Mythology as a genre in Indian Literature in English

Mythology has pervaded deep into our lives especially in this decade, of that there cannot be any doubt. They have moved beyond being just our grandmothers’ tales and questions in quiz shows and the basis on which some of us are named.

Indian literature in English is increasingly grabbing eyeballs and the one genre that is helping it rise above the rest is historical fiction. Debut authors are increasingly dependent upon Indian mythology to carve a niche for themselves. Today we take a look at some of these books, the myth behind them and what makes these books so appealing.

Once upon a time, the way to familiarize students with Indian mythology was Amar Chitra Katha’s comics. Everything from Ramayana to Mahabharata and the pantheon of 33 million Gods was dealt with. Comics evolved to graphic novels and everything from princes fighting epic battles to nature taking on human forms was laid out to capture our imaginations. Sarnath Banerjee is one such graphic novelist whose work has been taken note of by the Indian audiences.

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But that’s not where it stops. Authors are not only taking up mythology and visualizing it the way they want to, but also moulding and interpreting it to tell beautiful stories and look at mythology from different perspectives.

 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Palace of Illusions’, which released in 2008, is a re-telling of Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. With gender studies as an upcoming area of interest, this is a highly relevant piece of work which traces Mahabharata right from the time of Draupadi’s birth till the death of Draupadi and explores interesting issues like the genesis of the war and also Draupadi’s unrequited love for Karana. Crisp writing defines this book and it proves to be a rewarding read.

Taking inspiration from mythology is Ashwin Sanghi. His book ‘Chanakya’s Chant’ is the story of Pandit Gangasagar Mishra and Chandni, parallels of Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya in the modern times. This premise is interesting because it is disputable whether anyone called ‘Chanakya’ as such ever existed. Ashwin Sanghi has also written books like the Rozabal Line which talks about Jesus surviving the crucifixion and living in India and The Krishna Key which talks about a mass murderer who believes that he is the re-incarnation of Lord Krishna.

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Ashok Banker has recently gained renown as his Ramayana and Mahabharata Series which includes his notable work- “The Forest of Stories”- climed to the top to become the number one ebook. His freely imaginative retelling in fact is held largely responsible for this current resurgent interest of Indian audiences in mythology.

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Calling himself a mythologist by profession is Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, whose books Jaya- which is his retelling of the Mahabharata and Mithya=Myth- a handbook on Indian mythology have gained considerable popularity. Dr. Pattanayak concentrates on making mythology accessible to the masses, which is perhaps the reason for his popularity.

Historical fiction and mythology is a broad genre with scope for some brilliant writing. The authors that we deal with here are only some of the more popular examples which we recommend you start reading with, if you haven’t already. If you know of any other author writing in this genre, who has caught your fancy, please feel free to add to this list.

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Spare a thought: The issue of Kashmiri Pandits’ migration

There are so many grave issues that escape our notice. Yet they continue to plague our country. We should be aware of them. The Kashmiri Pandits’ migration is one such issue that needs our attention. Whoever thought that the citizens of a country would be uprooted from their own homes and an entire nation wouldn’t even notice?
Akshay Labroo, a Political Science student in the University of Delhi talks about this issue in this engrossing documentary.

