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A stylish noir

SRAVASTI DATTA
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BOOK 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 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 latest novel, The Missing Queen , a stylish noir retelling of The Ramayana , has received much attention. The Italian rights of this novel have been sold. The author herself describes the book as “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 to the India of today,” says Samhita on how she imagined an alternate Ayodhya. “Malls with escalators and buildings with glass panes are reflected in my representation of Ayodhya. Also, 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 22, that she developed an interest for The Ramayana. She noticed how hard-wired the epic is in 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 re-teller brought his or her 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.”

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.”

The Missing Queen has been published by Penguin and Zubaan Books and is priced at Rs. 399.

SRAVASTI DATTA

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

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