Literary Review

Myths are forever

When the Bhil “magician” of India is engaged in the healing ritual, he draws a mandala beside the patient's bed and in the centre puts the house of Ishwar or Bhagwan. The patient is exposed to 'primordial fullness of life' as it were, while the magician is 'repeating the cosmogony'. The sick man is supposed to be healed with the penetration of the gigantic forces that made Creation itself possible. The cosmogonic myth, it is believed, can help the patient make a new beginning. It is as though the artist, like the Bhil magician perceives the sickness of the modern times and offers mythic identification as a curative.

In the Indian sub-continent, ancient cultural contexts, Puranas, Vedic ties, folk memories, and Upanishads gave rise to a multitude of myths, mythic situations and characters which have been emerging in many permutations and configurations in different ages. New myths emerged out of specific beliefs and circumstances of specific times. In fact in modern times, a range of mythologies from other cultures and religions too have been assimilated in the Indian society, finding expression in art and literature. Mythic characters such as Oedipus, Electra and others have a wide ranging acknowledgement, less as explanation of certain psychic patterns and more as reiteration of something significant that had already manifested itself repeatedly as exemplary human experience at some point in the history of human existence

Myths recorded in the primordial memory of human beings have resulted in psychological complexes defining their modern modes of existence. In the modem Indian literary contexts, mythic characters have played a prominent role in forming and evolving certain attitudes and perspectives in scripting the roles of men and women in family and society.

In his book, Kalpalata, Pandit Hazari Prasad Dwivedi refers to an important feature about how cultural myths serve as unifying forces in the Indian context. For him, “the cultural history of our nation has been woven strongly by the invisible hands of time; one may find one stitch showing up in Banaras, another in Bengal and yet another in Orissa or Maharashtra and perhaps the fifth one in Malabar or Ceylon.” No wonder then, common mythical characters such as Draupadi, Ahilya, Manu, Yama, Kunti and many others appear in the literatures of most languages in India. While they emerge from the specificity of different linguistic cultures of India with a number of variations, other mythic characters such as Oedipus and Sisyphus reach here because of the shared modern ethos emerging from education in general. Indeed, the uses of these myths perform a significant role in locating old and new meanings of human existence and the universe. They become literary “prefigurations” that may help comprehend the significance of ‘repetitive action’ as well as different historical and political contexts over time. They may also reveal fresh dimensions of existence through a perceptive understanding of the digressions, adaptations, modifications of the original myths.

Let us look at the use of myths in some modern short stories in India. Shrikant Varma’s Hindi story ‘Uska Kras’ (His Cross) does not offer a new myth, nor does it revitalise an old one by retelling it, but it presents a modern situation while referring the reader to a familiar analogy through the selection of a mythically loaded title. A person in utter anonymity wanders about endeavouring to communicate his suffering to anyone/everyone from the outside world. Varma delineates a picture of a totally isolated modern man persecuted by his own fears and delusions. Evoking a widely acknowledged mythical pattern of human existence through the title, the story is successful in establishing points of identification with the experience of oppression.

Jnanpith award-winning writer Masti Venkatesh Iyengar’s Kannada story ‘Antim Darshan’ (‘The Final Glimpse’) works through a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna at Kurukshetra just before the battle. The questions raised here are: Was Krishna an incarnation of God, or a glorified but exemplary human being? How, who and what carved him as God? Not only does Iyengar’s story actually identify these doubts and questions in a straight-forward and modern idiom, but also offers certain human explanations and answers through the dialogue. Krishna tells Arjuna how Vyas with his sense of duty drew his personality as an incarnation of God and then invented stories to prove his greatness. Vyas, he says, did so to preserve a certain kind of moral order. The imagination of people is generally innocent and fertile; a lot of miraculous stories get created around a great person. The author makes Krishna explain to Arjuna how he has been trying to support the cause of good and it is the appreciation of this that makes people, including Arjuna, think of him as God. Finally, Masti shows Krishna’s death and has Arjuna perform the final rites. The rational delineation of the last episode concerning Arjuna and Krishna helps reinstate the significant role of a personality like Krishna’s in a morally degraded society.

