Several Indian writers are rediscovering the Ancient mythological scriptures.
A country of fascinating legends and myths, India always has a generation that grows up mesmerised by its ancient scriptures and epics. When the kids from the earlier generation grew up listening to the grandmother’s tales and ballads, the 80s and 90s saw the scene being taken over by Amar Chitra Katha comics and Doordarshan soap versions of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The rise of mythological fiction was initially witnessed in regional language literature. Jnanapith-winning Marathi author V.S. Khandekar’s Yayati, the story of the mythical Paurava king, Shivaji Sawant’s Marathi novel Mrityunjay on Karna and M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam novel Randamoozham, Bhimasena’s version of The Mahabharata, perhaps started it all.
But it was in the early 2000s that mythology conquered Indian English literature. The young crop of writers like Amish Tripathi, Devdutt Pattanaik, Ashwin Sanghi and Ashok Banker became the front-runners in reinterpreting the scriptures from various perspectives. However, for the past few years, the design of weaving fictional narratives around epics has seen a sea change.
More radical voices have emerged, addressing feminism, casteism and subaltern politics in the complex tales from mythology — like Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, a feminist perspective of The Mahabharata from Draupadi’s viewpoint and Mallar Chatterjee’s Yudhisthira – The Unfallen Pandava, that shows the anger-filled, guilt-ridden, awe-inspiring introspections of the epitome of dharma. Very closely linked to religion, the gods and demi-gods from the scriptures have been studied, dissected and ‘humanised’ by these new authors. The experimental trend has been catching up as more literary works demystifying and reinterpreting the epics are hitting the bookstores.
Most of these younger writers belong to the generation of TV, cricket and computer games; how did they get hooked to epics? Aditya Iyengar, noted for works such as The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War and Palace of Assassins: The Rise of Ashwatthama, admits that it was TV that wooed him to tradition. “Especially B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata written by the brilliant Rahi Masoom Raza,” says the writer, who feels that Indian myths have a reassuring influence on every generation.
In his novels, Aditya places mythological characters on a more human plane by exploring the characters’ masculinity and the complexity of emotions and sub-plots. He sees it all as a different perspective. “It has been there always. Kamban’s version of The Ramayana is different from Tulsidas’. There are several other versions including Jain, Buddhist and even Indonesian and Cambodian; no two versions are alike. Mythology is less about fact and more about perspective.”
Aditya feels that the generation of the internet, contrary to the popular perception, is not much different from the older ones. “They, too, gravitate towards stories and perspectives that can tell them more about themselves and teach them something new. Mine is just an attempt to create an interesting story that can provide a unique perspective.”
As someone who grew up on C.R. Rajagopalachari’s, Kamala Subramaniam’s, and R.K. Narayan’s versions of epics and Amar Chitra Katha, he grew up to appreciate the intricacies of human character. “I discovered the wonderfully nuanced perspectives of Irawati Karve and Volga. I’ve always been interested in the kind of conflicts offered in mythology, so I started writing mythological novels,” he adds.
Asked about fear of repercussions while discussing touchy or taboo topics as epics and religion are closely connected, Aditya observes that people are largely accepting multiple perspectives even if it contradicts their viewpoint. “There is no point fearing what you cannot control. As long as you treat your subject with respect – by providing a justifiable and coherent viewpoint and not creating something simply for shock value, it should be fine.”
Currently working on his next, a retelling of Sita’s life, Aditya feels that the trend of mythological fiction is here to stay. “It’s evergreen. People never get tired of it. These stories have survived thousands of years and have connected with so many people. Our love for mythology is not a trend; it has almost become a part of our daily lives – like a ritual,” Aditya says.
Anuja Chandramouli, who penned fictional works such as Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior, Kamadeva: The God of Desire, Shakti: The Divine Feminine and Yama’s Lieutenant, too, feels that mythological fiction is more than just a trend. “The levels of interest may vary, but as long as there are so many of us who are absolutely devoted and passionate about this genre, there is no reason why mythology should not endure forever more,” she opines.
Recalling how her grandmother’s narrations made her fall in love with puranas, Anuja says, “The very first story she told me was about Krishna and it was fascinating to listen to the circumstances of his birth in the midst of all that adult-rated violence, imprisonment, deadly demons, monsters, poison and dead babies plus the miracles that followed and the slaying of Kamsa. After a point, I could repeat the story of Krishna verbatim and my grandmother used to show off my storytelling skills to every guest who came to her doorstep. Those were magical times!”
