The Great Indian Novel is a satirical novel by Shashi Tharoor. It is a fictional work that takes the story of the Mahabharata, the epic of Hindu mythology, and recasts and resets it in the context of the Indian Independence Movement and the first three decades post-independence. Figures from Indian history are transformed into characters from mythology, and the mythical story of India is retold as a history of Indian independence and subsequent history, up through the 1980s. Some critics have identified an element of subversion in the novel . The work includes numerous puns and allusions to famous works about India, such as those by Rudyard Kipling, Paul Scott, and E. M. Forster.
The Mahabharata is an epic tale describing the historical dynastic struggle over the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapur between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the heirs of the King Shantanu. In his novel, Tharoor recasts the story of the nascent Indian democracy as a struggle between groups and individuals closely related by their personal and political histories. Through his cantankerous narrator, Tharoor takes an irreverent tone towards figures such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who are ordinarily treated with reverence by Indians.
The phrase “great Indian novel” is an allusion to the long-standing idea of the “Great American Novel” and is also a pun, roughly translating “Mahabharata” (maha “great”; Bharata “India”). The Mahabharata, which is not a novel but an epic poem, can be understood, according to Tharoor, to represent Hinduism’s greatest literary achievement and thus serves as an appropriate paradigm in which to frame a retelling of recent Indian history.
A significant characteristic of Tharoor’s version of the story is the emphasis on the older generations (e.g., Bhishma, Dhritarashtra, and Pandu) and the resulting de-emphasis on the actions of the Kauravas and the Pandavas.