On fear

I am scared. And depressed. And it has nothing to do with my personal problems, but what is happening in the world at large. Because now, what is happening in the world no longer remains just ‘their’ problem but my problem as well, especially the attacks on women.
As I ushered in my birthday on Dec 15th, I discovered that in two places in the world, China and Connecticut (where it wasn’t Dec 15th yet), children who had barely just started discovering the world, had been attacked. In Connecticut, they were attacked with guns and many children died. Those who didn’t are scarred for life. Soon after, I was greeted with the news that in Delhi, the place where I study and what has become my second home, a girl trying to go back home at ten in the evening, had been brutally gang raped and was dying (is now dead). This came on the heels of various attacks that had been happening throughout the country- in Kolkata (where I used to live) a woman was raped and then misogynist politicians and the woman Chief Minister of Bengal had the gall to actually add to her trauma by decrying her rape as a misunderstanding and telling people that she was an escort. In Guwahati, a girl was molested for thirty minutes while a voyeuristic TV crew filmed this. In Mumbai meanwhile (where my parents now live) working women had been arrested from a birthday party of a friend for drinking and sent to prostitute remand homes by the keepers of our Law. Soon after, I heard about violent attacks on women by their friends and classmates in college, in their own flats, on the railway platform because somebody mistook this person for his wife. The list is long. And then, in Assam, an old couple is burnt alive by their own employees on a tea estate.
I don’t know what to make of this. These people were doing what I would have been doing in my past, in my present and in my future. Any of those people could have been me. Now I just feel fortunate to be alive. I always wanted to adopt a girl child, but now I am not so sure. I am living in fear now, unsure of the fact that whether from one day to the next I won’t join the ranks of one of those people. Is this what I will teach a child? I don’t know. I suppose if something happens to my own child, it will definitely hurt more than if it happens to some child I do not know.
People advice us to carry pepper sprays but I want safety to be a guarantee for me, in most cases. In the rare case that something does happen to me I want the authorities to listen to my plight and help me out. I don’t want them to be making misogynist statements- which is what is happening now. For every voice of reason, there is one person who claims to be representing us but makes a statement that reflects that even after all the protests, their mindsets remain one where they can freely objectify women. While our own President’s son makes a highly misled statement, our “rulers”-the first family of politics makes no statement at all, and our Prime Minister makes a gaffe even in one of his very rare public appearance.
I wanted to teach my child to go out and claim the world as her own- live her life the way she wants to, and that as long as she was an honest and kind human being nothing else should matter. But I am not sure whether I can teach her that anymore. Instead when I am ready to send her to school I’ll be worried sick about whether she will come back alive. And when she goes to college, I’ll have to warn her about every guy she befriends because if something goes wrong they just might stab her. And when she moves out of the house I’ll have to warn her never to exchange a kind word with even her doorkeeper since he might take fancy to her and kill her. And in the meanwhile she will always have to be on guard because someone might violate her and our laws may not recognize that as a bad enough crime. And when she is old and perhaps a respected boss or an employer, I’ll have to warn her to not guide her subordinates on the right direction because someone might take it on their ego and harm her. Humans aren’t humans anymore if they let their basic nature dominate.
So this is an appeal to all mankind – Rise Above. Rise above your hatred and anger and factors that divide you from one person to the next and concentrate on what binds you. This is an appeal to mothers of every son- teach them to respect women because you wouldn’t want something to happen to you, right. And to the fathers- please be a role model for your son in the way you treat the people around you, especially women. And this is an appeal to the authorities- especially the Indian Government. Please stop living in the age of Manu. And please stop living in the age of your colonial rulers with laws and punishments that suited those times. Revise our laws and make them stringent. Sensitize our authorities. Women are not to be objectified and treated like you have a claim on them. We are our own person. We have our dreams and aspirations and none of them constitute living under the reign of men.
People should realize that the more time we spend fighting the patriarchal system, the more time is spent in delaying progress. Women’s plight right now is inimical to liberty and progress- your liberty and progress. If you are still not convinced then what you need to remember is that women constitute almost one half of the population.

My year in books-Part II

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The Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson was a revelation in itself, for me. The trilogy that consists of the books- The Girl with Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who played with fire, and finally The Girl who kicked the hornet’s nest- are probably some of the best crime thrillers I have come across in sometimes. Perhaps a little bit unrealistic, but engrossing all the same, the book brought forth for me many aspects of Sweden, a country about which I didn’t know much. The characters in these books are well sketched out and the plot is well laid out. The plots reminded me a little bit of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels. The books are mostly divided into three parts. What really appealed to me was that the author did not merely want to write a work in crime fiction but also deal with crime statistics, women’s development and increase public consciousness about the underhand developments that can take place even in one of the safest country. A must read.

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The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri was a book I picked up from Daryaganj book market simply because I thought that it was another book like Chanakya’s Chant that drew parallels between the ancient and modern. While that wasn’t the case, it was one of those books which proved to be a realistic read though not always an extremely compelling one. The Age of Shiva based in post independence Delhi (Daryaganj, incidentally and Nizamuddin) and the suburbs of Bombay, deals with the struggles of a couple whose marriage has gone sour, after marrying in haste, about their struggles to build a life for themselves and not depend upon rich relatives, about rebellion of a girl from an autocratic father and the love a mother finds in her son when her marriage is struggling on bare threads. This book deals with communal conflict and class lines and deals with friendships and relationships against all odds. A brave work.

My year in books-Part I

This year has been an enriching one. Not in terms of the number of books I read but the books I did manage to read. And while it is difficult to recount all the books, I will try my best to do so. Though I cannot account for the rather dismal number of books I read this year, I think I shall squarely blame it on the fact that I was too busy studying and trying to handle my course work and the fact that during vacations I was lured in by the charms of television and American soaps, which is just sad. But here goes.

