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Once Upon A Time: Reinterpreting Myths and Ancient Tales

Everybody loves Karna

Some of our favourite retellings of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata- new and old.


What is a myth really- but a story that is passed on from generation to generation, from grandmothers to their grandchildren, from wise teachers to their distracted wards- who reinterpret it as they see fit, retaining the bits that captured their imagination and forgetting the ones that make no sense to them. This is why when a 30 something thinks Hanuman she immediately sees Dara Singh’s face, whereas when a fourteen or fifteen year old thinks Rama she remembers the buff Punjabi body of Gurmeet Chowdhary. That is why Sita begins as a woman of great courage and fortitude in some versions of the Ramayana, while others reduce her to someone who deserves pity. When our mothers tell us the story of Ramayana, they give Sita a little more or little less agency, and a little more or less piety with every generation. She may still be a pawn in the war between two petulant kings, but she frets more about it and even gets a witty repartee or two.

As a child I believed in the Amar Chitra Katha version of our myths but when I look at those books in the stores now, I can’t help wondering. Were they always so ‘bloody?’ The heaving bosoms and decapacitated heads put me off sharing them with my daughter, not to mention my complicated feelings about religion on the whole.  But at the same time I also remember how they once seemed perfect, and had just the right amount of romance and gore to appeal to an eight year old’s mind.

The truth is that there is so much to enjoy in The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and in many of our lesser known ancient tales. But somehow the books in the market seem to emphasize on the most reductive aspects of these wonderfully rich stories. They either do a paint-by-the-numbers version with no questions asked, or terrible Immortals of Meluah styled-Bollywoodized retellings.

But there is a middle ground-  books that retain the moral complexities of our mythology, add a dash of modern perspective, and are still endlessly entertaining. Here are a few of our favourites that we recommend for this festival season.

The Pregnant King by Devdutt Patnaik

Devdutt Patnaik is not a great writer but he has perhaps done more work than anyone else in reinterpreting our myths for this time.  He retains the scholar’s interest in ancient works but is willing to question the morality in some of these tales- no where more so than in this wonderful retelling of the story of a minor Mahabharata character- Yuvanashva. The story of a king who ends up accidentally impregnating himself instead of his wives, and of his mother Shilavati who is wiser than most and yet resigned to never be “King” because of her gender, the book questions the constructs of gender, and the stereotypes we assign to them, especially in difficult times such as a war.

Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray

Originally written in Oriya in 1984 by Pratibha Ray, Yajnaseni continues to wow young feminists and horrify ancient scholars such as this one in the Daily Pioneer who is aghast at the “shocking character assassination of Draupadi.The story of a woman who loves one brother but is forced into marriage with five, who is allowed just one friend in the form of “Krishna” whom she refers to as her “sakha”, and who cannot help feel cheated by her fate is a must read in any language you can get a hold of. A common assumption by the 21st century literati is that Sita was passive and Draupadi aggressive – some even lay blame on her feet for the entire war. But this book skilfully portrays her as someone as much a victim of patriarchy and circumstances as the good woman of Ramayana.

Ashok Banker’s Ramayana

Look at us dissing “Bollywoodized” versions in the first paragraph, and then professing our love for this pulpy version of Ramayana! But the first three books of Banker’s Ramayana are so much fun! Manthara as some sort of Melissandre- like green witch, Rama and Sita with an eternal love and passion that was oddly missing from BR Chopra’s version, Ravana as a scheming monster with a long con and Dasaratha as the most ineffectual good guy ever! Available at every airport book shop in the country, these books make the perfect read for a two hour flight to anywhere in the world!

After Kurukshetra by Mahasweta Devi

Mythologies across the world don’t do well by their women characters, whose fates are left hanging as the men rejoice or perish after war. After Kurukshetra examines the fictional fate of three different women after the Mahabharata war- the young sheltered widow Uttara, a repentant Kunti and uninhibited Sauvali- a mistress of Dhritrashtra. The women are left to pick up the pieces in their own different ways and are used as instruments to shine a light on class, sexual politics, karma and more. Mahasweta Devi is one of our favourite writers, and this slim book is as good an introduction to her oeuvre as any.

