The Mahabharata on Twitter: the world’s longest epic poem, all 100,000 verses of it, condensed into a series of online posts of 140 characters, maximum. Well not quite because Chindu Sreedharan, a lecturer at Bournemouth University in the UK, isn’t actually attempting a full rendition of the epic on Twitter but rather using the story as the basis for what he calls an experiment in social media. Nevertheless, this is still a feat of compression that would have met the approval of Panini; it has certainly caught the attention of 1,472 followers to date as well as that of the international and Indian press. In an email interview with Venetia Ansell, Chindu explains how he writes his ‘twiction’, epicretold, tweet by tweet.
1. Do you have any idea how long the story will last, how long you’ll be tweeting for?
It is a question of months. Some of the readers do ask me, “Oh, so this is going to take decades?” Hold on, I am not narrating the original Mahabharata in its entirety. It is a version of a version of it. It is a series of selected incidents strung together to form a comprehensible narrative – to present the original plot from a limited perspective. So it is a question of months, not decades.
2. So what is your base text?
The fantastic characterisation of Bhima that M T Vasudevan Nair has achieved in Randamoozham is a foundational influence. I read the book first in Malayalam, when it was being published in a weekly. Then, later, I think I must have read Second Turn (the English translation) quite a few times. But my day-to-day source is Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen [a version of the Mahabharata from Bhima’s perspective – like the Randamoozham – which was written in a series of blog posts]. I use that as my main guide.
3. You’re writing this as you post and you only write three to four tweets day – how do you manage to make the narrative fit together so well and maintain an even pace?
Thank you for saying that. Hemingway’s advice helps. I make sure I read the earlier bits, as many as I can, before I write. That helps (hopefully) with the continuity. Even then, it is quite easy to tap out something that will say what you mean to say, carry the story forward to the next juncture – but when I can, before I post, I take a second look. That helps too. Quite a few times, I have found that actually what I have got wouldn’t flow well, or I have used the same phrase, or the reader will get that bit without my really spelling it out – and accordingly made changes.
4. There’s a certain rhythm to Twitter posts because of the character limitation. Do you think there are similarities between Twitter and poetry?
On Twitter not just every word, but every character counts – which forces you to write tight. There is rhythm to prose as well, of course, but that comes to the fore across more words, more sentences. Here, on the other hand, because of the character constraint, the writer packs in more sentences, more condensed communication in the same space. So the rhythm, the relation between every sentence/tweet, is more noticeable perhaps? Well, that’s my impressionistic take on it so far!
5. Do you have any idea who your followers are? How do they like it?
The majority are Indians or people of Indian origin. There is a small but significant number of non-Indians as well – Portugese and Americans, mostly, very few from Britain so far as I can see. Most followers are here because it is the Mahabharata. It is the epic that brings them here, and they are quite interested in a contemporary retelling. A very small percentage follows the story because it is fiction on Twitter.
The reaction has been surprisingly positive. Sometimes they attribute a great deal of undeserving originality of interpretation to epicretold as well – which, I must confess, I receive with only half-hearted protests. Very few criticisms, and none of what I would call harsh – a few people had written in, firm in their belief that Bhima was a vegetarian, so how come he’s eating meat here? And a couple of others felt that Yudhisthira was being portrayed as ‘casteist’. But apart from that, it has all been good. Possibly, the fragmented nature of storytelling has contributed to this happiness; I expect there will be more criticism coming my way when readers can read lengthy bits in one sitting.
6. Does this episodic format mean that your readers shape the text in any way?
I listen, and respond, intently to what readers say. Twitter provides for that very nicely. I doubt whether that changes the characterisation or the storyline in any significant way. But that has had some effects on my narration. For instance, followers wrote in to say the use of pronouns can be confusing as they are reading one tweet at a time. So I try to make sure that I use names where possible, or fairly frequently, so it is easier to understand who I am referring to. Indirectly, the interaction with readers allows me to get a feel of what they find attractive about the narration, and of course that does influence me when I write.
7. Sanskrit is famous for its brevity and concision – any thoughts on the potential for Sanskrit tweeting?
Could be very niche, given that the audience for the language – and this is only a guess, mind – is limited and only a small percentage of that audience would be comfortable on Twitter.
8. And next, the Ramayana..?
Gosh, no. Not unless someone commissions me! This does become consuming, when you have other commitments to honour as well!
To read the first ‘chapter’ of Chindu’s epicretold, click here.
To read and follow the story on Twitter, click here.
For more information on Chindu Sreedharan, see his website here.