I started my year with Fatima Bhutto’s Songs of blood and sword. It is a beautiful, touching memoir of a daughter whose family has been brutally slaughtered, her father killed, aunt assassinated, and grandfather hanged all in the name of politics. Apart from giving an insight into Fatima’s life, this book delves with what makes and breaks Pakistani politics, what makes the country a failed state or otherwise and what it takes for a woman to rise above in a strife ridden country. While this is essentially a memoir hence the account into the politics is essentially one sided yet, the book proves to be a riveting read.

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Steve Jobs’ demise brought forth a flurry of biographies- an attempt to capture the enigma of the Inventor of the Century, even as he knocked on St. Peter’s gates. Among those, the one which I believe garnered the maximum attention is I believe the official biography by Walter Issacson simply titled, “Steve Jobs”. When I started reading this book, I thought the book had not done justice to the great man. I thought so myself, and heard a lot of friends seconding my opinion, that the book simply does not hold your attention. Well that is just the beginning. The trick with this book is to not give up. As the book progresses after a rather slow start, it does hold your attention. The book deals with everything, from Jobs’ early start, his friendship with Wozniack and the various Silicon Valley giants, his mistakes, his relationships, his mercurial nature, the way he dealt with his colleagues, the way he pushed his subordinates, what made Apple different and Pixar a success, his psyche, exacting attention to detail and his showmanship, is perhaps one of the most complete and engaging biographies I have read in sometime. It does not sugar coat Jobs though there may be a just a slight hint of sycophancy. With accounts from all the people who contributed to the charisma of Steve Jobs, this book was worthwhile enough to read through exhausting Delhi summer nights even in the middle of my exams (for the record, I managed to perform decently).

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One of the most interesting books that I have read in sometime, perhaps the novel that deserves a lot more attention than it has been given in the Indian media, simply because it is just so different from the books we generally read is Room by Emma Donoghue. It has been described as startlingly original and well, it is. I brought this book because I was bored at the airport and its two line synopsis, “Jack is five. He lives in a single locked room with his Ma”, caught my attention unwaveringly from the word go. This book is about Jack and his Ma who have been kept captive for five years. The only world Jack knows about is his Room and the world in the television. His mother tries to educate him about the world outside, survive in a claustrophobic space with her son while trying her best to keep both of them fit, deal with bouts of depression and plan their escape because finally Jack is old enough to aid and abet in her plans. This beautifully nuanced book, which for me was a little bit like a psychological thriller is written from the point of view of Jack. When Jack and his Ma finally (rather heroically) escape Room (Jack personifies everything including the place where he lives) it deals with the consequences and repercussions of being in a world that has changed beyond recognition for Ma and what Jack goes through discovering a whole new world. It deals with every aspect possible. This can only be the work of someone who is extremely talented and I suggest that everybody who has heard of this book from my blog should read it.

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Moving away from memoirs, biographies and fiction, I managed to read another extremely compelling work- a Pulitzer Prize winner- The Emperor of Maladies: A biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Mukherjee, an oncologist by profession and a Rhodes Scholar, writes a beautiful work about cancer, how it affects, how it can be deadly and what is being done to combat it. This treatise is written in heart-rendering prose, deals with people as much as it does with the disease, weaving the ancient and the immediate past, the present and the future, some parts of which left me speechless, some depressed and some cheering for joy. It is an engrossing and seminal work and should be read when possible.

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A book that has sadly received undue attention, and which intrigued me at first because the newspapers dwelled on how complex its characters and its premise was, but probably wasn’t as great a read as it should have been, was Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. While sex, especially BDSM is always a difficult premise to deal with, the book struggled to hold my attention because it just turns out to be like the other chick lits, in most parts. I may not be totally justified in reviewing this book since I have not read the other two parts of this trilogy but I think EL James could have done a better job with this rather brave work of hers. So could the newspapers, in focusing their attention on something that actually deserves it.

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Ashwin Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant, started on a brilliant note, as part historical fiction and part modern day political thriller. The only grouse that I probably have with this book is that he makes the woman protagonist too much of a puppet in the hands of his modern day Chanakya. This is another engrossing read that draws a beautiful parallel between what happened in ancient India with a story set in contemporary north India and manages to reflect the way politics is actually played out in our country. An absorbing read, in most parts.

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Sir Jefferey Archer’s Sins of the Father- the second book in the Clifford series, was, while a brilliant read, not as captivating as the first book. But it did build up the mystery and the suspense and it makes waiting for the third book worthwhile.

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Thank you for the memories!

