Decoding the sages

Wednesday, 2 July 2014 - 6:20am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Repackaging our rich cultural past into beautifully written and interpreted creations, author Devdutt Pattanaik has come a long way. The writer speaks about his writing process...

He regaled us with his modern interpretation of Mahabharat in Jaya and his latest offering Sita is topping the bestseller list. Retelling our ancient scriptures with a contemporary twist, reading Devdutt's books is like diving into a pool of history filled with gems of knowledge and wisdom. In an interface with DNA After Hrs, the writer talks about his inspiring mythology trajectory in the literary-scape. Over to him...

Both Sita and Jaya had many references from various retellings - Thai, Gujarati, Odiya, Tamil and even European scholars. How challenging was it collate some much info in such a cohesive and lucid manner?
It's not challenging really as the material is easily available in libraries. And on the internet. Significantly, most works are translated in English making knowledge of English critical. Even most commentaries are in English. Over the years, I have compiled and listed these variations and versions in what the new Sherlock Holmes calls the 'mind palace' and I can dip into it anytime. My whole intention is to make it accessible to the average interested public, and have no desire to impress scholars, which allows me to take liberties and make the reading simple.

Who's your fave character from Indian mythology and why?
There is no favourite character. Think of Indian mythology as a jigsaw puzzle where each piece makes sense only when you appreciate the other pieces. Each character is a piece of the puzzle. They make no sense without the other. Hence in loving one character you end up loving all. Usually, I immerse myself in the character I am writing and so at the point of writing that character becomes most critical and delightful.

What was the place of homosexuality in ancient India and did it face bias back then like it does in the post-colonial times?
Indian mythology calls itself "sanatan" or timeless – so ideas in it cannot be classified as "back then". Everything is here and now, always. As Indians we are proud of telling that "What is not there in the Mahabharata does not exist in the world." When you see homosexuality in the world, you assume there would be references to it in Mahabharata. And voila! You have stories that challenge the boundaries of masculinity and femininity (what we now call queer). Stories of Yuvanashwa, Bhangashvana, Shikhandi, Brihanalla. Yet, when you point this out, people turn around and say, "That cannot be our culture." I find that amazing. It reveals prejudices and narrow-mindedness of people who claim to be leaders and intellectual and educated. But I guess, even that is timeless: the refusal to see what is shown, and prefer what we imagine truth to be.

Do you think people only have a partial or warped understanding of our scriptures and quick to form opinions about incidents and individuals?
I have implicit faith in the wisdom of our ancestors. That they have enshrined Ram in temples means they value Ram as an idea, this despite the fact that the story of Sita's banishment on grounds of stained reputation is distasteful to common sensibilities. So I ask myself: why is Ram venerated? Because he rejects Sita or despite rejecting Sita. Most people believe that because he rejects Sita, he must not be worshipped and those who do so are women-hating patriarchs. I disagree. I feel this is a puzzle that demands to be solved. So I inquire and go deeper. And find the complexity of the Ramayana – the story of love and rules, of a man who abandons his wife following street gossip, but refuses to remarry, despite social pressure. It is not a simplistic narrative based on modern notions of fairness and justice which do not take the complexity of human condition into consideration.

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