An Epic Obsession

25/01/2015 1:42 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

This article is from Open Magazine.


By Ullekh NP

Ironically, Bibek Debroy's first dose of encouragement to pursue his passion to write on Hindu mythology came from a diehard Marxist economist. In the early 80s, while teaching economics at the Presidency College, in Calcutta, he met Professor Ashok Rudra, an avuncular Marxist economist who was at the time teaching the subject at Visva-Bharati University. Rudra, an old-fashioned public intellectual who retained the typical traits of a Renaissance Man, was well-versed in a variety of subjects, from statistics and the Vedas to music. Debroy, who had learnt the sitar and read the Hindu epics in Bengali, took a liking to Rudra despite his contempt for the Leftist views of this close associate of PC Mahalanobis and friend of economists such as AK Dasgupta, KN Raj, Amartya Sen and others.

While Debroy, who was then fresh out of Trinity College, Cambridge, remained diplomatic, Rudra was openly critical of Debroy's love for the free market economy. They still got along, thanks to what Debroy describes as "a tacit consent" not to discuss economics. "So we discussed the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and things like that," recalls Debroy, sipping coffee in his office at Delhi's Rail Bhavan. He currently heads a panel of experts who are working against a tight deadline to recommend a restructuring plan for the Indian Railways that cuts costs, raises revenues and refurbishes the country's largest employer.

Back then, during a long and invigorating chat with Rudra, who held a PhD in statistics from London University, Debroy expressed a desire to study something that might seem unusual: the frequency with which the Pandavas, each trained rigorously in the use of various weapons of the time, used them to ensure victory in the battle of Kurukshetra, the epic battle of the Mahabharata. Instead of calling Debroy a lunatic, Rudra handed the young scholar a copy of the Mahabharata in Sanskrit and said, "Why don't you do it?" Shortly after, Debroy ended up writing a paper on the subject that was published in a Bengali journal.

"I won't bore you with the details of the shlokas, but they inspired me to write more about the divine weapons, aircraft and so on mentioned in the epics."

Around the same time, a couple of shlokas--one from the Ramayana and the other from Kalidas' Meghaduta--blew his mind. "I won't bore you with the details of the shlokas, but they inspired me to write more about the divine weapons, aircraft and so on mentioned in the epics. And I went on to publish four-five more such papers," says Debroy, who doesn't bother to wade into the controversy stirred by some scholars who recently claimed that ancient India had invented aircraft and nuclear bombs. Despite playing multiple roles--policy analyst, economist, government advisor and columnist--he has managed to complete an unabridged 10-volume English translation of the Mahabharata, which, with its widely known basic plot of the battle of Kurukshetra, and numerous other fascinating subplots, is one of the greatest stories ever told. It took him five years to complete the highly successful and celebrated project for Penguin Books, doing two volumes a year since he began in 2009. His translations of the Hindu epics, the Vedas and Upanishads are now a hit, selling well.


One of my early manuscripts on Indian mythology was turned down by 14 publishers, says Bibek Debroy (Photo: India Today Images)

Yet, for decades, Debroy, who is now credited with making esoteric Hindu scriptures highly accessible to first-time readers of the Mahabharata and other classical texts, had no plans to translate such voluminous works. Rather, he was keen on research oriented work, sifting through texts until something caught his interest.

Rudra's encouragement helped in the beginning, but moving to Pune in the mid- 80s to teach at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics opened up new opportunities for Debroy, both as an economist and as a scholar interested in Indian classics. In Pune, he became a regular at the nearby Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, which produced a journal called The Annals of the Bhandarkar Research Institute. Debroy decided to cast the net wider: he translated one of his papers from Bengali into English and submitted it for publication in the journal. "The long and short of it was that eventually six papers of mine on different topics were published by the Institute," notes Debroy, who also published several papers on economics alongside in peer-reviewed journals.

Debroy was evolving faster as an economist. For someone trained in mathematics and economic theory, first under the likes of Dipak Banerjee and Mihir Rakshit at Presidency College, Prasanta Pattanaik and Suraj Bhan Gupta at Delhi School of Economics where he did his Master's, and later at Cambridge under the brilliant economist Frank Hahn, whom he refers to as an "arrogant gentleman", Gokhale Institute was destined to alter his perception of economics. He soon got down to working with data. Before he joined, the director of the institute was the late economist VM Dandekar, who had zealously promoted empirical research. "That is why I say economists who have influenced me often did it indirectly. I was not a student of many of them. I have often had an Eklavya-Dronacharya kind of relationship with them," says the bespectacled, 59-year-old economist with a penchant for answering questions before you finish them, and for consuming several cups of coffee with lots of sugar. Eklavya, a young tribal prince and a character from the Mahabharata, learnt archery on his own by imagining Dronacharya, who trained the Pandavas, as his guru.


Until I started my work on the Mahabharata, I was worried about the sheer size of the effort I had to put in, says Bibek Debroy

Later, in 1987, when Debroy shifted base to Delhi as a professor at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, he had already earned a name as an economist of repute, having published numerous papers. But he was still finding it difficult to get his writings on Hindu mythology published. And whenever he did get them out, they didn't sell too well: the late 1980s were when the Mahabharata was all the rage, thanks to the TV serial aired by Doordarshan, the national broadcaster. Debroy decided to tap that craze. He put together all his papers on Hindu mythology and got hold of a publisher called Commonwealth Publishers (he confesses that he couldn't find better publishers for a book like that). The book that came of it, titled Some Aspects of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, was published in 1989 to very good reviews, but very few people bought it (it is now out of print).