Change is a painful thing. We can try to make it easier on ourselves but getting out of our comfort zone is in itself a huge accomplishment. Change, is more often than not accompanied with a little heartburn till you accept the inevitable and move on. Especially if that change involves settling down in an alien city and leaving behind everyone you loved. Nothing you do after that makes things the same.
But change can be memorable, wonderful even if you are fortunate enough to find the right people to help you along in your journey. Like I was.
People say that you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends. I don’t know if that’s true. There are only so many people you can meet in your lifetime and of that only so many people you would be truly interested in being friends with. But I think I was lucky to meet you guys. You know who you are, so I won’t be taking names here. You crazy, wonderful people who have become almost family for me, who have made college life worthwhile, who have made Delhi my home, well my second home in any case. It’s like I am almost attached to Delhi with an umbilical cord, because there are so many beautiful memories to get back to and you beautiful people to look forward to.
When I look back, I can’t believe there are people who would actually sit up and listen to my banter till dawn breaks, like it was even a least bit interesting. There are people in my life who listen to my crazy obsessions about New York and the seventies and lust and don’t bat an eyelid. People who buy me Bourneville even though they’re broke only because I did a good deed. People who have made me an expert masseuse and a “palmist”. People who listen to my crazy dreams and make it a point to reply to the observations I text them about when I am flying back home. People who waltz with me and sing songs for me and with me and assure me that I am pretty awesome. People who share wonderful songs with me. People who fill my life with music. People who won’t meet me when they’re in my hometown but will make it a point to call me immediately if I have an existential crises. People who resolve dilemmas for me and plan birthday parties for me from way before just because I can’t help but plan things well in advance. People who make sure I am well fed and well prepared to meet challenges. People who would do everything possible to take care of me when I am probably almost dying or I am overwhelmingly depressed. People who are saving my life on a regular basis, by helping me through numerous loopholes and crises. People who make me alive by filling it with humour, by encouraging me in my endeavours and filling it with their beautiful smile. People who make fictional spies come alive for me, though they probably don’t know that I fantasized about being a spy when I was a kid, because it is oh-so-cool. People who are my counsellors and agony aunts, and every role in between- busy being my big sister and little brother. People who help me shop and make wonderful elaborate plans with me. People who do everything to accommodate my impromptu plans with them. People who give me matter of fact, to the point criticism because they know I need it, even if I didn’t want it. People who stay up with me all night, before an exam. People who never forget an important event in my life though I may have told them about it ages ago. People who are my “partners in crime”. People with whom I can be candid. People who inspire me.
People who hold my hand when I am scared- be it about crossing roads or just something significantly more momentous. People who dish out advice though I may not have asked for it. People who fix me and take care of me and put up with my selfishness.
Thank you- For being there and making it all worthwhile-all the effort and pain and the tears. Thank you for standing by me and standing up for me. Thank you for the memories. I love you even if all this while you thought I was a big pain in the neck. Happy 2013. =)

Opinion-makers?

I wanted to become a journalist as a child- it consumed me. When my teacher gave me a chance to write for a leading daily, I jumped at the opportunity, obsessing over articles that would later be edited to fit a small column. And while I may not be heading down that path anymore, the field somehow still excites me.

But a few summer nights back, I realized that our journalists maybe hiding a pretty fundamental secret from us. These guys are our opinion makers, so much so that we call the press the fourth estate. But we hardly have any women on top. Sure we have our Barkha Dutts and Bachi Karkarias. But where the hell are the women editor in chiefs? And how is it that this issue has practically skipped everyone’s notice? When I tried doing some research about this all I found was ONE lukewarm article on whether journalism needed more women on top. Hell yeah, it does. Especially in a country where women are still not assured of the dignity they deserve (Guwahati incident, Delhi, the list is endless). I believe women editor in chiefs could galvanize opinions in a way that men probably can’t. Why is it that only women’s and fashion magazines and gossip tabloids have women in the top job? Why not in broadsheets and magazines where serious discussion about the country, politics, the economy and gender issues is taking place? Do media houses think that the job of an editor-in-chief will be more strenuous for women? This seems like a well kept secret of the press.

The realization almost broke my heart. Or maybe this is much ado about nothing. I don’t know.

I had heard some ambitious girls talk about how they’ll be country’s first woman army chief, etc. We are talking about women CEOs and women assuming the roles traditionally donned by men in the workplace. We talk about the feminist movement. Our press often talks about breaking the glass ceiling. And then we have the state of the Indian media’s workplace.

Well, here is another role that woman can aspire for. To be the editor-in-chief of a leading daily newspaper in India.