With celebrated translations of Ramayana and Kathasaritsagara to her credit, Arshia Sattar is a scholar-writer-translator who works with the myths and storytelling traditions of South Asia not just through her books but through theatre, cinema and pedagogy. With a doctorate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, Sattar talks here about her latest work, Mahabharata for Children , and the challenge of tackling this complex and layered epic for a younger readership without losing its essence.
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The times are particularly fraught for those who seek to engage with Indian mythologies. Why did you choose to publish this book now?
If I were to think about this, I would have stopped working years ago. I can’t do that and so I, and so many others, do what we do, no matter whether the times we live in support our commitments and our livelihoods or not. As it happens, the darkness in Mahabharata and the questions it raises about ethical behaviour could not be more relevant to our times. Even more important, perhaps, is what Mahabharata says about hatred in the human heart and the imbalances and violence it engenders.
Books like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ or ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ have always occupied a liminal space between childhood and adulthood. Does Mahabharata occupy a similar space?
I think a more appropriate comparison is with the Homeric epics, Beowulf , [ The Tale of ] Genji and other ancient stories in other cultures. Do children need to know these stories? Yes, they do. Will they enjoy them? Absolutely. Do they need to read them in the same form as adults do? No, they don’t. And that’s where retellings for younger readers come in. And I do think it’s important for children from one culture to read the classics from other cultures, too. So an Indian child should know something about Genji , as a Japanese child should the Mahabharata and Ramayana .
Most Indian children encounter the two epics from a very young age, as stories told by grandparents, as texts or school plays or, of course, in comics. So why a ‘Mahabharata for Children’? What did you hope to do differently from what ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ has already done?
Many scholars, translators and literary critics believe that every generation needs its own translation or retelling of a classic. In 2020, Amar Chitra Katha is already out of sync with the universe of images and ideas that our children inhabit. Its political problems are also very clear from our moment in time — the way women are depicted, their clothes, their lack of agency. Dalits and rakshasas share similar facial features and colouring, Muslims are typically rapacious and cruel. None of these ideas was ever right, but now we have a greater awareness of how damaging such depictions are, not simply for the people who are stereotyped but for nations and cultures as a whole. I hope my retelling is as far from Amar Chitra Katha as Kashmir is from Kanyakumari.
When the epic was written/ imagined 2000 years ago, there was possibly no consciousness of ‘children’s literature’ at the time. Is this a modern construct? And did it, therefore, involve a modernistic approach for your retelling to materialise?
When you say ‘literature,’ I think you mean books in print culture specifically written for children — that’s modern. But storytelling is as old as human communities, and surely all children at all times and places were avid listeners to stories told to them by parents and others. What is modern about the stories we tell children now is that we expect them to be didactic. What is the message, what will my child learn, are questions I am asked with metronomic regularity. Children learn enough in the classroom; stories should be a place of pleasure. My approach is neither consciously modern nor consciously archaic. I want to restore pleasure to the act of storytelling and listening.
Did tackling this epic for children involve sanitising? Mahabharata deals with some unconventional ideas — the practice of niyoga, for instance, or polyandry. What did you decide to leave out or euphemise, and how did you arrive at those decisions?
There’s a lot of sex outside marriage in Mahabharata , so it’s not simply niyoga practice that needs to be flagged. I took the easy way out, but a way that was not inaccurate. In my book, the man might say, ‘I will give you a son,’ or in the case of Kunti and Surya, I said something like, ‘She was awed by the glory of the Sun and called to him to give her a child.’ In the epics, it’s more important for readers to know that the heroes were usually born in unusual ways, sometimes by extraordinary means. It makes them special. If a child’s interest in the story persists, the social and political practices of the epics can be examined or explained when they are older.
Mahabharata, is a particularly difficult tale. unlike Ramayana with its clear good versus evil storyline, this epic is all grey. As you say eloquently in your note, the epic is not so much about the possibilities of ‘good’ but about how easy it is to be ‘bad’. How much does your book deal with the idea of dualities and greys and does this, in turn, complicate ethical questions for young readers?
I have tried hard to make the ethical problems available to younger readers not as a series of answers or judgements or by choosing some characters as ‘good’ over others that are ‘bad’; I hope I’ve told the story in a way that allows younger readers to see the problems for themselves. It’s also true that the book is not for the eight-year-old; it’s intended for older children, those who are about 12. And I hope that this a book that parents and children will read together. Or at least talk about to each other. However old we are, however much we think that we act for good, we need to think about our own actions, too. If we don’t, we become morally self-righteous and intolerant of other ways of thinking and other perceptions of how the world could be.
Mahabharata has many versions and tellings. Was there one canonical edition you chose and why? In doing so, do you think you might have lost out on some sweeter, quirkier accounts from the margins?
My instinct is always to go back to the Sanskrit text, not because I support elite cultures but because that’s the language in which I’m trained to read the epics. Yes, of course, my choice of the Sanskrit text means that there’s a loss in terms of local stories and variants but then, you win some, you lose some. With a translation or a retelling, the reader wins by having someone else do the hard work of making a difficult text accessible and if they feel the loss of other voices and versions strongly enough, maybe it will encourage them to seek for themselves the stories and interpretations that are further away.
With 100,000 verses and 18 volumes, Mahabharata is enormously long, with a highly complex story-in-story structure of narrators and narrations. How did you simplify this for your retelling? And how long did the project take?
The writing took about six months. Some parts were written at a stretch, sometimes I took weeks away from writing. But I’ve been thinking about this project for a long time, years maybe. I had to decide how to tell it such that younger readers also see the moral dilemmas that characters inhabit. I had to think a lot about how to handle the Gita because I wanted it in there. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to place the backstories of various characters, like Shikhandi, and give the war and the deaths of the great warriors emotion and meaning. I also wanted to keep the oral foundation of the Mahabharata. So, it took very little time to write as well as a lot of time.
Finally, I go back to my example of, say, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ , with its fairly universal features, accessible to children of many cultures. Do you think your book can transcend geographical and cultural boundaries for children or are there aspects of it that are anchored to this land and untranslatable so to speak? And is that necessarily a bad thing at all?
Let’s take Enid Blyton as an example of the problem you’ve articulated. My generation in India grew up addicted to her stories of British children who ate scones for tea and went camping in ruined castles, schoolgirls who played lacrosse and mocked their French teachers, kids who investigated mysteries and made fools of their local policemen. Forget the details, none of these characters looked like us or talked like us, and they had really odd names. Not for a moment did any of this spoil our pleasure in reading those books. Yes, there will always be things in books that are culturally rooted, but readers’ imaginations are compelled by what is universal: love, hate, tenderness, death, adventure, fear, friendship, a loss of innocence.
Adults experience the same disjunctive reality when they read books from another culture. This disjunction is a good thing; it reminds us that there are many ways to be in the world, each of them coherent in its own way. But it also tells us that whatever our names and our faces and our religions, we are more similar than not. I am sure my book has the possibility of transcending Hinduism and Indian culture. The real question is whether publishers outside this country can make that leap of faith and trust that their readers care about other people and other places.