Interview with Gautam Chikermane, Author of Tunnel of Varanavat
Gautam Chikermane is a writer tracking the worlds of money, power and faith. His last book Tunnel of Varanavat exploring a theme in Mahabharata was widely appreciated and became a best-seller. Saiswaroopa Iyer, the author of Abhaya, talks to Gautam about his book, how he shaped the characters and the inspiration that drives him to write.
Summary of Tunnel of Varanavat
Badri, chief miner of the Kuru Empire and a soldier with a dark past, has given up the glamorous life of a Kshatriya and lives like an ordinary citizen, hiding in the intricate mesh of tunnels he has created for the protection of the royals. But when Prince Duryodhan hatches yet another conspiracy to kill the Pandavs, this time by burning them in Purochan’s house of lak at Varanavat, it is only Badri who can save them. On this mission, he has to deal with treacherous cannibals, rebel leader Janaki and mercenary Durjan. He also needs to rekindle love with soldier-soulmate Urvashi and fight his biggest enemy Vishnu. At the same time, he must conquer the demons within. Will he succeed in saving the Pandavs—and himself? Set in the mystical world of the Mahabharata, Tunnel of Varanavat explores the physical and spiritual transformation of a reluctant warrior.
Congratulations on penning a fulfilling read. Very interesting aspect of this novel is that it explores an unabashed POV of a character who does not get a mention beyond a verse or two in the Mahabharata. What inspired you to look at the universe from Badri’s POV?
Thank you, I’m glad you found the book fulfilling.
I had been wanting to write on the themes from Mahabharata for several years now. It is the greatest story ever told, the greatest treatise ever written. I wanted my child to grow up with it and know it fully as an adult. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the time. But it was brewing inside me all the while. When I finally got down to writing it, I wanted to bring two aspects together. One, explore our glorious past — not from the voices of the Pandavas or Kauravas or even Krishna, but through the lives of average people, the subaltern landscape. And two, our preordained spiritual future, through the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.
Now, you can begin a series like the Mahabharata from any point. I decided it would be the Palace of Lak incident. The ‘miner’ got just six out of 200,000 verses in Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata. He was a nameless, uncelebrated, unsung hero. At some point, he became my protagonist and his tunnels my narrative. Everything else — the plot, the landscape, the violence, the love and most important, the several disconnected dharmas that were interwoven together — followed. And so was born Tunnel of Varanavat.
Tell us more about the effort that went into creating Badri’s character. He has a past of a warrior, he is a miner and then finds himself as the key holder of the future of the country. And then he has a philosophical journey of his own.
In the original Mahabharata, the miner had no name, no character. He was simply a tool to help the Pandavas escape certain death. When I began to give him flesh and bones, attitudes and thoughts, yearnings and disappointments, I found in Badri, a very layered character. The main story is known to every child of India, but once the character of Badri was born, he began to tell his own tale, as did all the others accompanying him. He wasn’t a warrior to begin with. He decide to become one. And then he decided he would become a sage after this final assignment.
At the time of the incident, neither he nor the Pandavas knew that he would change the course of the Kuru Empire. In fact, I wonder what Badri would have done had he known that all the Kshatriyas would be killed in Kurukshetra in a few decades, if he saved the Pandavas now. Badri is the character of that moment in time and he did his dharma to the best of his abilities and limitations.
As far as journeys go, there are three that Badri undertakes. The first is physical, from Hastinapur to Varanavat. The second is emotional, to reconnect with his wife Urvashi. And the third is spiritual, the movement of consciousness from the Manipura chakra to Anahata chakra, from the vital to the psychic, from a warrior to a sage.
Tunnel of Varanavat has several characters from the subaltern landscape of those times. And the interesting aspect is that you saw them in all their vibrancy as against the popular trope of magnifying their miseries. Share about your experience of charting this subaltern landscape of Mahabharata.
I don’t believe that the word subaltern is a synonym for exploitation, representing the powerless, smothering the invisibles. That could be only one of its many meanings. To me, the subaltern defines the landscape of average people, like you and me rather than Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi. But exploitation and marginalisation appears like a recurrent motif in all civilisations, across all geographies. The India of 5,000 years ago was no different.
On that front, Badri is a very complex character. He is a Kshatriya, a warrior, a winner of battles, crucial to Hastinapura’s foreign policy. But he is equally an unknown, his work uncelebrated, his heroism unsung. So, he easily shifts between dealing with kings and gurus as equals, even as he is trusted by and serves the cause of the victims of nationhood and wars, the voiceless, the suppressed.
A lot of these marginalised voices are real people whom I have transported backwards in history and given a dramatic bearing. My work of two decades in journalism helped me meet, understand and empathise with them. I’ve talked to them in political rallies, I’ve met them in chai shops, I’ve tracked them on the hills of Niyamgiri — that flower-selling girl on Delhi’s IIT crossing, that man making tea in a 5-star conference on financial inclusion that bent old woman ragpicker measuring the bylanes of poverty. In fact, my next book goes even deeper into their lives.
