A few posts back, the Jay's Juice shop was introduced.
The following takes place in front of the shop in Harlemmerdijk, with the Dutch character Simon van der Wiel talking to the protagonist. The theme of Gita and the Mahabharata is often revisited in the novel, but it is here that the hero paraphrases the epic for his Western friend in his irreverent style.
He turned mellower with every sip. We sat on the bench outside the shop, the merry crowd of Amsterdammers and tourists passing us by on the trendy street. The moment seemed opportune. So, I asked him if he would spend some time explaining the background of the Gita. He almost choked on his drink.
"I am the worst person to do anything of that kind, my friend. The English language is my medium. I revel in irony, understatements and cynicism that characterises it. Indian epics depict the thoughts, emotions and ideals of a more pastoral order. I am someone who can use the Gita as a frivolous tool, for meaningless inanities like crisis combating conferences. But I lay no claims to doing justice through paraphrases, or coming remotely close."
The arrogant humility was infectious. I said that post conference I had done some reading up on the classic.
"A lot of people seem to have been influenced by it. Schopenhauer, Isherwood, Huxley, Emerson. I would like to know more. From what I read, it seems to be a dialogue full of advice – part of a bigger epic. A kind of Indian Sermon on the Mount."
The consultant shook his head.
"Sermon on the Mount? Gita is nothing remotely like it. It is a dialogue that takes place on the battlefield, with armies ready to plunge into the bloodiest of wars. Arjuna, who receives the advice, is not a monk, but a warrior by birth, training and circumstance. The lessons learnt and the doubts raised do not need renunciation of the world or monastic setting for application. That's why they are as effective even in the crisis ridden financial world."
"I have read about the battle. A showdown between the good and evil forces …"
My friend corrected me again.
"Indian mythology does not paint the world in black and white, Simon. The cause of the war was convoluted. Both sides were full of great warriors, a lot of them virtuous. None were saints, most were sinners. As human beings are supposed to be. Circumstances forced them on different sides."
"Didn't Krishna, the god, the avatar, join the ones who had truth on their side?"
"Yes, but it was the choice of man. And Krishna participated as a charioteer. I would say he was the patron saint of Consultants."
"Aren't you afraid of blasphemy, my friend?"
"Blasphemy? Indian gods are sinners in their own right. Krishna loved good things in life. Women, wealth … And he did not do a thing during the Mahabharata war except bring destruction to feuding clans through contradictory advice."
I mentioned that I could perhaps understand what he meant by irony, but could not start to appreciate the humour without knowing the background.
As the sun shone on the balmy day, the colourful people walked across on the street, Jay and his help poured glass after glass of varieties of juice, my buddy relented.
"The synopsis of the Mahabharata. Well, the first thing to understand is that the epic is a compilation of narratives. Strikingly modern after several thousand years. Give me a moment, my friend, let me compile a back cover blurb for you. Let the excellent juices augment my creative ones."
He closed his eyes and extended his head backward.
"The epic is a collection of eighteen volumes, the story of the descendants of King Bharata. Plenty of storylines and sub plots. I will just cover the main theme that led to the war. How should a blurb of the mammoth epic read?"
He opened his eyes again with a strange gleam of energy.
"When Pandu, the king of Hastinapur, dies in dangerous throes of sexual fulfilment, the Pandava brothers find their rights to the throne challenged by cousin Duryodhana, son of the blind caretaking king Dhritarashtra. As they grow up amongst fierce rivalry, they escape clandestine murder plots to go into hiding in the forests. When Arjuna, in the guise of a Brahmin, wins the sultry and sensuous Draupadi in swayamvar, they live in liberated polyandry … "
"Aren't you getting carried away? I realise I am easy to deceive, but …"
He stopped me.
"Believe me when I tell you, that's more or less how it goes. Pandu was cursed to a painful death by copulation … a strange interplay of karma, because he had mistaken a sage for a deer and had killed him just as he was on the threshold of ecstasy."
"In that case, how were the five brothers born?"
"Immaculate conception predating the Christ. That's one version. If the king had problems in getting it up, it was perfectly legitimate for hermits or gods to rise to the occasion and fill the gap … well, I told you I am not the right person for paraphrasing the epic."
"Could we go ahead with the story, without taking the back cover out of Harold Robbins?"
Fresh glasses of juice were served by the girl. His eyes followed her on her way back into the shop.
"Well, it gets to be more Ian Fleming. So, the hundred Kaurava brothers, led by Duryodhana, now know Pandavas are alive and well."
"Were the Kauravas also immaculately conceived?"
"Both the fathers of the Pandavas and Kauravas were. However, it might have been a case of self fulfilling fantasy played out by the author. Vyasa himself impregnated the royal grand-moms. The Kauravas, on the other hand, constitute the first documented record of test tube babies."
"You are kidding."
"I speak the truth. The Mahabharata contains everything that has ever existed. However, to carry on, Duryodhana relented by giving a small barren piece of land to the brothers, but they worked on it Israeli mode, converting it into a super city through alliances and construction contracts. They lived happily, visited by Krishna from time to time. Arjuna went on frequent marrying sprees.
“Duryodhana now arranged this game of dice – a true casino royal. Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, gambled away his property, his brothers, himself and ultimately their common wife, Draupadi. Speak of mortgage linked derivatives leading to crisis. Draupadi was disrobed in court, the template for future fashion shows. That too in front of the king, who missed out on the excitement, being blind. Bhima, the second brother, pledged revenge. The Pandavas were banished for twelve years and had to stay incognito for one more."
