The more classics evolve, the more they stay classic

WHAT MAKES a really great, grand story? What makes it a classic? Here's a good rule of thumb: Readers want to add their own takes to it, and there's always space for more.

"Jane Eyre" spawned "The Great Sargasso Sea," "Beowulf" led to "Grendel," the Bible to everything from passion plays to Veggietales, "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" to communities of fan fiction, "The Great Gatsby" to "Jake, Reinvented."

India's oldest and greatest epic, "The Mahabharata," is one of those classics. People have been remaking and retelling it for as long as it's existed. It's like a bit of the coastline — the map shows its general contours, and a closer inspection shows more crags and wrinkles the closer you go. And any good storyteller can reshape those wrinkles while retaining the sweep of the thing.

And so it is specifically with the story of Yudhisthira, one of "The Mahabharata's" main characters. People legitimately argue about his character, not because it was badly written in the first place, but because it has ambiguity and depth. My own changing perception of him over the years tells me something about how I've changed.

The one-sentence summary of "The Mahabharata" tells you that the two branches of a family, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, go to war, and the Pandavas win. So the Pandavas are the good guys, right? The simplest answer is "yes," but they do some unethical things to win, and the Kaurava side includes many of the story's noblest characters.

Yudhisthira is the eldest of the five Pandava boys. ("Pandava" means "son of Pandu.") He's the most dutiful son, known for his piety and thoughtfulness. The boys and their cousins the Kauravas have been rivals since childhood; the Kauravas envy their strength, good looks, and general fortune. Eventually, the Kauravas decide to try to trick the Pandavas and steal their inheritance by cheating them at a game of chance.

Herein lies the fuzziness. The Kauravas invite Yudhisthira to a game of dice — and he accepts! Why?

As a child, I learned "The Mahabharata" from the Amar Chitra Katha publishing house's

comic book version. In that rendering, Yudhisthira is a wonderful man, but he has a weakness for gambling.

As I grew older, I read more versions. In Rajagopalachari's retelling, Yudhisthira has no great love of gambling. He only accepts the invitation, which he knows is a trap, because to do otherwise would be a mortal insult. He is striving to keep the peace, trying to resist his cousins' constant baiting, and holding his brothers back when the Kauravas insult them.

He knows that the Kauravas are aching to start a war, and in the end he can't keep that violence at bay. Even as he deliberately walks into the setup, even as he tosses the weighted dice, tragedy approaches relentlessly.

Instead of condemning or pitying Yudhisthira for his weakness, I instead admire and pity his chivalry.

There are a million little touches like that in "The Mahabharata," in "Hamlet," in any other world-class classic you care to name. A scene, a plot development will always have a certain shape — a face, let's say — but in the retelling, in the interpretation, is it a drooping, haggard face, or a bright and promising one? Are the eyes sharp or clouded? What hidden motivations, yearnings, possibilities do we see when we turn that face and look at it in a different light?

The best thing about classics is that they match you. As you grow as a reader they also grow in meaning. I couldn't have understood the nobility of Yudhisthira's doomed mission of peace until I'd learned a bit of self-discipline, and I didn't know the futility of appeasing tyrants until I'd tried it, and watched my country try it.

Someday, when I've had more joy and regret, I'll come back to Yudhisthira and see even more.

In the meantime, pick up a new version of a cherished story. In fact, e-mail me at and tell me your favorite pairing of a classic tale and its retelling. I'll use one in a future column and I may toss some comic books your way.

Write to Sumana Harihareswara at