The Ashram of Rishi Kedar is another aspect of the story that captures reader’s attention. You have portrayed a Rishi who is a recluse as well as an active player in the socio-political causes. Doesn’t it seem paradoxical? Would love to know your thoughts on him.
Once again, I merely captured an idea and named him Kedar. Everything else just happened. Once he came to life, he created his own ashram, his disciples, his spiritual force as well as his strong warrior nature underneath his psychic heights. You do know that ashrams were not merely places of meditation or chanting of the Vedas. They were equally, and at times more so, centres of integral learning, where students were taught statecraft, war strategies, wielding of weapons, foreign policy, governance and so on. The ashrams were highly sensitive to political goings on, they were storehouses of information, repositories of knowledge. In the oral tradition, each ashram was a university, a library. Karma was embedded into Bhakti, spirituality in soldiering.
The Indian system allows for and indeed encourages the flowering of all types of beings, the thinker as well as the server, the organiser as well as the fighter. Nobody is ‘above’ the other. Besides, there are multiple personalities within us, fighting for expression. All of us are thinkers as much as warriors, organisers as much as providers of service, all at once. In different yet dynamic ways, these different parts of our being are evolving at different paces. The caste system as we know it today is a disgraceful fall of the original idea.
In me resides the Brahmin, in me the Shudra; I am the Vaishya, I the Kshatriya.
Kedar’s ashram is representative of this dynamism, this integral learning, this individuality of expression and evolution. Hence, from the same ashram emerges a Badri as well as a Purochan and to the same ashram comes an Urvashi. The hearts of our ashrams were large, accommodating and living with dynamism. Rishi Kedar’s ashram was no different.
Coming to the Antagonist Purochan. Share with us about his grey areas. To the reader, he is introduced as a formidable overlord of the locality and then he surprises with his softer sides almost presenting a moral challenge to the protagonists.
Why the surprise? Isn’t grey the colour of the Mahabharata? Aren’t all characters, a mix of colours? There is no space for unidimensional characters in this great text. From Bhishma to Krishna, Yudhishthira to Duryodhana, Kunti to Draupadi, show me one character that can be captured in a single word, a unique idea, a solitary emotion. You can’t because that’s not how the Mahabharata was composed, that’s not how the society then was — that’s not how the society is today. Black and white, good and evil, light and dark, heaven and hell, right and wrong…all these are piteous political constructs of unevolved religions and the accompanying fundamentalism they espouse.
Purochan is a product of the greyness, the complexity of what it is to be a human being. In him you see a man lusting to grow a principality, using any means whatsoever, destroying anything and anyone who stands in his way. But you also see his love for Varanavat, for children, and in the end for dharma. Purochan represents accentuated shades of grey. Beyond his being an antagonist and his role in the original Mahabharata, the Purochan in my book created his own world as well. Since he is all of these at all times, one part of his being dominating at one time, he seems to be a living contradiction.
Besides, Purochan has a larger role in my book. Beyond his personality, I have used Purochan to stretch the limits of dharma of other characters, particularly Kunti, Badri and Bhim, to breaking points. He as you rightly point out, presents a moral challenge. You hate him. You love him. You sympathise with him. You cry for him. You want him dead. You want him to live. And in the end, he leaves you with ashes in your mouth.
We see these shades of grey every day in people around us. We see them in ourselves — I certainly do. When we read the Mahabharata, it gives us a moral anchoring that says we are all part of an evolving ecosystem of bodies, hearts, minds and souls.
Veer is presented as a Super-Dog if I can use the fantasy terms. What prodded you to explore the telepathic communication that he and his master indulged in?
Veer came out of nowhere. Initially, I created him as Badri’s conscience. That allowed him to speak to himself with honesty. Down the road, all of a sudden, that abstraction became a symbol and that symbol a dog, who called himself Veer. Since a dog can’t speak to others, you can speak to him in all honesty, safe in the knowledge that what you say will stay with the dog. As the story moved, so did Veer and by the end he became a formidable character in himself.
The telepathic conversations with him are reflections of the several dog-companions I have had since my childhood. The telepathy is a truth I have lived and am living today. Of course, it is not as detailed or as intense as in between Badri and Veer. But your dog knows what you’re thinking, and in turn, you know what he wants. For genuine dog-lovers, this would be something they would be able to identify as a reality. For others, it would be a mystic adventure.
But more than the telepathy, it is Veer’s silences that are louder. Either way, I’m happy to say Veer has found a home in the hearts of several of my readers.
Please share more about the literature that inspires you to write and the research that went into writing the Tunnel of Varanavat.
