Samhita Arnia believes that it was a “series of synchronicities” that led her to the Silappadikaram , the Tamil epic that would go on to inspire her novel, The Prince , which releases tomorrow. A chance conversation about Kannagi — the protagonist who wreaked havoc on the city of Madurai to avenge the death of her husband, Kovalan — was followed by a residency in Italy where she found an English translation of the epic, and soon, she was gripped.
Because she cannot read Tamil, Arni sat with one of her aunts over the course of a year, asking her to read out the original text. She also pored over translations by Ramchander Dikshitar, Alain Danielou and Parathsarathy.
Rooted in mythology
Her novel was born out of the parallels that she sees between Kannagi and the fierce uprising of women across the country after the rape of Nirbhaya in 2012. Like all Kannagis, Arni’s female characters are also besieged by rage — at injustice and mistreatment. Her story is not so much a retelling as an offering to the existing body of work inspired by the epic. Her Kannagi borrows from the many versions of the character that she encountered in Sangam era literature, including the wife of king Vel Pekan, who leaves her for a dancing girl. “Did Ilango Adigal [the author credited with penning the Silappadikaram ] know of this other queen? Was he influenced by her story?” she muses.
The protagonist of the story, though, is prince Adigal. “I found myself intrigued by the story of a man — a ‘prince-ascetic’ who renounces his claim to the throne, and pens an epic where two women [Kannagi and Madhavi] are the most magnetic, exciting characters,” she says. Adigal — renamed as Uthiyan in the story — leaves his father’s kingdom after an astrologer predicts that he will be greater than his older brother.
The Prince is Arni’s fourth work based on Indian epics — she illustrated and wrote The Mahabharata - A Child’s View when she was just eight. Her second and third books are graphic novels: Sita’s Ramayana (which was on The New York Times’ bestseller list) and The Missing Queen (a mythological thriller that employs speculative fiction). She is drawn to the epics because she understands herself through them. “A lot of writing comes from certain wounds,” she says. And growing up outside the country, she struggled with her identity as an Indian. “As a child, one way for me to find that sense of cultural belonging was to root myself through the epics and myths,” she reveals.
Retellings, she feels, are important for a culture to evolve. “Each generation is different, and for a myth, story, or an epic to resonate with that generation, it must be told in a way that relates with that generation’s experience, in order to touch them, and for that story to remain part of our cultural psyche,” she says.
Among the fun things the writer did as part of her research for The Prince was “tracing Kannaki’s journey in reverse, from Madurai to Poompuhar”. She also studied about the Sangam era and the Kalabhras Interregnum at the library of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) and the British Library in the UK (thanks to a fellowship from the British Council).
While she is yet to choose a subject for her next book, she hopes to write about Mahendravarman Pallava, another favourite writer. Also in the pipeline is a graphic novel for kids.
The Prince, published by Juggernaut, and priced at ₹499, will be available across the country tomorrow.