Walk into any bookstore, and a battalion of books inspired by or based on books dominate the shelves and vie for space. A legion of authors produce bestselling work inspired by myth: Ashok Banker, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amish, Krishna Udayasankar. You’ll also come across the perennially bestselling Amar Chitra Katha titles, and Amruta Patil’s delicate, gorgeous graphic novels based on the Mahabharata. I live in hope that among all these dazzling books and titles, you may also stumble across my retellings of the Mahabharata and Ramayana: The Mahabharata — A Child’s View , Sita’s Ramayana , a graphic novel produced in collaboration with Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar, and The Missing Queen . (Forgive me for the unabashed plug — I’m nowhere as commercially successful as many of the writers I’ve named above.) I now have a fourth book, The Prince . Unlike my earlier books, this is not precisely a retelling of an epic, but it explores and imagines the life of the writer of an epic — Ilango Adigal, the author of Silappatikaram . But as I’ve been writing this book, I’ve often wondered: why are authors, and (fortunately for us) audiences, so obsessed with myth?
Let me confess: I yearn to write something else. A romantic comedy. Science fiction. A detective novel. But, each time, I find myself pulled back to myth. It's a force I cannot resist. I’ve struggled to understand the fascination that myth holds for me. I’ve devoured the work of C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, both of whom suggest that the great power and resonance of myth helps us understand our own psyche, the yearnings of our spirits and souls. That the emotional resonances of myth help us understand our emotional and psychological selves.
That is part of the answer.
But not all of it.
A couple of years ago I was having lunch with a friend, Nitin Pai, who heads a public policy think-tank, the Takshashila Institution, in Bengaluru. Nitin related an anecdote about American journalist Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria, when he came to India, said in an interview that the difference between Indians and Americans could be explained simply: Americans will ask, ‘Where are you going?’ Indians will ask, ‘Where are you coming from?’
I wondered then if it was possible to extend Zakaria's observation into the realm of literature; if so, it may answer some of my questions. Let me give you an example. I loved the books of Isaac Asimov as a teenager. In his Foundation series, Asimov portrays a society (the Foundation) desiring and struggling to be a utopia. Through the novels and characters of the books, he explores ideas of good governance, and projects a political idea onto the future. In conceiving of the series, Asimov was influenced by Edward Gibbon’s seminal work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . And yet at the same time, Asimov was influenced by his own time and the history of his country, in particular the concept of 'manifest destiny’, the American belief that there is something unique to the American character, a special destiny for the country, and a belief that this destiny is irresistible; you can hear echoes of this in the “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Asimov’s vision of the future — of the Foundation — is deeply influenced by the time he lived in. (For those who are familiar with the series, compare the circumstances of the Cold War with the relationship between Trantor and the Foundation.) His other novels as well betray an interest in politics and philosophy — both The Naked Sun and The Caves of Steel reference, in their titles, the Allegory of the Cave, found in Plato’s Republic . The Foundation, psychohistory, Philosopher-King robots like Giskard, that’s where Asimov wants us to go, and that’s his answer to Zakaria’s question.
It’s not just Asimov. The writer Ursula K. Le Guin famously stated, in the introduction to her pioneering work of feminist science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness , that: “Science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive.” In other words science fiction is not truly about the future; instead, it tells us more about our present. In The Left Hand of Darkness , Le Guin creates and explores the idea of a world without gender, and the impact of gender on culture, society, politics and even language. The wintry planet of Gethen, with its androgynous people, their complex cultural customs and social organisation, thus offers a way to look back at our own selves and realise how our perceptions of gender are culturally and socially constructed — and how these perceptions, in turn, construct us.
Le Guin was writing at the time of the second wave of feminism, and her novel projects these concerns onto an imagined future. The Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood’s science fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale has resonated with many viewers in the light of Trump’s coming to power.