Later, she devoured Amar Chitra Katha comics and C. Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana and Mahabharata. Currently a story-teller who works among ADHD-afflicted kids, who keenly hang on to every word of the tales she narrates, Anuja stresses that despite our addiction to smartphones, Ipads and streaming platforms, these stories will last forever. “Thanks to storytellers extraordinaire like Arshia Sattar, Devdutt Pattanaik, Anand Neelakantan, Kavita Kane, Aditya Iyengar and Amish Tripathi among others, considerable interest has been generated in the mythology genre. Indian mythology is a treasure trove which has something for everybody whether one is looking for answers to profound existential questions or simply hoping to get entertained. As for me, I have a lot of faith in these stories and their power to mesmerise. I just want to stay faithful to the material, put a little bit of my own heart and soul into it and become a part of the proud tradition of storytelling that is such an essential part of our history and heritage,” she says.
For her, mythological adaptations are all about nuance, the inherent neutrality of all in existence and the many shades of grey. “It is a common misconception that Indian mythology boils down to a black and white portrayal of good versus evil. I am always amazed at how non-judgmental the ancient texts were about the follies, foibles and frailties of not just human beings, but the gods and goddesses as well. The emphasis was always on love, learning, tolerance and compassion,” explains Anuja, who feels that modern adaptations take a lot of liberties with the source material.
“But as long as the narrative is handled with sense and sensitivity, I don’t see any harm. Besides, for the stories to survive, they need to constantly evolve and imbibe the various elements of the age in which they are being told,” she adds.
While she sits down to spin her yarns, Anuja takes care to not let negativity creep in. “Hurt sentiments, threats and repercussions are always a very distinct possibility in this hyper sensitive age where everybody is anxious to get outraged and vituperative across social media platforms. It is best to enjoy the ride, while getting up close and personal with beloved characters, who can add so much meaning and joy to our stressed out, hectic lives.”
Ask about her upcoming works, Anuja gushes, “I do see a lot of epic-based novels in my immediate future, but I do want to branch out and experiment a bit. My next book is about one of Indian history’s most famous bad boy and I am really excited about it!”
Trisha Das’ Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas is a modern twist to mythology when Draupadi, Amba, Gandhari and Kunti pay a month-long visit to the earth. Trisha says there are no facts in mythology to be twisted. “There are no facts. We have little to no evidence of any of the events in either epic actually taking place. We can’t even agree on a time period. The stories from the epics are different depending on where in India you go.”
Her interest in mythology was ignited by the stories narrated by her grandfather during school holidays. As she read more about it, she started questioning. “There are grey areas within the traditional versions. The concept of dharma is challenged constantly, people gamble away their family members, war rules are broken and the good guys deal in deception. The line between virtue and vice shifts, heroes don’t always act heroic,” Trisha observes.
Instead of focusing on the heroism of characters, she writes about the women, not just to make them more representative of modern women, but to present a fresh, lighthearted and fantastical perspective as well. “For any reader to connect to any character, they should be able to see themselves in the characters – experience the same emotions, face the same conflicts and desire the same outcomes,” says Trisha, who is greatly influenced by Mahasweta Devi, Pratibha Ray and Chitra Divakaruni’s takes on Draupadi’s character.
Trisha, however, is not sure about the evergreen nature of epics. “Like any trend, it might change, but I think that Indian readers are getting more comfortable with fantasy and speculative fiction,” says the author, who is currently attempting a rather brave historical fiction novel set in Mughal India.
Aniruddha Mukherjee, a visual illustrator of mythological fiction for children such as Vahana, The Tales of Divine Animal Mounts of the Gods, says epics have a marvellous storytelling power with incredible and rich cultural detail and narratives. “A good story appeals to everyone and some of the mythological tales written today reflect the thinking of our times. So, I don’t really think these tales are far-removed from today’s generation. When I attempt something, I too try and tell a good story – a story that children would like to get invested in, a story with real and imaginary characters which are embroidered on to India’s larger cultural fabric, giving its young readers a context they understand,” he says.
