Suniti Namjoshi says the power of myths lies in their ability to mutate. Her latest book, Blue And Other Stories, is an example of this
Noted poet and writer Suniti Namjoshi’s latest book Blue And Other Stories is a literary treasure. Suniti gives credit to Nilima Sheikh’s illustrations and the efforts of Tulika’s production team for enhancing the book.
Blue And Other Stories comprise a series of stories that can be interpreted in various ways. Suniti, however, says that a good book is only as good as the reader. “A good poem or story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as a plant needs soil to grow, so too a story or any work of art needs needs a cultural context in which to flourish. A poem, fable or story doesn’t exist inside the writer’s or reader’s head alone. It exists between the reader and the writer.”
Suniti, who worked in the Indian Administrative Services , has to her credit path-breaking stories and articles published in India, Canada, the US, Britain and Australia. Her works address issues of gender and cultural identity.
Suniti doesn’t agree that the internet and other media are taking children away from books. “Literature is not the written word, it’s made out of language and language doesn’t disappear. So we needn’t be too pessimistic, we have language. The Greek epic Odysseus is about a voyage. Children these days may love Star Wars and Voyager, which like Odysseus, are about voyages.”
Suniti says every re-telling of a myth changes it: “We think—because that’s how we are taught and that’s how we are told these stories—that a myth is a particular story about gods and goddesses, and that it’s always the same. It’s not quite that. The power of a myth is that they mutate. The reason that they last even when we stop believing in gods is because aspects of a story appeals to different people. Take the story of Narcissus. You could say that the story is about a mirror and depending on what the mirror shows you, it gives you your doom or the way in which you look at yourself, then dictates what is going to happen to you. But that’s only one aspect of the story; someone else might say this story is about our senses.
Narcissus sees, but he doesn’t see properly. The nymph Echo is in love with him, but all that happens is what happens to Echo. She calls out his name, but all she gets back is the echo of his name, she doesn’t get an answer. All he gets back is the reflection of his face; he doesn’t see what is inside the lake. It has something to do with our senses and our ability to hear and to see. Here, all I am doing is illustrating the power of myth.”
Suniti explains how she re-works myths in Blue And Other Stories. “I have told the story of Dhruva and Suniti in The Unloved Queen in the book. If you tell it straight, then it’s a story that makes children feel quite bad because Suniti’s got a name that doesn’t amount to anything; nothing much happens to her and even poor Dhruva becomes a pole star. If you tell it in that context, then instead of becoming a story that might make children feel bad, it might become a story that gives little girls the power to question. And it teaches them, though not obviously, that myths can be changed, re-told and altered.
“Another story, Bird Women, is from Feminist Fables, an adult book, but it makes sense to children too. The ways of looking can be changed. And yet, it’s the same story that has been retold in a way that shifts it. The second thing is that myths can be displaced. Supposing you read a short story about a modern young man who goes in for an arranged marriage, but somehow instead of looking at his bride, he keeps looking in the mirror. He is obsessed with himself. What you’ve got is a displaced myth of Narcissus. You don’t have use the same names, but you’ve got a similar pattern.”
Suniti believes that a poem also makes a pattern. “A poem makes a pattern out of the sound, out of the imagery and out of meaning.”
Blue And Other Stories has been published by Tulika and is priced at Rs. 250.