Set in a contemporary Ayodhya of malls and buildings with glass panes, Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen is a mythological thriller
Samhita Arni’s love for mythology and storytelling skills have led to her to write three books based on the epics with a contemporary spin. Her first book, The Mahabharata: A Child’s View was published when she was only 11. Sita’s Ramayana, a graphic novel with illustrations in patua art by Moyna Chitrakar, was mentioned in The New York Times best seller list. Her recent novel, The Missing Queen, a stylish noir retelling of The Ramayana, has received much attention.
The Italian rights of this novel have been sold. At the launch of the book at Oxford Bookstore, Samhita said her novel is “a speculative, feminist, mythological thriller.”
Set in a contemporary, shining Ayodhya, The Missing Queen is a story of a journalist’s search for the missing queen of Ayodhya—Sita. The story is told from the point of view of The Ramayana’s women characters, including Kaikeyi and Surpanakha.
“The Ayodhya in the novel is a mirror of the India of today,” said Samhita to writer Nisha Susan’s question of how she imagined an alternate Ayodhya. “Malls with escalators and buildings with glass panes are reflected in my representation of Ayodhya. “How did a journalist come into the book?” asked Nisha. “I chose not to give the journalist a name, as she is on the periphery of the story.”
Samhita was initially drawn to The Mahabharata for its strong women characters. It was only when she returned to India at age 22, that she developed an interest for The Ramayana. She noticed how hard-wired the epic is into the way Indians think, how guided they are by the notions of an “ideal man”, “ideal woman” and “ideal state”. The different versions of the epic also piqued her interest, particularly its oral versions. “When I returned to The Ramayana, there was a multiplicity to the retelling of it. There were versions told in Surpanakha’s voice. The Chandrabati Ramayana has a Sita-centric point of view. Each reteller brought one’s own stories and realities to the epic. I look at The Ramayana as a retelling more than an epic. When we refer to it as an epic, we tend to forget there are other forms of it.”
Nisha commented on Samhita’s scholarly work in the last five to six years. “I was hugely inspired by the scholarly discussions led by Arshia Sattar. “We call ourselves the ‘Arshia groupies’, says Arni.
At present, Samhita stays six months in Kabul where she is a script writer for a TV show. Kabul, she says, grew on her. “The first month I was there, I hated it. Kabul starts to grow on you, despite the bombings. Kabul is addictive and now I want to go back there. The experience of life in Kabul is so incredibly different from experience of life here.”
On a lighter note, Nisha and Samhita discussed how writers in Afghanistan suffer from an “Ernest Hemingway syndrome”. “They behave like CIA agents, but are not CIA agents, because you can’t so obviously be CIA agents!” Samhita joked.
The Missing Queen has been published by Penguin and Zubaan Books and is priced at Rs. 399.