When I think of myth, I think of the delightful comic strip series Amar Chitra Katha created by Anant Pai. I think of my grandmother who cared to share. It sounds cliché but it’s real. Myth is so much a part of the story telling process that I’m not surprised that mythical fiction is now the biggest fad around in English writing in India.
Indian mythical fiction in English may be a relatively new phenomenon, but in Indian languages there has been a continuous output of retellings of the old epics. Why not? There are far too many characters in the Indian pantheon and everyone has a story to be told and retold.
At the BYOB party we had last weekend (update coming up soon), almost everyone shared book after book that delved into multiple points of view of the Indian epics. In case you are new to the Mahabharata, it’s about a family at war-five brothers called the Pandavas vs their one hundred cousins, the Kauravas. That’s a lot of plotline and this is just one epic- we have the Ramayana, the Panchatantra, the Avatar stories, the Goddess Stories, the Puranas,etc.
In fact, most winners of the Jnanpith award (a prestigious literary award in India) have written their adaptations or interpretations of the Ramayana or Mahabharata in their respective languages.
I spoke to Anand Neelaknatan, writer of the acclaimed mythical fiction Asura, about the current myth fad. He doesn’t see himself as only a mythical fiction writer. He’s writing for TV now, has signed up for a Romedy film in Hindi and his next book Devayani will be a fantasy thriller with a hint of mythology.
“I grew up in a place where Puranas and art, debates, drama and music were all part of life. I have heard most of the stories before I read them, as most people do in rural India. There is no field in India in the present, past or the future where myths will be irrelevant. Indians have always been great storytellers. We have experimented with all sorts of story-telling techniques and have given the world most of its well-known stories.”
He believes that myths cannot be rewritten in English effectively enough. I think this goes for the mythical tales in all languages.
”English lacks the nuances that this kind of literature needs as it developed in a different culture in a different era. Indian English is a very nascent language and has had to develop its own idioms. The queen’s English fails to convey most of our emotions in writing in an effective way.
When my character addresses another character as You, it does not convey much. In any Indian language, the form of you used conveys the social status, the character’s relationship to the narrator, the chemistry between them and many more things. An Aap (Hindi) is not the same as Tum or Tu, a Thangal (Malayalam) is not the same as Ningal or Nee. Each form of address conveys many things, which a plain You cannot. This is just a small example.
Another difficulty is that even very common phrases in English jars with our culture. For example, when we say, it was a warm welcome, it sounds artificial. In a cold country, the guests would be pleased with a warm hearth. In Indian languages, we say we received a “Sukha Sheethal” welcome or the equivalent of that, which when translated gives the opposite meaning in English- a very cold welcome. Rain means romance for us, but in English, the word rain conveys dark, brooding, bleak emotion. When we read, these nuances may not be visible, but in our subconscious mind it could be jarring. Indian English is groping in this confusing alley and unless it develops its own way of evocating emotions, writing will not rise to the level of an M.T. Vasudevan Nair or S.L.Byrappa or many other masters.”
Having said this, Neelakantan believes that the writing should continue as only time will tell which stories will be truly remembered as commercial success is but a small instance in the entire cosmos.
Only the story matters in the end.