The other day I was at my publisher’s office, ostensibly finalising proof pages. In truth, after ten minutes of working – or as long as it took me to finish my coffee – I left my co-writer and editor to the thrilling task of checking for typos and widow lines, and tromped around the open-plan office vaguely, interrupting people hard at work and stealing books from their shelves.

(The upside of slapping the word ‘broke’ in the subtitle of one’s latest offering is that people are tolerant of a certain amount of booklifting.) Among the several books I nicked that day was Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. Yes, you heard right; and yes, I did a double take too. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma.

The opening line read: “Emma Woodhouse’s father was brought into this world, blinking and confused, on one of those final nail-biting days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Investigations revealed that McCall Smith had done a contemporary adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved classic under the aegis of the very formal sounding “Austen Project”, a brainchild of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Austen Project

The best-known adaptation of Jane Austen remains Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary. But this was a more formal affair. Launched in 2013, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, the Austen Project sure seemed an exciting endeavour. The six complete novels of Jane Austen were entrusted to six contemporary superstar writers who would lure the characters into the twenty-first century. The updated versions were to be published as modern re-tellings.

As of now, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey have been published, in addition to McCall Smith’s Emma. Needless to say, the project capitalises on the huge market value of the brand.

From Jane Austen literary mugs and Jane Austen bandages (if you don’t believe me, go type Jane Austen on to diverse books with her name in the title – for instance, What Would Jane Do?; Quips and Wisdom from Jane Austen,; and Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades and Horrible Blunders – the name has its own magical powers. Detractors have said the idea smacks of laziness; that it is purely commercial; that it will invariably disappoint readers at best and irritate the living daylights out of them at worst.

However, if done right, there is no doubt this is also a unique tribute – to not only the writer, but also to the devoted reader. In addition, I am sure it is believed by many that the contemporary works might inspire a wider cross-section of people to go back and read the originals.

An Indian twist, anyone?

This made me wonder if there could be a similar project here in India. Of course, as far as the epics are concerned, modern retellings have been attempted for a long long time, going back to Bhasa’s Karnabhara, where Bhasa disregarded the general rule of the Natyashastra to compose a play that concluded with a sense of tragic foreboding.

Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, in which the central conflict of the Mahabharata is transposed to history of modern India, is a perfect example of a modern retelling. In an extremely interesting essay, Loss, Recovery and Renewal of Texts in the Indian Tradition, Sanskrit scholar Kapil Kapoor gives the example of Tharoor’s “notable re-telling of the Mahabharata” through “the technique of subversion” and points out that in the Indian tradition this would lead to a “renewal” of the epic, going on to argue that re-tellings should be considered aligned with the commentary or the tika parampara.

Epics, fine. But novels and poetry?

Why not, then, I thought, bring the best-loved Indian novels and poetry collections into the purview of this modern re-telling? Indeed, it could well be a puny way of attempting to bridge the troubled waters between English and the bhashas. After reading the updated Indian English versions, perhaps people will go back and read the originals; those from other parts of India who don’t know the languages will hunt for translations. New translations will be commissioned. It’s a win-win-win.

Presenting – my most heretical wicked wishlist

So we may as well select Indian classics from different languages, pair them with contemporary Indian English writers, publish the updated versions, and (as it has happened in the case of the Austen project) let the brickbats rain. (Apparently, controversy is the only way to sell books these days.)

But then, who knows, there might be takers for the idea too.

Gita Govinda

Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, written in the twelfth century in Sanskrit, is a unique text. While it is a central text in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, it is also studied in literature classrooms, music schools and dance academies. Structured like a musical playlet with melodious verses (‘Lalita-lavanga-lata parisheelana komala malaya sameere...’), it is about Radha and Krishna and their tempestuous relationship.

Krishna’s infidelities lead to a lovers’ tiff; Radha’s rage is complicated by her anguish; a friend intervenes as a peacemaker. Ultimately, though the theme is simple enough, basically, Radha and Krishna’s breaking up and making up during a particularly piquant spring, it makes for intense reading. The ending is happy – literally, post-coital bliss by the Yamuna – but everyone familiar with Krishna-lore knows what the future holds for them.

After Krishna leaves for Mathura, they will never see each other again. In any case, Radha is already married to his kinsman. In my opinion, a contemporary re-writing of the Gita Govinda can most certainly form the core (I warned you it was a wish list – and yes, I’ve been called delusional before) of a clever yet moving novel-in-verse (think The Golden Gate) by the only one who can pull it off: Vikram Seth. (He, who deals in words, rhymes, ragas, histories, languages, and is not hesitant to speak of broken hearts and writers’ blocks either.)

