Interview Ashok Banker's super-cool retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have a devoted following
Scarcely is the Ramayana mentioned these days without Ashok Banker's name being associated with it. And now that association is expanding to include the Mahabharata, of which the Krishna Coriolis series is a relevant tangent.
The first of the Mahabharata or Mba series, The Forest of Stories , was recently released by Westland Books. Unlike his previous mythological works, which are considered retellings, the latest series promises to be an unabridged translation.
“The text demanded a different approach from the Ramayana,” says Banker. “Valmiki's Ramayana is too detailed in some parts and not so in others. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is wonderfully eloquent in detail, mystery and magic.”
The Mahabharata is composed of over one lakh verses in Sanskrit. I felt compelled to present the stories in proper order. Though several translations exist, Banker found that many of them left out certain details or trans-created the text. “I had to find a new style of writing that was neither academic nor a commentary. I referred to all the given translations, to oral and folk retellings and tribal versions, I read every version. Then I put several versions in front of me and referred to the original shlokhas. I looked for details that were left out in the translations, wherein I took a judgment on the terms themselves.”
He likens his work to that of a chef, pointing to the difference between the creations of a novice, a sous-chef and a master chef, if each of them were given the same ingredients.
“The way each cook prepares and presents the dish will be different. I'd like to see if I can bring an ancient tale to today's reader without compromising on authenticity.”
Banker has been writing for a long time and has dabbled in almost every kind of writing — advertisements, TV scripts, news features, columns, essays, short stories and novels, all in overlapping periods. His first novels were published in the 1990s. He has written novels and short stories on urban issues, crime thrillers and feminist issues (“The Kali Quartet”). He wrote the TV series “A Mouthful of Sky” and a multimedia serial called “Vortal”.
“I began writing when I was young. I was always obsessed with mythology and epics. I was trying to reinvent the epic form of storytelling even then, but I was too young to know how to begin. So I decided to write my way through life.” After a crisis of confidence in his thirties, he went back to reading the Indian epics. “I somehow started writing, wondering whether what I was writing was the Ramayana or not. I took it as a writing experiment. By the time I finished, what is now the Prince of Dharma , the first two books of the Ramayana series, was ready.”
He then sent his books to publishers, but their responses took so long that he decided to put his works up as e-books. Though he finished writing The Forest of Stories in 2005, the book was released only this year.
“I have now written 15 of the 18 planned books in the Mahabharata series. I will complete the series by the end of 2013. I like offering my books for publication only after I'm satisfied with them,” he explains.
“The problem with multinational publishers is that they are occupied with reprinting foreign titles, so they are not able to focus on Indian authors. On the other hand, publishers such as Westland work only with Indian authors, so they are quicker.” Banker plans to build an epic library of India.
“I am more than halfway through the process of encompassing the entire Indian itihasa . I now have over 25 books left to write and I have already written 50.” The part that is left to write is the recorded history, beginning from the Indus Valley civilization. “There is a seminal tale in the Rig Veda about a king named Dasarjana who faced 10 foes in battle and led his people after victory, to what is now known as Harappa. I want to cover the history of Buddha, Ashoka, the Cholas, the Mughals, the British right up to the present times and the Emergency. I also want to write the future history or contemporary history, which is basically an extrapolation on the logical outcomes of current events,” he says.