His tryst with visual illustration was the result of the influence of yesteryear writers of mythological novels. “Mythology is something that has always interested me, right from childhood. I was amazed at the depth and detail and beauty of the original stories. The original epics are great works of world literature. Whether they were mythology or history or something else is for others to decide. To me, these were great stories that deserved to be known by young readers and with my small attempts like this book for children; I try to reclaim these great stories,” says Aniruddha, who reads as many interpretations and perspectives as possible that helps him while writing and illustrating. Creative fodder for generations of writers and artists, Indian mythology, he believes, will continue to inspire. “I think today’s generation is deeply interested in knowing about their roots and a new generation of writers is riding the wave, creating mythological works one after the other,” he opines.
Dr Vineet Aggarwal, the author of Vishwamitra, The Man Who Dared to Challenge the Gods, The Legend of Parshu – Raam and Bharat, The Man Who Built a Nation, focuses on the fusion of science with religion and explores various cultures and belief systems. He is also a blogger who runs Decode Hindu Mythology, a blog which takes forward his exploration and experimentation in science, history and mythology. The spark, he says, came from grandma’s tales and Amar Chitra Katha comics from childhood.
“In fact, I am more inspired by modern writers like Ashok Banker and Arthur C. Clarke than yesteryear stalwarts. One of the primary reasons I took up mythology was to present it for the modern audience from a more scientific and relatable perspective and both these authors have inspired me to do that,” says Vineet.
He finds most mythological adaptations ‘twisting the facts’, which is why he tries to stay true to the original characterisations in his works. “Of course, retelling a story from different perspectives requires a different looking glass, but it shouldn’t be done just to create a controversy. As long as the heroes are not turned into complete villains and vice-versa, some amount of grey should be okay for a discerning audience,” he feels.
While writing about myths, Vineeth interestingly uses a lot of science and logic, and the responses have been encouraging. “I believe that the trend will only grow in the coming years. Western world has already made fantasy a big genre. With the making of movies like Baahubali and many mythology-based projects, the future looks bright. Anyway, while telling stories, authors should take care not to hurt anyone’s feelings deliberately, just to make a quick buck,” he cautions.
Aruna Naidu, founder and CEO of the publishing firm Author's Channel, sees the trend of mythological fiction as a slow process. “The transition was definitely not an overnight one, but it does give an impression that it is due to the fact that social media grew to its peak around 2010 and the word of mouth was spreading faster than ever,” she observes.
She also believes that the initiator of the transition was the Percy Jackson novel series. “The first book was released in 2005 and subsequent books were released consecutively, which really helped itself and gave a massive boost in terms of popularity, profit etc. Percy Jackson’s fan base included Indian audience as well. At this point of time our audience of all kinds of age was growing into the taste of this mythological literature fiction genre. Also considering the fact that India is one of the top book reading nations, The Shiva Trilogy did a whole lot of good to the audience, distributors, publishers etc. when it released. These books not only consisted of the already existing book readers, but also got new audience into the fray who started the mythological literature fiction genre as their maiden book,” Aruna says.
Agreeing with her, Ravi Deecee, the managing partner of DC Books, says that fiction and self help related to epics are the most sought-after books by the younger generation. “There is more fanfare for Devdutt Pattanaik, Amish Tripathi and Anand Neelakantan than many movie stars and cricketers. Contrary to the senior authors, whose perspectives on mythological characters were more of seeing the characters as divine figures, the younger generation doesn’t see it that way. In fact, I would say Ravana is no lesser than Rama. Ravana’s principles in life are something to be emulated as well, is what the new generation feels,” he says.
Mythology, due to its charm and fun factor, is time-tested, observes Ravi. “Be it fiction, poetry or traditional mythological interpretation, there is always audience for it. Great story-tellers like M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Shivaji Sawant and Khandekar still influence the generations,” he adds.
Nikhil Chandwani, an author and a staunch believer of Sanatan Dharma who vows to protect dharma by capturing the real history of India and spreading it amongst youngsters, engages in continuous research of epics and through it, the mysterious history of Bharat. “I am always a big fan of Sri Rama and his way of governance. The Ramayana never ended with Ravana’s death. That’s where the legend of the greatest king of Bharat’s history begins. There’s a lot of research to be done. Learning history is like discovering space. The answers bring even more questions; it is an endless journey,” he says.
(Inputs from Elizabeth Thomas, Gokul M.G., Priya Sreekumar and Gautham S.)