Caught in the past
We Indian writers, with a few exceptions, haven’t been quite as successful as the West in producing science fiction, though we have fared better with fantasy. The majority of writers and readers remain obsessed with myth. Why can’t we imagine the future? Why are we stuck instead re-imagining the past?
The answer is simple, it is not the future that has captured our political imagination and our dreams for society. We map, we project our ideas of utopias, of good governance, onto our myths — and not onto the future. To return to the anecdote concerning Zakaria, we are more interested in where have come from than in where we are headed to. We often re-imagine a golden age, an ideal time. So we map our present onto the literature of the past.
The Ramayana is often employed with conjuring ideas of a utopia — but many recent works (my own included) reflect an unease with this sort of utopia, particularly as it is regarded as a prescription for the present. Nonetheless, we look back to the mythic past as a place of great imaginative power, that can shape our political fantasies and destinies.
In contrast, I would suggest, science fiction writers map the present onto the future, creating utopias and dystopias that reflect either their ease or unease with the present. That’s where Americans are going to. But both science fiction and the epics that we keep returning to share many themes, and both genres share a concern with the issues of governance, power, justice; the themes of the ideal society and ruler, as well as the relationships between gender and society, justice, the ideal ruler and so on. Where Americans are going to and where Indians are coming from are bizarrely similar — both the imagined past and imagined future reflect one thing: our hopes and fears in the present.
Men and women
Our major epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have spawned innumerable retellings and re-imaginings. For me, there is a similarity between the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana — these are all epics that centre on men, specifically princes and kings, and wars.
The Tamil epics, such as Silappatikaram and Manimekalai , do feature princes and kings, and are pre-occupied with themes of governance, power, justice — but these epics are different. As a writer who is a woman and a feminist, I find both empowering, for they feature women in the central roles. These women are ordinary non-royal women, and these epics focus on the possibility of social change and transformation. And there’s no war that spurs the plot of these narratives.
Whereas the Ramayana in many ways could be considered utopic, featuring an ideal man and king, the Tamil epics are not — both depict corrupt kings and princes who fail to administer justice, whose integrity is compromised. These are epics of protest, of social justice. Fascinatingly, both Silappatikaram and Manimekalai are written by men. And Silappatikaram , for all its criticism of kings, is written by ‘Ilango Adigal’, the Prince Ascetic. We know he is a Chera prince, brother of King Shenguttuvan, who appears in the epilogue. The legends surrounding the epic offer us a dramatic story of this ascetic prince — he was the subject of a prophecy that claimed he would be a great king, but much like Bhishma of the Mahabharata, he renounced his claim to the throne. Instead, he donned the robes of a Jain monk and wrote an epic that is heavy with eroticism, that focuses on women. A man of paradox, then: a royal who becomes an ascetic, a monk who writes erotic poetry, a man who writes about the anger of women.
For me, there is much that his epic offers us. Anger is the emotion that moves Kannagi — and yet as a woman, I found this character surprising. For so many years I felt distanced from my own anger, and like many other women struggle with cultural conditioning that insists that anger is not feminine. Anger is masculine, whereas grief is feminine — and hence we are uncomfortable with men who cry. Ilango Adigal’s epic provoked the realisation that anger is necessary to claim justice, anger is the fuel for social change and transformation.
That, in fact, anger might be necessary for us to imagine a different future. I think it is time for us to broaden our political imagination: to look for our fantasies and desires for the present, and for the reflection of our hopes and dreams in other epics and literatures, to go beyond what the Mahabharata and the Ramayana offer, and to perhaps find these not just in texts such as Silappatikaram and Manimekalai. But to find these in other texts — can the poems of Lal Ded, for example, help us rethink gender and gender roles? Can, for example, Krishnadevaraya’s Amuktamalyada , or the plays of Mahendravarman Pallava understand the relationship between kings and society, men and women, the relationship between power and patronage?
The writer is the author of The Mahabharata — A Child’s View , Sita’s Ramayana, The Missing Queen and The Prince.