Research

My research for “Sankalpa” started with the text that gave me the idea for it: William Buck’s heavily abridged retelling of the Mahabharata. At a mere 412 pages, this is pretty much just the Cliff Notes version of the epic — but for someone like me, who didn’t grow up with this story as part of my cultural world, the Cliff Notes are a very useful place to start. It introduced me to the character of Amba/Shikhandi, as well as the other major players (the Pandava brothers, Bhishma, Duryodhana, etc.) and the key events of the plot.

I finished reading that while in India, and found another semi-version of the Mahabharata there: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel The Palace of Illusions. That focuses on Draupadi, aka Panchaali (the name Divakaruni prefers to use), and doesn’t attempt to cover the whole sweep of the epic, but again: it was very helpful for familiarizing myself, so that I wouldn’t become lost when I entered the wilds of more detail.

After that I wanted to read a more complete version, so I asked online for recommendations and was pointed at two sources. The first was Kamala Subramanian’s one-volume edition. At 850 pages it includes far more material than Buck did, though it’s still an abridgement — the Mahabharata is approximately 1.8 million words long, or (so Wikipedia tells me) ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. I honestly can’t say I recommend Subramanian’s version, though: I found the writing very stiff, and also the copy I bought turned out to have blank pages in the middle where it hadn’t printed properly. (Right in the middle of Karna’s reunion with Kunti, argh!)

So next I turned to the other recommendation, which was Ramesh Menon’s The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering. As the title of that one suggests, it’s written in a novelistic style, rather than being a direct translation. But it’s a two-volume version, each volume about eight hundred pages long, so it includes far more detail than any of the previous ones I’d read — and at that, it still has footnotes saying things like “Here I am skipping over fifty pages in which the Pandava brothers subdue the kingdoms of Bharatavarsha for Yudishthira’s rajayagna.” If you want to read a fairly complete version in English, I recommend this as the best of the ones I tried, as I found it quite readable.

The footnotes in Menon’s text pointed me at my final source, which was The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Translated into English Prose by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, which I accessed via Project Gutenberg. This is an actual translation, rather than a retelling, and it is complete; I did not read all of it. But I did search each volume of Ganguli’s translation for the names Amba, Shikhandi, and Bhishma, so that I could make sure I knew the concrete details of that particular storyline — not the novelized, retold details, but the original text. Quite a few elements in the final story came from this stage, so although it took quite a while, I’m glad I did it.

Some of my research also came from websites, but those I accessed years ago (when I was first thinking about the story) and no longer have the links for, only the notes I scribbled down. They mostly involved variants on the tale, since there are different versions of the Mahabharata story elsewehre in South Asia, and different permutations of how exactly Amba/Shikhandi’s lives went.