When author Anuja Chandramouli started down the road of mythological fiction, her choice of protagonists was heroic and her stories, flamboyant. Her prolific bibliography includes tales about Arjuna and Shakti – the clearly victorious characters in the razzle dazzle of the Indian mythic universe. But she has steadily moved towards lesser-known tales, rewriting, recasting, re-inventing them. Like her counterpart, Anand Neelakantan, she enjoys flipping the stories around, turning heroes into villains and underdogs into heroes.
Chandramouli has gone on to write books on Kamadeva, Yamadeva, Queen Padmavati and Kartikeya, deeming herself a “New Age Indian Classicist”. “New Age” is certainly a useful disclaimer, because in the blender of her imagination, many things classical are rendered unrecognisable. The latest case in point is her book, Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son.
A source of enigma
As the title suggests, Chandramouli’s newest offering uses the core myths around the Hindu god Kartikeya to weave a fictional narrative. The Kartikeya story is a tough one because he’s not a “straightforward” god like many others in the Pauranic pantheon. There are different versions of his story found in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Skanda Purana, among other texts.
Not as well-known in the north of India as his more popular sibling, Ganesha, Kartikeya has more than his share of fans down south and beyond, where he goes by many names like Skanda, Murugan, Saravana, Shanmukha, Senthil, Kumara, Guha, Mahasena, and Subramanya. However, both “sons of Shiva” have origins shrouded in mystery and make for interesting study. One of the theories about Kartikeya’s origin is that he was a tribal deity named Seyon from Kurinchi – a part of ancient Tamil land. This ruddy god belonged to the hilly terrain, was worshipped by hunters, and was associated with orgiastic celebrations involving virgin maidens.
Many of these traits were carried forward in the Pauranic myths of the god, and are also faithfully represented in Chandramouli’s version. However, the author deviates in several ways from the central myths, and this is what makes it “fiction”. Some of these deviations are clever and some seem unnecessary, but she manages to hold the narrative together through it all. It would be useful to recount the most popular versions of the core myths, in order to compare the points of difference.
The story goes that…
As I have written elsewhere, the first of the myths is the fantastic story of Kartikeya’s birth, which tells us how Shiva cast his seed inadvertently into Agni. Even Agni found the power of Shiva’s tapas too much to bear and carried it off to the river Ganga (Kartikeya is also called Gangeya). The Ganga then deposited the fiery semen in a reed forest (Saravana). Here, the baby Kartikeya (in some versions, six babies) was born with six heads (Shanmukha) and twelve arms, and was nursed by the six Krittikas (the stars of the Pleiades constellation).
This myth cleverly unites multiple confusing origin stories. It justifies all tales about Kartikeya being the son of Rudra/Shiva, Agni, Ganga, and the Krittikas (the name Kartikeya comes from Krittikas). No other god in Hindu mythology has so many contenders for parentage. It can be seen as an indication of his popularity. No wonder the Vedic fold desperately tried to woo his followers to bolster their numbers when competing with rapidly-spreading Buddhism around the turn of the Common Era.
Other important myths include the marriage of Kartikeya to Indra’s daughter Devasena and to Valli, a hunter-maiden from the hills. The names are often thought to have arisen from corruptions / misinterpretations / associations of the terms Deva sena-pati (the commander of devas) and Vel, Kartikeya’s ever-present spear. Therefore, they may be his attributes rather than wives. However, in South India, Kartikeya in consistently represented and worshipped along with his two consorts. This is one big point of difference between the way the god is depicted in the north and in the south. In the north of India, he is depicted as a staunch, celibate ascetic, especially in Bengal and Odisha. In fact, celibacy is such an important aspect of Karkiteya’s persona that women are not allowed to enter the few extant temples dedicated to him in North India.
Another popular myth explains Kartikeya’s prominent presence in South India. The tale is one of sibling rivalry. Once, Kartikeya and Ganesha were fighting over a mango. In order to settle their fight, Parvati asked them to race around the world, and offered the prize mango to the winner. Kartikeya jetted off to circumnavigate the planet, while Ganesha simply circumambulated Shiva and Parvati, claiming they were his world. An obviously quicker Ganapati was declared the winner, much to Kartikeya’s chagrin. Alleging favouritism, Kartikeya sulkily went off to the south of India and settled there.
Chandramouli begins her book on a sublime note, trusting her readers to know the basics mentioned above, even as she delves right into the Shiva-Parvati romance. She keeps intact the sequence of events leading to Kartikeya’s birth, but like in her previous books, gives it a feminist twist. When the Saptarishis accuse their wives, the Krittikas, of infidelity and giving birth to the six illegitimate babies, instead of accepting the curse meekly, these celestial women assume a fearsome aspect and fight back. The author has portrayed them like the sapta matrikas – the seven mothers – another group of fierce mythological beings associated with Kartikeya.
Kartikeya’s growing up is narrated uneventfully, but against the backdrop of Shiva and Parvati’s marital squabbles. In fact, Chandramouli dwells upon this dynamic so much that the supremely divine couple is reduced to an annoying duo next door. But this is just an example of her overarching need to humanise both gods and asuras in her stories. Take Kartikeya’s vahan, Chitra, who acts more like a sidekick than a noble mount, or the asura king, Soorapadma, who seems more agonised by the fight within than the war outside. In doing so, Chandramouli liberally alters the “classical fates” of these characters.
More twists come by way of the meeting of Kartikeya and Devasena, and the latter’s rather “modern career”, the end of Tarakasura, the Kartikeya-Ganesha relationship, and, most of all, the story of Ganesha himself. In the most surprising inversion of all, the author introduces us to Parvati’s second child as a daughter! Named Nesha, she is imbued with the same set of characteristics and set in similar circumstances as our familiar god of new beginnings. This decidedly feminist take, however, ends disappointingly, when Chandramouli decides to turn the character into a male, following the incident of what our political leaders like to call “an ancient case of plastic surgery”.
With fanciful inventions like these, the author tries to make her characters more relatable. While the result is sometimes effective, it also disappoints. Perhaps readers want their heroes and villains to be larger than life and not petty squabblers?
That’s not to say Chandramouli cannot write “big”. She is particularly skilled in painting stomach-churning pictures of violence and war, bordering on the crass. Perhaps that is intended, for murders by ghouls and goblins must sound different from man-made deaths. Sample this: “Abominations covered in boils that oozed foul effluence descended on them like pestilential insects, bringing with them the blight of rot, decay, illness, affecting the healthiest and heartiest among them.”
Her one failing, though, is her use of clichéd phrases and juvenile love of alliteration. Sentences like this one are not just laughable, but painful: “The destitute, deformed, disabled, deprived, disgusting, dispossessed, and deceived, as well as those who sought to deceive, were all welcome in Shiva’s realm. He was happy to receive the misfits, miscreants, misshapen, and miserable, who were not wanted anywhere in the world.”
But Chandramouli tries, and tries hard, to hold her own, often dismissing established myths – such as the “mango/modak competition”. Her Ganesha actually tells Kartikeya, “…There will be vile rumours circulating that you got miffed because I ate your share of the modaks though we agreed to race across the three worlds for it or something.” It’s a strange thing to do, because it’s not like the author is replacing fiction with fact. One story replacing another is just that – an attempt to create a new mythology. However, that her Nesha had to become Ganesha in the end proves that mythology can only be fictionalised so far, and must eventually be aligned with popular imagination.
Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son, Anuja Chandramouli, Rupa Publications
Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a writer/editor/researcher by profession, and a forever student of all things Indic. She dabbles in the domains of Indian history and culture through her consultancy, Culture Express.