"Economists who have influenced me often did it indirectly."

Around then, Debroy--who says he had to "mug up" Sanskrit verses as a student at Ramakrishna Mission School in Narendrapur, West Bengal--had read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in Sanskrit with a great deal of help from translations. He hadn't yet acquired the level of proficiency he now possesses in reading and speaking Sanskrit. And so he resolved to gorge on Hindu classics, looking for a research-oriented topic to write a book on. Debroy began to read the Mahapuranas, which delve into the lives of deities and genealogies of kings and other important mythological characters. At that point, a publisher of his economics books, DK Publishers, suggested that he do an abridged translation of the Puranas into English. He agreed, and the books sold well, much to his own surprise and the delight of the publisher, who came up with another offer: translating the Upanishads. "He asked. So I did all the main Upanishads. These books still sell very well. [In hindsight] I personally think they were bad translations, but the market seemed to like them," says Debroy, who, in apparent recognition of his pro-growth economics and multi-tasking abilities, has now been appointed a member of the newly constituted NITI Aayog, which has recently replaced the 65-year-old Planning Commission of India. In a 2013 book published by Academic Foundation, he had extolled the virtues of the Gujarat model of development. He had also commended Narendra Modi's style of governance in his columns for financial newspapers.

In the 1990s, Debroy received an offer to translate an abridged version of the Rig Veda from his publisher, who wanted to bring out a translation with Sanskrit on one side and English on the other. Debroy--who would over the next two decades teach at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, the Centre for Policy Research, take on roles such as that of director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, work as consultant to the Department of Economic Affairs of the Finance Ministry, and represent trade lobbies--was not very excited about it. However, Debroy told the publisher that he would re-read the Vedas again with a view of doing a line-by-line translation.

It was then that he found in the Rig Veda a shloka saying that dogs were used as beasts of burden in ancient times. He began to scour book after book on Hindu mythology for descriptions of dogs. He went through the Vedas, Puranas, epics and any other relevant text he could lay his hands on. Debroy, a dog lover, says he realised that there was quite a bit about the household animal in Hindu classics. So he came out with a manuscript, called Sarama and Her Children: The Dog in Indian Myth. Sarama is considered the mother of dogs or the God of dogs.

"Then I had this manuscript. This is the only one of my [manuscripts] which was turned down by 14 publishers. None of them was willing to publish it," he says. He got in touch with Penguin Books, which finally agreed publish it. But it also wanted him to do a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Debroy leapt at the opportunity. "That was when my Sanskrit began to become better," he says, emphasising that the Bhagavad Gita he translated is a very good one. By then he had begun to brush up his conversational Sanskrit as well.

How did he do it? "Essentially through the net. There are excellent DVDs that are not sufficiently publicised by Samskrita Bharati. And how do you learn a language? You learn a language by speaking. Contrary to what you might think, there are people who speak Sanskrit," he offers.

He also began to contemplate translating the Mahabharata as soon as Sarama and Her Children was published. What deterred him was the sheer size and scale of the effort. He spent a lot of time on the to-do or not-to-do question. It was American Indologist and academic Wendy Doniger who goaded him to start off, he says. The Indologist, who came under attack from Hindu zealots last year for allegedly denigrating the Hindu religion in her book Hindus: An Alternative History, forcing its local publisher to pulp available copies of the book, had also told him jokingly that at least three people had died while translating it before it could be completed, suggesting perhaps that this time around the translator would live to see his work in print. "She was only trying to encourage me. Finally I decided in 2009 that every year there will be two volumes. Over a period of five years, I wrote 10 volumes of the Mahabharata (which together run into almost 7,000 pages)," he adds with a smile.


An inveterate multi-tasker, Debroy has straddled many streams of academia, from sciences to languages. He notes that he has had a strange kind of schooling. Perhaps it helped make his choices eclectic. The first part was in a missionary school in Shillong where one spoke only English and recited the Lord's Prayer before meals; the second half was in Ramakrishna Mission School where no student spoke English. Debroy, whose parents, both of them clerks at a local accounts department, had to flee what is now Bangladesh from the riots that accompanied India's Partition, says he has won scholarships ever since he was 10 and reposes immense faith in the potential for vertical mobility in India. His early adult years were as complex as they were turbulent. He joined the ranks of the Naxalites while in college in the 1970s, responding to a call by Charu Mazumdar to take up arms to liberate the country from the bourgeoisie. But his epiphany came in 1977 when he travelled to Moscow to study wage and salary structures in the erstwhile Soviet Union, where he spent six weeks. "That was enough to cure me of any illusions I had of centrally planned economies." The course correction was almost overnight, he declares.

A voracious reader of "anything and everything", Debroy says reading comes naturally to him. Besides Indian classics, he re-reads Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, despite the exacting standards laid down by the new Government. He vows to submit the final report of his panel's recommendations for the Railways by August. "Journalists are lazy and so they picked up only item number one on the mandate list that we have. We are expected to not just submit recommendations to restructure the Railway Board--that is only one of the responsibilities. The actual mandate covers the entire Railways," he says.

That is, of course, a justifiable grouse from a man who has delved deeply enough into Hindu scriptures to familiarise thousands of readers not only with the main plot of ancient Indian epics but also their myriad sub-plots, besides doing a defining job of helping 21st century India identify and weed out a slew of archaic laws.

All images have been provided by Open Magazine.

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