24 July 2009.
My very literary colleague Bronwen Thomas turns to me, pointing to her computer screen.
'Seen this, Chindu?'
'This article about mobile fiction?'
The article is about novels being written in SMS in Japan. Keitai shosetsu. Apparently, teenagers are crazy about it.
Bronwen emails me two other stories. The first is by New York Times reporter Matt Richtel (@mrichtel), on tweeting a 'real-time thriller'.
The second speaks about how, elsewhere, some people are posting similar bursts of fiction--again, on Twitter.
Most of what I read that day was difficult to classify. In a sense, it could sit under the broad umbrella of 'flash fiction'.
But where flash fiction is usually seen as stories told in a few hundred words, these were shorter still--not more than 140 characters each.
Richtel's 'Twiller' was the exception. His narrative did not end in 140 characters. It was told episodically, as a series of tweets.
As someone with an avid interest in digital storytelling, I found Richtel's work exciting. It posed two interesting questions:
Could a long narrative work on Twitter, the platform that celebrated brevity?
How can such a story be structured so that it holds the reader through what would undoubtedly be very fragmented storytelling?
This was the time I was devouring Bhimsen, a serialized reimagining of The Mahabharata, posted--as it happened--on a blog.
The blog in question was 'Smoke Signals', and Bhimsen was the work of a former colleague, the well-known journalist Prem Panicker.
Prem had based Bhimsen on Randamoozham, a masterful novel from Bhima's point of view, by the revered Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair.
I had read Randomoozham more than once as a child; MT's wonderfully nuanced retelling of The Mahabharata had mesmerised me ever since.
It occurred to me The Mahabharata was perfect for an experiment on Twitter.
For one, it catered well to my scholarly side: besides dawdling in digital media, I study how war is narrated to justify my paycheque.
War narratives, thus, were of academic interest to me. And in a rather reductionist way, I had begun to see The Mahabharata as a war story.
From that vantage point, I could see the storyline offered plenty of 'conflict', plenty of opportunities for dramatic tension.
Surely that would help hold the reader?
There was also the irony--and challenge--of fitting the world's longest epic into a micro-blogging site. That appealed to my wicked side.
27 July 2009.
I write my first fictional tweets.
I have dubbed the project 'Mahabharata on Twitter' and am playing with the idea of posting it as @epicretold.
I have even bullied my designer friend Sunil Krishnan to work on an illustration to grace the Twitter handle.
Quickly, I draft ten tweets. I read them out aloud. They sound good. Pleased, I email them to Bronwen and Prem.
Bad news pings in my inbox. The tweets are not as hot as I thought. They do not 'connect'. They are 'too clinical'. 'No authentic voice.'
It is easy to spot why my first tweets sucked: in my excitement to get the project going, I had focused only on brevity.
I had forgotten the intensely personal nature of Twitter. I had forgotten people connect to people--one to one, in real time.
There was no room for impersonality in microblogging. If I wanted followers I needed a voice, a character, they would want to follow.
But a character-driven story--what the Bulgarian literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov calls psychological narrative--could only take me so far.
Equally important was the real-time nature of Twitter: the immediacy, the breathless urgency expected of every tweet.
This trend in storytelling--this urgency of style--has been noted as early as 1999. Scholars call it concurrent narration.
There is an overlap of action and narration now, a desire to tell as you live, rather than live now, tell later.
Twitter embodied this narrative philosophy. It was built for creating NOW moments.
27 July 2009.
So the story will be told in present tense. It will be a first-person narrative.
From MT's powerful etching of Bhima and the recent reading of Bhimsen, I have seen how a pathos-filled protagonist can hook the reader.
So, yes, a pathos-filled Bhima will be the protagonist in this story too.
He will live his life on Twitter, telling this story, sharing his NOW moments as they 'happen'.
Oh, it will be a simpler tale that he tells, a less complicated plot, digestible by even a reader unfamiliar with the original epic.
The simplicity is important. Only such a story can capture the readers I have in mind--those hungry, impatient children of Twitter!
Bhimsen would be my main inspiration. Its episodic format lends itself to Twitter nicely. It is the closest to what I have in mind.
I kept questions of fidelity--what liberties I would take with the original storyline of The Mahabharata--at bay with a simple thought:
This was not reimagining The Mahabharata, but reimagining The Mahabharata for Twitter.
It was a storytelling experiment on a new medium, which called for an adaptation of the epic.
And as with any adaptation, the changes required to the original--and I was certain there would be some--would be medium-specific.
In other words, Twitter would be the lord of my revisionism! I liked that very much.
In the 1605 days it takes to finish this retelling, I stray many times. Fidelity is not a master I serve well.
The protracted storytelling--a direct consequence of the sporadic writing habits of this novice author--is one reason for my transgressions.
To compensate, to retain the reader across a narrative distributed across four years, I resort to frequent interjections in the tale.
Cliff-hangers, flash-forwards, deviations designed to foreshadow, to create suspense--all, I use unsparingly.
The second reason is the media attention the project attracts. Suddenly, there is a sizeable Twitter following. A book contract materialises.
Now, there is pressure to be different. To re-imagine, to revise, offer something fresh.
Then there is the 'participation' of followers, their (near) real-time feedback. There are questions, critique--nudges to read other versions.
Thus, I pick up S.L. Bhyrappa's Parva, Chitra Divakaruni's The Palace of Illusions, Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel.
I read the versions by R.K. Narayan and Ramesh Menon. I dip into C. Rajagopalachari's interpretation.
And I read, re-read, MT.
This story is indebted to those influences. The original plot and characters remain, though you may notice several liberties in narration.
In this retelling, you may find there is silence about some incidents, simplification of others. Amplification and extrapolations, too.
At times you may see it moving away--perhaps audaciously--from The Mahabharata you know.
In all that, I hope I tell the simpler tale I hoped to tell. A retelling--as writer Louis Begley notes--is often 'a labour of simplification'.
The transgressions you notice, particularly of Bhima's-- Wait, why am I giving it away?
Pick up the book--read!
Chindu Sreedharan is the author of Epic Retold, published by Harper Collins India.