all the more so because it was not even a brigade of six hundred who rode into the jaws of death but only two, young Abhimanyu and his charioteer Sumitra. The narration is quite in accordance with the original, with innovative references to, say, Ghatotkacha and Pradyumna.
What happened to Abhimanyu after he got through the barrier of this battle formation? Why did he not get the support of the Pandava elders (other than Arjuna who was elsewhere in the battlefield)? How did he face the fact that despite the assurances and good wishes of his guardians, he had to face life—or death—alone?
Chandramouli describes all this in a masterly fashion, never transgressing the established outlines. She clarifies how Jayadratha prevented the Pandavas from following Abhimanyu into the vyuha he had opened up, and how Lakshmakumara’s death provoked his father Duryodhana into his unethical command to Shakuni, Karna and even a ‘soul-less’ Dronacharya (p. 361).
‘Standing in the middle of the dark vortex of sustained violence and calculated evil…Abhimanyu thought of his father… With the fierce determination, born of an indomitable spirit, Abhimanyu grabbed a chariot wheel and raised it over his head. It was not over, and he would fight to the very end’ (p. 360). The lines brought back the memory of an old illustration of Abhimanyu-vadh in the rhymed Bengali Mahabharata by Kashiram Das of early seventeenth century.
Anuja Chandramouli’s retelling of Abhimanyu’s story contains inspirational value for the young facing overwhelming odds all alone. Perhaps like Subhash Chandra Bose hemmed in by impossible circumstances.
The Epilogue provides a soothing touch to this saga of violence passionately told. It says that Abhimanyu was an avatara of Varchas, the lustre or glow of the moon after whom the Chandravamsha is named. The Moon-God had let him come down only for a short stint, just to provide ‘his own seed’ (p. 363) once the dynasty had been decimated.
So, readers will now wait for a Son of Abhimanyu—Parikshit. But perhaps also for references to some original material consulted, if only to encourage the interest the book is sure to generate.