From the rather fanatical, rigid adherence to the original texts, myths set themselves loose from the fetters of dogma and religious faith through literary imagination. The story, in one sense, establishes the efficacy and relevance of the mythical conversation between Arjuna and Krishna by first raising doubts and then attempting to resolve them.

Joginder Paul’s Urdu short-story ‘Pret’ (Ghost) too uses dialogue as a question-and-answer session between a father and his 10-year-old son sitting in the Ram Lila Grounds waiting for the effigy of Ravana to be ignited on the day of Dussehra. Now, in this setting, a live and vital myth is counter-pointed with present-day reality. Every year, Dussehra is celebrated with tremendous zest by the Hindus to demonstrate the triumph of good over evil through the burning of Ravana’s effigy. The son asks his father “Why do people burn Ravana made of paper?” The father’s answer is “Because the real Ravana manages to escape every year”. The man wonders why Ravana seems to grow taller and bigger each year thereby suggesting a parallel between the rapid growth of evil and the increasing size of the effigy every year. The myth of Ravana is not merely re-told; the story presents its creative essence in the living models of reality. The fine line between the mythical figure and the chief character is silently made to disappear at the end.

The writer makes a conscious choice in selecting a myth, working and reworking it, and then adapting it to the new social context. Rajendra Yadav, a distinctive writer in Hindi chose to identify himself with the predicament of Abhimanyu. “I wrote ‘Abimanyu ki Atmahatya’ (Abhimanyu’s Suicide) on my birthday in the form of a letter. The story opens with the following questions: ‘Do you know it happens to be my birthday today and that I had gone to commit suicide? And do you know that I am returning after having done so?’”

In the story, the narrator expresses relief at having been liberated after eliminating one of his selves; and goes on to develop his conception of human life as Chakravyuh in which human beings are trapped after being born into the battlefield of Kurukshetra for a war with one’s self, fate and one's circumstances. The story’s poignant end connects aptly with its beginning and offers an epiphanic revelation: one death may mean another birth within one's own being.

Myths tell the story of the beginnings of the world in the primordial times. These myths of origins reveal the mode of original creative activity and may also disclose the reasons for the existence of the world. Indeed, cosmogonic myths are found everywhere. Destruction of an old world and creation of a new one is likewise a universal mythical theme. Intizar Hussain, the famous Urdu short-story writer from Pakistan, draws upon the rich reservoir of cosmogonic myths from several cultural and religious contexts in his story ‘Kashti’ (Boat) with allusions from myths of cosmic cataclysms that imply the recreation of a new universe. Some dialogues from the story:

‘Yet, the outside is better than the suffocation inside here.’

‘None is better. Inside, it is stifling, and outside, it is pouring. After all where should man go?’

Homelessness as well as hopelessness, then, seems to be the destiny of these travellers on the boat. Intizaar Hussain’s story ‘Kashti’ clearly suggests that humanity is as if floating unhappily in the boat of existence in a. suffocating environment along with hordes of animals who do not know how to coexist. The author manages to reveal the present reality in primeval terms. Man, it would appear, awaits deliverance from this world today. That he is safe and secure in Noah’s Ark is an illusion. The artist’s effort to free himself from the surface reality and penetrate into the ultimate and deeper reality takes him to these myths, which may unravel some of the perennial mysteries of existence.

In the use of myths, the modern artist in a way reconstitutes a world through insights available through psychology and cultural history if only to make ‘chaotic realities’ more comprehensible. After all the ‘new’ is not really ‘new’; all experience seems to have a familiar ring emanating from the past.

As Thomas Mann would have it: “Life is a steady mythical identification, a procession in the footsteps of others, a sacred repetition.”  That, it seems to me, is the essence of the modernistic awareness located amply in the literature of the Indian subcontinent.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 1:34:54 AM |

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