Author: Sangeeta Bahadur
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Author: Krishna Udayasankar
These are great times for mythology buffs. Once considered the realm of stuffy Indologists and the strictly religious, Hindu mythology has emerged as the new favourite in Indian publishing.
Tales from the Hindu canon have inspired authors in the past. For instance, Shashi Deshpande wrote short stories that reimagined tales from the Mahabharata from Draupadi, Kunti and Duryodhana’s perspectives. More recently, Devdutt Pattanaik established himself as India’s first pop mythologist with his many books on Hindu legends. But mythology-inspired fiction has become something of a craze since the success of Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals Of Meluha. Now that the film rights for the trilogy have been bought by Karan Johar, it seems fair to say there’s no avoiding godliness in Indian pop fiction.
The question is, can authors and publishers keep readers interested in this genre? Jaal and Govinda, both recently-published titles, offer two different approaches to incorporating mythology into fiction.
Jaal, written by Sangeeta Bahadur, is the first in the Kaal trilogy. It is set in an ancient period and borrows several familiar mythological elements — yakshas, serpents and maharishis — but the plot is original and introduces completely new characters.
Borrowing ideas like sibling rivalry and the imprisonment of the Titans from Greek and Norse mythology, Bahadur presents the story of Aushij, lord of Maya, who is one of four primal deities, and his nemesis, Arihant. Aushij turns truant, forcing his siblings to trap him, ironically, in a prison of dreams. But the siblings know that it is only a matter of time before Aushij breaks free. Their answer: Arihant, also known as Devnaampriya (or “beloved of the gods”) and whose mission is to kill Aushij, aka “the deluded one”. Jaal follows Arihant as he discovers his true purpose and develops his strengths.
Govinda, on the other hand, is an alternative interpretation of Mahabharata. Author Krishna Udayasankar has reimagined the motives that prompted various characters of the epic to act as they did. There is an intriguing sub-plot, not from the original text, that is the stimulus for the main events that follow — a fight between two intellectual sects, called the Firstborn, who are the keepers of theoretical and philosophical knowledge, and Firewrights, a secretive clique who are custodians of technology. Unlike the Krishna of Mahabharata, Govinda Shauri, ruler of Dwaraka, is no god. There are no miracles to his name.
But with impressive political acumen, he goes about coldly manipulating events for “the larger good”. To achieve this end, he is willing to give up even the woman he loves, Draupadi, to the Pandava brothers, satisfied in the knowledge that the match will lead to a favourable alliance between Hastina and Panchala. The only streak of possible divinity we glimpse is his pragmatic wisdom. While the characters in Govinda are well-known to most, Udayashankar’s characterisation is very unconventional.
For instance, when Vyasa is presented as the head of the Firstborns who systematically eliminates the Firewrights, it is an interesting twist to the prevalent image of him as a benevolent sage.
On the other hand, Jaal’s cast is new and needs to be established. Their names present the first of the challenges: While some characters and places in Jaal are believable, others (like Aizolam and Aristrocacy of Medhvaar) sound contrived and are an awkward mouthful.
The writing in Jaal occasionally slips into the ornamental, which jars with the otherwise modern tone of the Bahadur’s language. This only serves to render the story of Arihant as little more incredible and fanciful. For example, when Arihant meets a character named Vakrini, his “grey eyes locked on the silver flowing through hers, the whirlpool of black pupils attempting him to suck him into unknown universes again. He wrenched his sight away, fascinated by the horrifying metamorphosis that the creature’s face appeared to be constantly undergoing, from soft innocence to lascivious wantonness, ethereal beauty to hard, sad ugliness.
” Vakrini speaks like Yoda from Star Wars. “Do not fear. Hurt is not intended — never is, never was. A force of nature have I become, and the poison of the curse in my vein does run and toss.” Udayashankar, wisely, has steer cleared of purple or faux-antique prose. Apart from a few archaic swear words like “Maraka!”, the language is easy to digest. The task of creating every detail of the world presented in Jaal proves to be too much of a challenge for Bahadur.
In contrast, Udayashankar has the advantage of surprising readers by offering surprising retellings, which keep the reader hooked because they’re startling different from the popularly-circulated versions of the Mahabharata. Udayasankar’s treatment of Draupadi in particular stands out.Though Arjuna wins Draupadi’s hand, Dharma (whom we recognise as Yudhishthira), intervenes, reminding everyone that as the eldest brother, he is entitled to marry first. Describing their wedding night, Udayasankar writes, “...Without a word, Dharma reached out for her upper robe. Suddenly, he checked himself, like he were about to do something despicable. It was then that Panchali understood the emotions he was struggling with. He was caught between his desire for her, and his hope for a life of near-renunciation, a life devoted to moral pursuits and not material pleasure. She felt disgusted, nauseated at the thought of her own unclean, irresistible, sinful self, which could lead a guileless man astray. To Dharma, she was a symbol of sin, of all that he longed to be free of. Including politics.”
While Jaal has a few interesting characters and twists, it’s an example of how difficult it is to conceive an imaginary world in a way that makes a reader want to go on a flight of fancy. When it seems half-baked and the writing feels forced, it is simply a tiresome reading experience. Govinda, on the other hand, is able to strike an intriguing balance between novelty and existing ideas, making it a fun read and whetting a reader’s appetite for the sequel since you can’t predict what will happen.
In the coming months, another retelling of the Mahabharata will be available to readers. Sandipan Deb sets the epic in the Mumbai underworld. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be simply a gimmick or if the setting will add nuances to the story and make the ancient epic seem more contemporary.