Angels & Demons
Outlook|August 17, 2020
Characters from India’s mythological cosmos are the new inspiration for writers in different languages

Akanksha Pare Kashiv

As the story goes, told and retold in colourful pages of the Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha comic books over decades, it has always been about good versus evil. Generations have grown up on stories of Indian mythological figures, gods and demon kings, battling each other for cosmic balance. Those were also the grandmother’s tales, simple and straight, black and white—about righteous heroes vanquishing evil incarnates. They were the kind of story loved by children and adults alike. They still are. But along the way, came a twist in the tale.

Enter the millennials, used to flipping pages of manga on the iPad, and not so much considered the bookworm. A whole new generation born and brought up in the digital era has been stereotyped as an inveterate gizmo-loving lot of geeks, unabashedly averse to carrying a book alongside an i-Pad in their backpacks. Not any longer. The seemingly uber-cool generation appears to be in for an image makeover with techno-savvy dudes stumbling on an unusual genre of storytelling: mythological-fiction.

Even as the foundation stone for a grand temple is laid by Prime minister Narendra Modi at Lord Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya on August 5, the ‘fictional’ Ram is back in a new ubiquitous avatar as the god of paperbacks. And so are Shiva and a phalanx of other deities from the tomes on mythology. With dozens of young novelists revisiting the hoary epics to piece together gripping thrillers around mythical heroes in contemporary settings, Indian fiction writing had never been closer to ‘divinity’ in the past.

The GenZ is simply loving it. It appears to have fallen back upon something readable that has actually lured it back from under the spell of DC comics after a long while. The protagonists of these books are a far cry from the western graphic novels featuring supermen on a mission to save the planet from an imminent disaster.

Far from it, they are modeled on all-too-familiar heroes or anti-heroes from popular Sanskrit epics and other homespun mythological yarns of yore. A fresh perspective on such characters by a bunch of innovative writers in Hindi and other indigenous languages has spawned a Gita Press-meets-J.K. Rowling kind of crossover books, where the central character is not inspired merely by perennial favorites like Ram, Krishna or Shiva but also a slew of other not-so-divine mythical figures, who have held the readers of successive generations in thrall with distinctive traits of their own.

INTERESTINGLY, it is the world of Hindi fiction where the proliferation of such characters is most discernible at the moment. Of course, there has been no dearth of books on mythological characters in the mainstream or popular literature in Hindi, or for that matter, in the domain of other Indian languages over the years. Gita Press, Gorakhpur took mythology to almost every household in the north with its low-priced books. In the modern era, renowned Hindi litterateurs such as Maithili Sharan Gupt, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, and Agyeya have all interpreted mythological characters in their own way. With highly acclaimed works such as Urvashi, Urmila, and Yashodhara, the list is too exhaustive to be enumerated here. Similarly, Marathi, Bangla, Odia, Assamese, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam literature have all been replete with similar books. Eminently readable titles in Marathi such as Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar’s Yayati, Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya are available in Hindi.

But the latest trend of authors spinning a new yarn around mythical characters actually began in English about a decade ago with the ascendancy of the likes of Devdutt Pattanaik, Amish Tripathi, Ashok Banker, Ashwin Sanghi and Anand Neelakanthan whose best-sellers continue to fly off the shelves. The popularity of Ameesh’s Shiva trilogy, Patnaik’s The Pregnant King, and Banker’s Ramayana series has since led many publishers to explore the potential of this genre in Hindi and regional languages.

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Today, vernacular novelists are diligently exploring indigenous characters from mythology, right from Ashwathama and Indra to Shakuni and Shoorpanakha, all fascinating figures in their own right but rarely written about in the past. Of late, books like Shani: Pyar Par Tedhi Nazar by Pankaj Kaurav, Ravan: Ek Aparajit Yoddha by Shailendra Tiwari, Ashwatthama and Indra by Ashutosh Garg, Shakuni by Ashutosh Nadkar, Rankshetra by Utkarsh Srivastava and Neelkanth: Parajay Ka Vish by Sanjay Tripathi, have found enough takers across the Hindi belt.

Explaining the reasons behind its popularity, Amish says that the people in India never get tired of or bored with the stories of their deities. “They can listen to such stories, told and retold from diverse perspectives, many times over,” Amish tells Outlook. “That is why so many books on different mythological characters are coming up lately.”

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The best-selling author finds it heartening that a lot of books are now being written in Hindi because it “enriches and lends strength to our culture and traditions”. (See column). Devdutt Pattanaik, another best-selling author on mythology, believes that the trend actually started off with the popularity of Harry Potter in the new millennium. “When Harry Potter became popular and films were made on his character, people’s interest in folk tales and mythological stories increased manifold,” he says. “It is now happening not only in India but across the world. I believe mythological characters have become part of the literature everywhere.” According to Pattanaik, every individual is endowed with the power of imagination and a natural flair for telling stories. “These stories have thrown open all gates of imagination for the writers. Maybe that is the reason why such stories are being lapped up by the readers.”

Interestingly, all-time favourite epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata continue to fascinate the new authors the most. Hastinapur and Ayodhya, the two ancient cities at the heart of these epics, remain the veritable goldmines for them. Ashutosh Nadkar, for one, has based his book on Shakuni. In fact, characters like Madhavi, Draupadi, Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari, Bhishma, not only generate enough interest in the average reader but also offer immense scope to the writers to tweak their content in a modern context. Hardly surprising then, publishers are backing such stories to the hilt these days.

MINAKSHI Thakur, publisher, Eka (Westland), says that Ramayana and Mahabharata have existed for centuries, and writers have retold their stories not only in English but across Indian languages. “They are not called epics for nothing. There are a hundred stories within the larger story which can be told from so many angles and from so many points of view,” she says. “If Sita in Amish’s novel is a warrior princess, in Bhyrappa’s Uttara Kaanda, she has been described as an expert farmer.”

Critics, however, ascribe the success of such stories to the meticulous selection and presentation of controversial, neglected, and paradoxical characters or episodes from mythology. But does a writer have the liberty to rejig any age-old narrative to suit his purpose of making it appealing to a new generation of readers?

Anushakti, the writer of an eponymous novel based on a neglected mythical character called Sharmishtha, does not think it to be improper. “Female characters have limited space in mythology and if you leave aside a few powerful characters, a woman’s perspective is hardly manifested in such stories,” she tells Outlook. “That is why I wrote Sharmishtha the way it should be told, or for that matter, the way it should have happened in the first place. It is a story about the rights and respect which a woman deserves without any gender discrimination.”

The writers, however, have to be meticulous enough in writing such stories because, as Aditi Maheshwari of Vani Prakashan emphasizes, it is a huge responsibility to publish books on mythological characters. “Mythological characters need to be redefined because the definition of human values keeps changing with time,” she points out.

Nonetheless, it is quite interesting to see mythological fiction whipping up the curiosity of young readers in the era of smartphones, just the way the books of ‘pop’ authors like Chetan Bhagat climbed the popularity charts in the early years of the new millennium. A class XII student in Delhi, Akshat Sharma, says, “The book on Ravan is my favorite because it has made me aware of many unknown facets of his personality. In fact, I like the stories behind the dark characters from mythology.”

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