The very fact that you’re asking this question tells me that I may have failed somewhere. It is true that a lot of research has gone into the writing of this book. But that is just the bricks and mortar of the book. I did not want it to overshadow the story. I didn’t even want readers to know it. I wanted to get them to live the Mahabharata, walk through the tunnels, feel the blades of swords, the crunch of bones crushing, the clothes. The idea was to take readers into the time and space of the Mahabharata through adventure, romance, love, dharma and violence.
That said, there are five main streams of research that have gone into this book — tunnel engineering, geology and geography, anthropology, flora and fauna, and finally culture and spirituality.
To visualise the tunnels of 5,000 years ago, I had to study the tunnels of today. Apart from walking in them, I leaned on books in various universities. You will be amazed at the sophistication of civil engineering in this small domain. With this knowledge of construction, ventilation, dust prevention, tunnel support structures and so on, I worked backwards to reimagine a world without them and then built the tunnels.
Geology and geography of India came next. It is important to know the land you’re walking on before you write a single word. From rock formations and soils to gradients and water tables, all these influenced the reimagining of our land. For this, I mostly depended on reports from the Geological Survey of India in general and on the reports about the Himalayan foothills, where I’ve located the story, in particular.
Anthropology followed. Since this is a series on the people of India, how they organised their lives, what they ate and wore, how they worked, I picked up various texts that explored the tribes of northern and central India. I struggled for long months reading about them. And then, when I was on the verge of giving up, almost magically, I stumbled upon the Lakheras, a tribe that plays a key role in this book.
Then came the flora and fauna of India. For this there is enough material in fields of botany and zoology, from general sources on birds and animals to specific texts on trees and flowers. Again, I focussed on northern India and the Himalayan foothills.
Then, there were specific research journeys into horses, dogs, saddles, bangles, weapons and so on. For these, and most of the above, I read several academic papers and books.
Above all, I needed to delve into the nature of consciousness and the accompanying inner and spiritual lives of my characters. For this, I have drawn heavily from the works of my gurus, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The entire evolutionary piece comes from his conclusion of man being a transitional being. This was difficult because in order to write with conviction, one needs to experience it.
The female characters, I am sure the readers love both Urvashi and Janaki as warriors, passionate champions of their respective causes and soulful lovers. But do you feel that female (for that matter even male) characters need to be warriors to be portrayed as strong? Or is the strength of a character in today’s period literature analogous to physical valour?
Interesting question. To me, the physical strength of men or women is only a medium. The real strength lies within. You could look at the physical as tool with which to express the inner strength. Scientifically speaking, your strength lies in your vital, in the Manipura chakra around your solar plexus.
Take Urvashi. She is old. She limps. And yet, the skill of her archery is a formidable strength that can take on Purochan’s soldiers. But even behind her skill, the source of strength is the idea of dharma, of protection, something larger than herself. Likewise for Janaki, whose inner source of strength is the sorrow and the grief of having lost her people and the injustice to her people. But when both of them, or the others, men included, resort to violence, the science of strength takes over and expresses its vital force through their arms, their arrows, their knives.
You may find my women strong because they are possibly a reflection of the women around me. Across three generations, I have been and still am completely surrounded by strong women. I do not believe in the wailing women that cinema and TV serials typecast. Maybe they do exist in some distant universe, not mine. I have not met them, I don’t know a single weak woman. From family to friends to colleagues, wherever I look, I see only strong women. I derive my inner strength from my gurus, one of whom was a woman. I suppose all of that has got captured in the book.
It’s a poor reflection on men to think they have a monopoly on physical strength. It’s a comment on the men themselves, not women. The fact that women are missing in the economic workforce, in a country that has given birth to so many women leaders, is a shame. The good news is that this is changing. Across the world and in India.
There is an ‘allegation’ that Indian fantasy writers don’t look beyond Ramayana and Mahabharata as an inspiration for their stories. What are your thoughts?
Let those who make these ‘allegations’ write their own books. As far as I am concerned, in the Mahabharata, I see the essence of India, its soul. It is 10 times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. The vastness, the heights, the depths the Mahabharata carries in its 100,000 shlokas is a story, a dharmic exposition, an insight into psychologies of individuals, a treatise on governance, a window to spirituality, all sculpted on hard granite — it is not for the faint-hearted. I am exploring these domains in my writings. Even if hundreds of scholars took this up as missions of their lives, it would still be inadequate and incomplete. The universality of this great text, across time and space, is still to be matched. What else is there to study and write about than the Mahabharata?
That said, the allegation is incorrect. I am reading several writers exploring a multitude of modern themes, each of them creating his or her own narrative. Maybe, those making the allegations are not going to bookshops or reading books, only hearing about them.
Something that the readers would be looking forward to know. Do you have a sequel to Varanavat lining up? Tell us more about your current writing projects.
Tunnel of Varanavat is only the first of my books in the Mahabharata Reimagined series. I’m already working on the second book and have a third building in my mind. I’m also exploring other non-fiction ideas around governance and wealth. Finally, through my columns, I continue to write on economics, politics and foreign policy.