Everyone’s writing a mythological novel. Most of them are being published. Readers are confused. Here’s some help.
In the wake of the misguided ghar wapsi frenzy, one is reminded of many other right wing activities that have done this country no favours. Back in 2012, a ban was demanded on AK Ramanujan’s scholarly essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations’ from DU’s English literature syllabus. The reason, as always, was the ‘hurting of religious sentiments’. As with all focus groups, they seemed to be missing the larger picture.
What are they curtailing and why? Mythology is collective intellectual property and there’s little they can do to stop retellings. Epics, in particular, are creative fodder for generations of writers and artists. They have inspired thousands of versions – from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas to Ekta Kapoor’s Kahaani Hamare Mahabharat ki, from Kamba’s Ramavataram to Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, from Krittivas’ Sri Ram Panchali to Devdutt Pattanaik’s Hanuman’s Ramayan. And thanks to the current wave of mythological fiction in India, the Hindutva faction will have to deal with 300 more Ramayanas.
Gen Y seems deeply interested at the moment in knowing about its culture and a new generation of writers is riding the wave churning out one book of mythological fiction after another. The fire was there are now many others who’ve joined the bandwagon. That said, not everything that is written is worth reading. Based on a very short survey and stoked by popular writers like Ashok Banker, Devdutt Pattanaik, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi and my own impressions, here is my list of five must-reads and five avoidable books in this genre.
1. Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant: Possibly among the first in this genre, Shivaji Savant’s Mrityunjaya was authored in Marathi and published in 1989. Its translations are now available in English and a few other languages, so mythology enthusiasts can enjoy this acclaimed work of fiction. This retelling of the Mahabharata, narrated from Karna’s point of view, weaves a veritably rich psychological tapestry and delicately handles the matter of Karna’s identity crisis.
2. The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik: I am partial to this book because this was among the first I read of this genre. But ask any mythology fiction fan and they are most likely to agree that The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is among his better work. The prolific writer has given us many more books since, but none with such an intriguing title and plot. The book tells us stories of many LGBTQ mythological characters – especially king Yuvanashva – highlighting the resulting dissonance and the need for acceptance.
3. The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi: While this set doesn’t offer much literary value, Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy merits a place in this list for its sheer popularity. What Chetan Bhagat is to Indian fiction, Amish is to Indian mythological fiction. The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and The Oath of the Vayuputras constitute the trilogy and may have been largely responsible for turning many book lovers into mythology buffs. The books offer a retelling of Shaiva mythology, in a fresh new plot and easy-to-understand language. However, most of Amish’s fans will concur that the last book was the most disappointing. It’s a must read for mythology rookies.
4. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: This book seems to have drawn equal amounts of flak and admiration for its retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. The author has maintained the original plot of the epic and the only change is that of perspective. Some love it for its feminism; some hate it for exactly the same reason. But there is no taking away from the fact that Divakaruni is a masterful storyteller in The Palace of Illusions and represents the voice of one of the epic’s most complex characters. Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna and Karna are the highlights of this work.
5. Ajaya – Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan: The first of the Mahabharata trilogy, Ajaya: Roll of the Dice is author Anand Neelakantan’s attempt of retelling the epic from the Kauravas’ standpoint. It comes after his hugely successful Asura, which was a Ramayana retelling from Ravana’s POV. The author is essentially a champion of the so-called villains and deserves an A for effort to turn these stories on their heads. Be warned of the lackadaisical language and classic victimization, though.
Other notable reads: Adi Parva – Churning of the Ocean by Amruta Patil, Parva by SL Bhyrappa, Yagnaseni by Pratibha Ray, Karna’s Wife by Kavita Kane, Jaya – An illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udayshankar, The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu
1. The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi: The problem with Ashwin Sanghi’s Krishna Key is its unabashed similarity with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It’s as if the international bestseller was repackaged for Indian readers, having thrown in some mythological characters (which seem to be the key to book sales these days). Chanakya’s Chant by the same author was a little readable, but with this one and the subsequent The Rozabal Line, Sanghi really seems to have lost the plot.
2. The Ramayana series by Ashok Banker: Ashok Banker was among the first modern writers to retell the Ramayana, in his eight-part series titled Prince of Ayodhya (2003), Siege of Mithila (2003), Demons of Chitrakut (2004), Armies of Hanuman (2005), Bridge of Rama (2005), King of Ayodhya (2006), Vengeance of Ravana (2011), Sons of Sita (2012). While attention to detail is a good thing, Banker’s verbosity is tiring. I’ve also found his style a tad to filmesque. The author’s love of l-e-n-g-t-h-y writing is seen in The Krishna Coreolis series too, which is again a nine (!) part series including Slayer of Kamsa (2010), Dance of Govinda (2011), Flute of Vrindavan (2011), Lord of Mathura (2011), Rage of Jarasandha (2011), Fortress of Dwarka (2012), Rider of Garuda (2013), Lord of Vaikunta (2014), and Consort of Sri (2014). Unless you have immense patience for average writing and / or immense love for the author, skip both series, I say.
3. Thundergod – The Ascendance of Indra by Rajiv Menon: As the title suggests, the book traces the course of the Vedic god, Indra’s ‘career’ from being a mortal to a divinity. The author throws in references from other mythologies too, in trying to create fantasy fiction for adults, but doesn’t do justice to all elements. This book is not without its fans, but most of all, Rajiv Menon’s Thundergod has been panned by critics for its lack of literary quality.
4. Arjuna – Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince by Anuja Chandramouli: Another disappointment in the realm of Indian mythological fiction comes in the form of Anuja Chandramouli’s Arjuna. In yet another retelling of the Mahabharata, the author writes the story from the prime Pandava’s perspective. With so many character-specific retellings in the market and subpar language, there’s nothing new this book has to offer. Her latest book, Kamadeva – The God of Desire chooses an unusual character and one hopes there are more takeaways.
5. Asura by Anand Neelakantan: This book sure made it to some bestseller lists, but it has as many detractors as admirers. As I’ve mentioned above, the author likes to turn antagonists into protagonists and Asura is a retelling of the Ramayana, which explores the layered character of Ravana. His Achilles heel, however, is his not-so-great language. The book gets simplistic and even boring in places.
Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist by passion. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org