“No wonder they resorted to battle.”
"Well, they did complete the thirteen years, full of action, adventure, intrigue and sex. Yet, when they returned, the throne was refused. Both the sides now went gathering forces through mergers, acquisitions, alliances and joint ventures – with some pretty neat recruitment policies. And then there was war. A gory eighteen day affair broadcasted ESPN style."
"Say that again …"
"The blind king had already missed out on the disrobing of Draupadi, but he wanted to catch the action of the war live. So, he recruited the services of Sanjaya, who narrated the eighteen days non-stop."
I was confused.
"It does seem to be a battle between good and evil."
"That's from the big picture as corporate gurus will tell you, painting things in black and white. However, when you go down to the resource level – character by character – there are so many interplays between circumstances and choices. There is no universal good and evil. Even the embodiment of Dharma lies through his teeth and resorts to gambling. That's what makes it a masterpiece.
"The general of the Kauravas was the grandfather of the warring princes, Bhishma the patriarch, a man who had pledged to serve the throne of Hastinapur, while simultaneously vowing celibacy. Bound by his own contracts, the personification of zealous self sacrificing corporate over-commitment, blessed and cursed at the same time with death by wish. Ultimately he lies on a bed of arrows, but still cannot die without seeing the end of it all and advising Yudhisthira on the art of administration.
“There is Drona, the commander of the Kauravas once Bhishma lies on his prolonged deathbed. He is the master teacher, who loves Arjuna, his best student. But, he is devoted to the throne, and cannot desert the Kauravas.
“There is Karna, the long lost brother of the Pandavas, probably the result of a juvenile fling, attributed to yet another immaculate conception. He is often portrayed as the tragic hero, generous to a fault, but devoted to Duryodhana. He is killed by Arjuna as he tries to pull out the sinking wheel of his chariot. On the advice of Krishna.
“The Pandavas win the righteous war through a number of deceptions, bending of rules, literal blows under the belt, ignoble warfare – all instigated by the consultant who makes the difference."
"So, Krishna is a patron saint of consultants?"
"Yes, and the Gita is his manifesto. When Arjuna waits for the battle to begin, he asks Krishna, his charioteer, to take him to the middle of the battlefield, to take a look at the enemy. Seeing his elders, brothers, friends and loved ones, he is overcome with grief and refuses to fight. And then the consultant takes over. He brainwashes Arjuna through eighteen chapters."
I told him that in his blasphemous way, he was providing a great stepping stone to my understanding of the work. This inspired him to further details.
"Krishna at first takes the role of the harsh human resource guy, refusing to accept resignation. He reminds him of professional duty. He says that the body dies, but the eternal soul enters another being. So, it is not
totally wrong to kill.
"When Arjuna is not convinced, he asks him to look at the bigger picture, work for the greater good, without attaching importance to the fruits of labour.
"Next there is a phase of self marketing as a guru. Krishna speaks of his experience as a consultant. How he comes into the picture whenever it is time to reward the good and punish the evil.
"When Arjuna asks whether it is better to resign or work, the master consultant nonchalantly tells him that work is worship.
"He teaches the confused warrior how to focus his faculties on the goal and nothing else. The goal in this case is the consultant himself. He is now gradually taking over the mind and free will.
"He teaches his student the path of knowledge, the knowledge again being limited to what he projects it to be.
"When Arjuna wonders about the material world and the ridiculousness of it beyond death, Krishna tells him of ways to obtain a retirement plan by focusing on him.
"He projects his multiple dimensions as an embodiment of every being, someone to call upon in all circumstances.
"He narrates how he is the supreme power of material and spiritual world. The brain of the warrior is clouded, and accepts the consultant as his guru.
"Having convinced his protégé, Krishna proceeds to dazzle him with a breathtaking presentation. It is here that he resorts to magic.
"Having numbed the mind, he talks about shoes and strings and sealing wax. The benefits of the process of devotion, the field and its knower, the nature and the nurturer, divine and anti divine nature, the three primary characteristics, qualities, about cutting through the wish fulfilling tree with a sword of detachment.
"Having confused him into believing that he is empowered, Krishna tells him to choose his path based on his own dharma … subtly hinting at the way he has laid out for him.
"Tell me, can you think of a more successful consultant? In the end, Arjuna is convinced to fight, kill his friends and brothers, respected and loved ones."
He went into prolonged silence, probably reflecting on the exposition. When Jay stepped out to refill our glasses, he lifted his hand to stop him. "Amsterdam is notoriously short of free public toilets, my friend. Another glass and I will have to file for bankruptcy."
"So that is the Mahabharata in a nutshell?" I asked.
"The Mahabharata cannot be fit into a nutshell, Simon. The war ends with the ninth volume. It is followed by nine more, various sub plots, diversions, all linked together by a thread. Some of the lessons are indeed intriguing.
“Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, can charge through a particular enemy formation, but cannot break out of it. In the end he is killed in an unequal battle with seven great charioteers. Aren't we all in his place?"
He turned and smiled.
"You know what the greatest lesson of the epic is? After the all consuming war, Pandavas emerge victorious to find that they are the sole survivours save a handful. Who do they rule over in this kingdom of the dead? The entire struggle has been for absolutely nothing. Summed up by Shakespeare in one glorious line …"
"Sound and fury signifying nothing," we chorused and laughed.
"Hope you have enjoyed the abridged tale told by an idiot," he signed off.