Field notes on epicretold

The 5 Ws, H of an attempt at retelling the Mahabharata on Twitter.

mahabharataI HAVE let another project run wild. Will I ever learn?

A regular work day, and my very literary colleague Bronwen sends across this link. About amateur novels read on mobile phone, apparently a big thing with Japanese teenagers. Nice, I say.

So she sends me two more. The first on New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s experiment at tweeting a thriller, the second on a determined bunch bending Twitter their way with short fiction.

Most of that — from what I could see at InstantFiction, twae, Maureen, etc — was micro enough to make flash fiction – even drabble — read like a novel. Richtel’s ‘Twiller’ was an exception, but still short enough to be labelled short story.

Question then was, would a full-length work of fiction fly on Twitter? Was there scope for an episodically lengthy narrative on the medium?

This was the time I was devouring my ex-colleague Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen (so far as I know the first attempt at blogging a full-length, *quality* work of fiction post by post), a reimagining of the Mahabharata, along similar lines as M T Vasudevan Nair’s award-winning Randamoozham, published in the south Indian language of Malayalam many years ago (the English version is titled Second Turn). It occurred to me the tale was just perfect for the experiment.

For one, the Mahabharata is the ultimate war story, providing enough ‘conflict’, enough opportunities for dramatic tension at every turn — surely that would help hold the reader? Plus, I have been fascinated with the narrative since I read M T’s wonderfully nuanced interpretation in Randamoozham as a kid. Plus, plus, war narratives — fictional, semi-fictional, factual — are of academic interest to me.

There was also the irony of attempting to fit one of the world’s longest and philosophical epics into a microblogging site meant to keep your friends updated about your non-activities  (‘am in shower. shoot, phone got wet’). (Not to mention the chance to make manly-man Bhima actually ‘tweet’, which appealed greatly to my wicked side.)

And so started this project (this is where you toddle off to twitter.com/epicretold and start following me).

So far everything was sane, under control. But the trouble with putting something out there is that it takes a life of its own. Before I knew it I found myself talking to the Indian media (Mahabharata + New Media = News Value squared), promising things I had never intended to promise.

How many tweets on an average day, ask the Journalist.

Three to four, I commit without hesitation (woh! where did that come from?)

Do you plan to have other sites to help latecomers catch up?

Oh yes, just starting an ‘about to’ page and thinking of having a separate ‘the story so far’ site as well, I say (seriously dude, shut your trap!)

Well, the short version is that I shot my mouth off and received fairly serious media attention (among others, see stories in TimeReuters, WSJ-Mint, DNA, NPR, Asian AgeIndia Today, and Express; Reuters interview here). The pressure is on now (the discerning reader might notice that in twitter.com/aboutepicretold, the ‘about to’ page I did start, I have, demonstrating extreme verbal dexterity, managed to stay clear of concrete commitments – but that’s only for your eyes) and I must confess I have no clue where this thing will take me.

What sort of narrative will actually work here? Three ‘episodes’ a day, is that too far and few? Would the reader have forgotten where we stopped by the time s/he receives the next tweet? More worryingly, what worked for Japanese teenagers might not work elsewhere, in a different genre, across a different culture/cultures.

Good news is, this need not ‘work’ to make this work; I need not have a 1,000 followers hanging on to my every tweet (though that would be nice). As someone said to me the other day, the pleasure is in the process — so, I guess, is the learning.

A confession and a caveat, in that order, as I conclude. Many have asked me how much I have written, have I planned it all out? Not. I have not pre-written this, nor have I mind-mapped it much. After some thought, I have decided to see it as it is — fiction to go, written live. I will take my chances with that. I intend to follow Prem’s narrative structure as much as possible (he’s done the hard work, it is only fair I reap the benefits), in places closely (some of his imagery is too good a fit), in places, not.

Which brings me to the caveat. epicretold needs to be seen as an experiment in social media, not in the Mahabharata. It does not capture the philosophical richness of the epic, nor does it purport to have literary merit. It is simply twiction, nothing more.

Excuse me now, I got to go tweet.

ALSO SEE:

The end of childhood

PS: Check out the Facebook group page for epicretold here

Image: Sunil Krishnan
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