One day, he is bound to finish A Suitable Girl. And, he did say, he would only write poetry afterwards. Also, somebody has to also step in and rescue the text from its competent but most un-poetic extant translations that have kept it frozen in time.


Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora (serialised between 1907 and 1909 in Prabasi) is a long, complex, deeply intellectual novel in Bengali about the individual, his context, and the idea of India as it was being shaped at the turn of the twentieth century by the dynamic interaction of twin forces – tradition and modernity. Its compelling protagonist, the eponymous Gora, is as memorable a character as Tolstoy’s Levin.

Who better than Aatish Taseer, with his penchant for India’s past as well as its political present, and his tendency to stage long conversations between his characters where they discuss philosophy, to attempt the contemporary version of this quintessential novel of ideas? Also logical, because he’s been talking about the futility of Indian writing in English. Maybe he’ll even learn Bengali in the process, and with that masterstroke placate Vishwa Bharati, the custodians of Tagore’s oeuvre, who will, no doubt, be observing this rewriting business darkly.


Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s collection of 135 quatrains, each of which ends with the word “madhushala” (tavern), a work of immense linguistic felicity, was published in 1935, and brought him instant fame, a sort of rockstar-dom in poetry. The rewriting of this deeply layered composition, informed with Sufi mysticism and the lyricism of Chhayavad, can only be offered an extreme new interpretation for it to work at all. (Something that’ll make its fans speechless in horror, maybe?)

Should it not, then, be transported to Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis? Thayil was a poet for the better part of his literary career and, in fact, won the Sahitya Akademi award for what he calls his final volume of poetry, These Errors Are Correct (2008). His familiarity with the madhushalas of old Bombay will certainly contribute to the verisimilitude of his verses.


I am not going to lie to you, but U.R. Ananthamurthy’s critically acclaimed novel Samskara, published in 1965 (later made into a National Award winning film starring Girish Karnad and P. Lankesh), set in a decaying colony of Madhava Brahmins steeped in caste prejudice and conservatism, is not one that I am particularly wild about. But it is a classic, and a classic that is definitely calling out for a retelling, preferably a Dalit feminist version. The question is whether the feisty Meena Kandasamy will agree.

Krishna Paksham

Devulapalli Krishnashastri, or Andhra Shelley as he was called, authored his critically acclaimed Krishna Paksham in the early part of his career. A collection of fifty-and-odd verses that spoke of an intense melancholy, almost a dialogue with the idea of Death, though its purveyor was still so young, its literary merit went on to make him a household name in Andhra.

As (according to many schools of thought) an epic can only be re-written as pastiche, it might be argued that Devulapalli’s lyrics can be effectively retold only in humour. We don’t need to look far for the perfect candidate. Devulapalli Krishnashastri’s grandson, the writer and humorist Krishna Shastri Devulapalli – KSD – (it is his real name, we’re not inventing it to confuse you, though he does go by several aliases in Besant Nagar, Chennai). The readers of are already familiar with his work, and he is the only author in the list I can actually cajole into agreeing.


Arguably Thakazi Sivasankara Pillai’s most famous novel, Chemmeen, a love story steeped in myth, ritual and folklore around the sea, was published in 1956. In my wishlist, its contemporary retelling should be by, wait for it, not one but two (Mallu) novelists: Anita Nair, who has already translated it in the past, and Anees Salim.

While the decade-long struggles of traditional fisher-folk to prevent overfishing by mechanized trawlers (and other ecological disasters that are waiting to engulf the coast) might update the tragedy of the land in one version, the entry of Gulf money changes the context of the characters’ aspirations in the other. Two (Mallu) publishers, arguably India’s finest, will vie to publish both.


Rabindranath Tagore and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay shared a warm friendship, and Tagore would often comment on the greater popularity of Saratchandra as a novelist. As popular outside Bengal as within, he was thought to belong to the south of India by people from the southern states (his name is deceptive that way), since his books were so widely read there.

Though he himself denounced Devdas as one of his weakest novels, public perception has made it the most pan-Indian – the poster child of lovesickness – of his works. Bollywood has made multiple adaptations, the last of which, DevD, was the most radical. I think, however, that Devdas must be retold once more – and updated to portray the angst of the whatsapp generation. Would Devdas and Paro have unfriended each other on Facebook? Would Paro and Chandramukhi have followed each other on twitter? I think the nation deserves an answer.

And though I am inviting my grandmother’s spirit to come and scream at me tonight, I am going to say this. Shall we consider the wildly popular young turk who sells hundreds of thousands of copies of his romances for this rewrite: Ravinder Singh?

Devapriya Roy’s new book The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha, is the story of an eccentric journey across India, on a very very tight budget. On another day, Roy is likely tear up this wicked wishlist in grave horror, saying it is most unseemly to attempt to improve perfection. Today, though, is not that day.