Bhimsen- MT Vasudevan Nair/Prem Panicker

Most retellings of the Mahabharata either treat Bhim as a comic relief of sorts, or as a brute who could destroy villages and vanquish enemies with his superhuman strength. But Malayali legend MT Vasudevan Nair chose to focus on his humanity in his classic work Randamoozham. In his story of a very human Bhim, he emphasises the inner life of a character who always came second to his more illustrious brothers with empathy. Blogger, cricket writer and journalist Prem Panicker did an accessible translation of the entire epic on his blog in 2008-2009, and then compiled it into an e-book that anyone can download and read. If you haven’t already, you should!

Andhya Yug- by Dharamveer Bharati 

Dharamveer Bharati shifted the allegory of cousins fighting and killing each other to the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1954, when the wounds from the war were still raw on both sides of the border. The play continues to be performed across the world today, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing or to remind a new generation that war almost always throws ethics and morality out of the window at the cost of victory. The verse-play is available in translation but best read in original Hindi.

Yayati by Girish Karnad

My favourite part of the Mahabharata are the multiple tiny stories etched in the background that create an enormously realistic and lived in world with many kingdoms, their rulers and these ruler’s foibles. Strangely missing from the story are accounts of the common people, but that’s a subaltern tale for another time. The tale of Yayati, a man who first loses his youth because of lust, and then trades his old age with his own son Puru is one of the more interesting digressions in the epic. Karnad’s version (Written when he was only 22!!!!), moves the fable into conversations about parenthood, male-female relationships and the perils of immortality. Conceived as a series of conversations between the participants, the play works just as well as a work of literature as it does as stage craft.

Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni

Like everything else by Tara Books, Sita’s Ramayana is first and foremost gorgeous. The beautiful patua illustrations by Moyna Chitrakaar make this graphic novel stand out from the clutter of Ramayana reimaginings. It is also a version thats easy to narrate to little girls, telling the story as it does from the point of view of the much put upon Sita, and focusing on her relationship with Trijatha who befriended her during her kidnapping. This is the Ramayana as you remember, except the hero may just be the woman locked in captivity by Ravana.

Karna’s Wife- by Kavita Kane

A lot of reinterpretations of Mahabharata choose to focus on the outsider ‘Karna’ and his mirror image Arjuna– two men who are more alike than either would like to admit. The most well known work about Karna is Mrityunjay in Marathi, but readers may enjoy a new novel Karna’s Wife  which adopts the voice of Uruvi- one of Karna’s wife.  Largely non-canonical, this book imagines the Mahabharata as seen from one of the characters in the periphery who nonetheless is affected by its ramifications. It is refreshing to see the characters that everyone else thinks of as Gods, from the point of view of a commoner with her own concerns and desires.

Yuganta by Irawati Karve and In Search of Sita by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale

These books are not fictional reinterpretations, but eminently readable essays about some of our favourite characters from mythology. While Karve’s essays delve into the psyche of various characters from Mahabharata, In Search of Sita focuses on essays and writings about the much maligned Sita. The books share an anthropological curiosity about these fictional characters and add a lot of depth to our understanding of these epics. The essay about Gandhari in Yuganta may just be our favourite bit of writing about Indian mythology ever.

What have we missed? Which books about Indian mythology from your bookshelf are you most fond of? Tell us in the comments below.

Photo Credit: lecercle via Compfight cc

2 Comments on Once Upon A Time: Reinterpreting Myths and Ancient Tales

  1. Moumita Goswami // November 6, 2014 at 1:50 pm // Reply

    Anand Neelkanthan’s Asura is one book I woukd like to add to the list. It is a retelling of the epic Ramayana told from a very realistic point of view, even having a subaltern doing the telling. I thought of Ramayana in a different way after having read the book.

    • Love the suggestion- and will add that to our reading list! In fact when researching this article I was struck by how few subaltern interpretations there are. Surely the people in Hastinapur have something to say about the war waging around them!

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