New-age writers talk to Anusha Parthasarathy about the need to retell ancient mythology with relatable characters for today’s readers
Indian mythology is much like Chinese whispers. A story, told and retold over generations, develops its own sub-plots, introduces new characters and relatable events and changes perspectives according to the storyteller. No wonder the new breed of mythological storytellers are so popular. Asura: Tale Of The Vanquished, The Shiva Trilogy, Thundergod: The Ascendance of Indra… the list is endless.
Anand Neelakantan’s Asura: Tale Of The Vanquished, which made it to the Crossword and CNN IBN bestsellers’ list of 2012, talks of Asuras and Devas as two tribes and Brahma as four tribes who specialised in four subjects (hence, the four heads of Brahma). “Asuras have been portrayed in a particular manner in our tradition and the view has been reinforced by constant retelling through religious discourses, popular plays, films, books and so on. I had to create a world that is contradictory to popular perception and yet one that is believable and relatable,” says Anand, “It was tough but I understood that the Asura world was no different from our present world. Once I started modelling it on present-day India, things fell in place and became easy.”
Rajiv Menon’s Thundergod: The Ascendance of Indra also supports the theory of two tribes. But his version includes not just Indian but world mythology. In his book, the Deva tribes inhabit Eurasia and Indra is born in Sumeria. His closest allies (and friends) are Vayu, Varuna, Agni and Soma and the Asuras, another tribe, inhabit the South. “I grew up in a family where epics were and still are a part of everyday life. There were debates about the Puranas and Ithihasas at home and my village is a very culturally vibrant place. This might have triggered my desire to write something different. It is said that there are more than 3,000 versions of the Ramayana and my book is a small part of this great tradition. It is an alternate view, more suitable to the present era, without the trappings of fantasy. I wanted to write my own Ramayana or as I have dared to call it, Asurayana,” Anand says.
Ashok Banker, the author of the best-selling Ramayana, Krishna Coriolis series uses his creative licence to write a version with characters that are part of the original epic. He feels that there is no point in rationalising mythology. “The original Valmiki Ramayana was fantastical in many details since even Valmiki admitted that he wrote without having seen the majority of the events. I’ve tried to do the same in my own way.”
Take for instance, Amish’s bestselling Shiva Trilogy. It is the story of an ordinary man, who, through people’s faith, evolves into a god. Not only is Shiva shown as a human but the language and setting too are more or less contemporary “My book began as a thesis on the nature of evil and then became an adventure of sorts. Who else can be the hero of such a book but the destroyer of evil, Shiva,” says Amish, “Retelling myths has been a rich tradition in this country and my attempt is only a continuation of it. If you look at the Ramayana, Kamban’s version is different from the Tulsidas version. They retold it for the people of their era and this is different from the original by Valmiki. It’s not just the Ramayana but the same with all Puranas.”
But the argument as to whether rationalising and contemporising these characters make them more relatable to modern readers is still open. Anand is very matter-of-fact about it. “The story is my explanation for how things might have happened. I write fiction and not a research paper. As a fiction writer, I have used creative licence in giving life to characters like Bhadra, the common Asura and one of the main protagonists of my book. Bhadra cannot be found in any traditional version of the Ramayana, yet Bhadra can be found everywhere,” he says.
Ashok is cynical and asks a different question. “There have been realistic novels written about cartoon and animated characters such as Tintin or Superman. Does that make us relate to the characters — definitely.” Does it make us accept them as people who actually lived and did those things? Only if you’re a fanatic, maybe!”
Amish argues that the very term mythology, which comes from the Greek word mythos, means to hide the truth and that it is up to us to discover it through the story, “Probably the only ancient civilisation that has kept its myths alive even today is India. This is not because the other myths aren’t as rich as ours but because we have understood the philosophy behind them. Myths are not about the stories but about the message you spread through them.” And as societies and beliefs change, myths have to change along with them. “Modernising and localising myths are ways of keeping them relevant in modern times. Otherwise, they would die out. Whether that would make them relatable is something readers will have to decide,” he says.