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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Legends of fantasy

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Indian authors embark on reimagining the epics of the past

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Satyarth Nayak

These are exciting times for writers of fiction in English in India. As Amitav Ghosh remarked recently, credit must be given to the Chetan Bhagats, Amish Tripathis and Ashwin Sanghis – despite some critics’ dismissal of their works as pulp fiction – for having brought millions of Indians into the reading fold.

On a recent visit to my favourite bookshops in Bengaluru, I found scores of new titles by Indian authors in a variety of different genres. What caught my particular fancy was Indian ‘mythology’ -although I much prefer the term ‘legends’. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ‘itihasa’ and although may have been embellished with stories of the feats of superheros, may well have their sources in true events.

Be that as it may, I found some very well-written retellings of the epics by Ashok Banker and Devdutt Patnaik. The Forest of Stories (Book One) by Banker takes us into the haunted forest of Naimisha-aranya or Naimisha-van, to the Ashram of the sage Saunaka. A dusty traveller, Suta, arrives with sombre tidings: Maharishi Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa, the collator of the Vedas and the author of the Epic poem, the Mahabharata, has passed. Urged by the Ashramites, he begins to recite the great composition, starting with the incredible creation myths and tales of Gods and giants, snake mothers and gargantuan eagles, and the epic saga of the Kuru race. Based on the original Sanskrit shlokas, this Sampoorn Mahabharata brings to life all the magic and majesty, wonders and parables contained in the world’s longest and greatest epic. It is said that every human emotion, dilemma, ethical or moral question, and relationship is captured in the Mahabharata: what is not in the epic cannot be found anywhere else. The layered tales and parables in the Mahabharata have at their core a single theme, paraphrased so poignantly by Yudhishthira at the end of the war: the noblest quality is humanity.

Devdutt Patnaik’s recent adaptation titled Jaya, An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, condenses this huge epic into a manageable book that anyone can read. For those who do not know the epic – and for young adults who want to learn about it – this is a great introduction. It has 108 chapters and contains 250 simple line drawings by the author himself. Patnaik has included many intriguing tales from the epic, and interestingly he also includes several regional and folk variations apart from the original work in Sanskrit.

Amish Tripathi’s new book Scion of Ikshvaku, the legendary story of the Ramayana, was released this year at the Jaipur Literary Festival. He shot to fame with his earlier Shiva trilogy – all best sellers in their own right.

Quite apart from these renditions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, a few Indian authors have turned their hand to modern (and not so modern) thrillers based on ancient Indian epics, visibly influenced by the success of the genre unleashed by Dan Brown! Christopher Doyle’s recent book The Mahabharata Quest: The Alexander Secret, (Westland, 2014) is, in a nutshell, about the great Alexander’s quest to obtain the ‘secret of the Gods’ which would make him immortal – a secret which lay hidden in the Mahabharata. Alas, something went wrong with his quest and the secret is buried with him. A group of powerful people are now trying to lay their hands on that secret so that they can rule the world. Enter the Intelligence Bureau of India: will they be able to stop the quest? Read to find out. It is a thriller with an intriguing blend of history, science and mythology, and the author has delved into the Mahabharata and the scriptures as a source of Indian history. Readers are advised to read the first book in the series The Mahabharata Secret, before they read Quest.

The Wordkeepers, (Duckbillbooks 2014) by Jash Sen, is a gripping fantasy, the first in a trilogy, with two teenage protagonists and characters from Indian legends. The Prologue is a face-off between Arjuna and Ashwatthama after the Mahabharata war. The rest of the book is set in contemporary times – well, a bit futuristic, but 2028 is not too far away: Kali (as in Kali Yuga) is in pursuit of Kalki, the tenth Avatar of Vishnu, and it is up to 14-year-old Anya Sharma to protect Kalki, another 14-year-old. Apart from Ashwatthama, there are Parashuram, Vibheeshan and several Chiranjeevis, and Sen interweaves legend with fiction using a lot of imagination. It is an impressive debut novel, a page-turner, and something most readers would want to devour in one sitting. After reading this novel, I am certain many of you would be spurred on to find out more about some of the less well known but more intriguing and fascinating characters in the Epic.

Satyarth Nayak’s debut novel The Emperor’s Riddle, (Amaryllis Publication, 2014), released during the Bengaluru Literary Festival, is another thriller which harks back to Indian history, especially Buddhist legends. The plot begins with the death of an eminent historian, who is murdered on the banks of Ganges. What causes a stir is that the pattern of the murder is similar to other deaths in the past months, but a symbol is scrawled on his face that adds to the mystery and intrigue. The historian’s daughter, Sia, a writer friend, Patnaik, and a film-maker, Jasodhara, together go on a treasure hunt that takes them from Mysore to Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu to Haridwar, Kongka La near Ladakh to Kolkata. On a quest for an enigma so powerful that even the Gods would kill for it, they are hounded by a super smart and slippery murderer and a police officer.

There is a parallel plot which has some mysterious conversations and glimpses from the life of Buddha, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka, it is, however, a bit of a distraction from the main action. The research completed the authors of these historical fiction works is remarkable; each novel includes many fascinating details and will surely inspire many to seek out further information about the classic Indian epics.

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Chitra Sudarshan
Chitra Sudarshan is an academic and a public servant.

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