When Karthika Nair’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata was published in 2015, it received lush critical praise, thanks to the distinctiveness of its format. Nineteen voices from the epic – most of them peripheral and one imaginary – offered unique perspectives through Nair’s dazzling poetry, making it a one-of-a-kind book. Some of the compositions formed the basis of UK-based dancer-choreographer Akram Khan’s dance theatre piece in 2017, given the same name as Nair’s book. Khan’s rendition received equal acclaim.
The merit of Nair and Akram’s works lie in the freshness of their form, but the subject is as old as the hills. The mythology of India, especially the epics, Ramayana and the Mahabharata, lend themselves to retellings and re-imaginations as only they can, and writers and artistes across centuries have drunk at their eternal fount of inspiration. Countless works of prose, poetry, dramatics and film have been churned out on these subjects. Some are pathbreaking, some downright frustrating, but all equally legit, for these stories belong to all of us.
Enter the novel
Of all these inspired art forms, the mythological fiction novel seems to have acquired a special place in contemporary culture. Over a decade ago when writers like Amish Tripathi (the Shiva trilogy), Devdutt Pattanaik (The Pregnant King) and Ashok Banker (the Ramayana series) took off from the foundations laid by Shivaji Savant (Mrityunjaya), Iravati Karve (Yuganta), and MT Vasudevan Nair (Randamoozham), it sparked a trend that has since steadily burned as a literary fire. But only those who have dared reimagine these paradigmatic tales in less than obvious ways have stood out amidst the clutter.
Some radical voices have emerged in this time, standing up significantly for the subaltern. Feminist perspectives are notable for both their courage and compassion, thereby humanising tales that were largely written by and for upper caste males. Here are five of the most unusual series of mythological fiction, distinctively different from plain vanilla retellings.
The Aryavarta Chronicles, Krishna Udayasankar
When Sonam Kapoor acquired the film adaptation rights for Krishna Udayasankar’s bestselling trilogy in 2017, it brought the books back into focus. Titled the Aryavarta Chronicles, the series comprises three books – Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra – that were released in 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively. Based on the core tract of the Mahabharata, the story assumes a life of its own, with a heady dash of fantasy. Udayasankar’s trilogy has been critiqued for having too many layers in an already complex base story, but there’s no denying her creativity in using elements and tracks of fantasy seamlessly. In her own words, the plot is not the point, the human condition is:
“There’s a larger story here, which will endure no matter how it’s told. I mean that not in any spiritual sense, but more in the vein of a faith in humanity, a faith in basic values, of non-judgment and acceptance...it has been a powerful and useful tool, because it helps parse out moral imperative from moral principle. Moral principles are relatively immutable, whereas moral imperatives are often context and society specific. They also change over time. As a result, for an epic such as the Mahabharata, or any tale for that matter, to retain its lauded status, it must either adapt to the existing imperatives. Or else, there must be some justification for defying them. And that is why we have variations and interpolations.”
The Hastinapur series, Sharath Komarraju
Where Udayasankar leans on morals, Komarraju does so on the maidens. He too chooses the Mahabharata for his foray into the genre of mythological fiction, but makes an entirely feminist narrative his USP. His Hastinapur series is a trilogy consisting of The Winds of Hastinapur (2013), The Rise of Hastinapur (2015), and The Queens of Hastinapur (2017). Told from the points of view of Ganga and Satyavati in the first book, of Amba, Kunti and Gandhari in the second, and of Madri, Pritha, and Ganga and Gandhari again in the third, the series makes a powerful case for feminine authority.
The books go well beyond the accepted notion of Draupadi-as-Helen of Troy who caused the Great War, and explore the many nuances of feminine agency in the epic. From the grand dame of the Kauravas to the youngest Pandava queen, the ambitions and manipulations of the women of the Mahabharata are deftly dealt with in Komarraju’s version. Although his narrative is fairly faithful to the plot points of the epic, it is his reimagined voices that make it more than just a retelling and warrant a reading.
The Parva series, Amruta Patil
Instead of fantasy or feminism, Amruta Patil uses the powerful medium of art. A visual artist and storyteller, Patil’s first graphic novel, Kari (2008) was a trailblazer, earning her instant fame, albeit to a discerning audience. After Kari, which was dark and urban, Patil surprised her readers with the choice of subject for her next books.
Her Parva series, which is still a work in progress, with two parts having been published, turned out to be equally compelling and won critical acclaim. The two books, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean (2012) and Sauptik: Blood and Flowers (2016), have unique narrators – Ganga and Ashwatthama, respectively – to poignantly tell the story of the mythic ages. Patil is a multidisciplinary artist, and her quest to tell a deeper, more rounded story goes beyond the verbal and visual. Her short podcasts explain the literary and artistic influences on her work, so the reader can accompany her not only through the narrative but also the creative process.
The Mahabharata spin-offs, Aditya Iyengar
Another author inspired by Vyasa’s great epic is Aditya Iyengar. Iyengar’s retelling of the Mahabharata has two parts so far – The Thirteenth Day (2015) and The Broken Sun (2018) – both remarkable for their stark realism and succinctness. The author especially revels in gritty scenes of war, and makes humans of heroes, thus placing the lofty epic on a more human plane. He dissects the nature of masculinity on the operating table of his novels.
However, it is the ambitious octet that Iyengar speaks of that is something to watch out for. In this, the Mahabharata character, Ashwatthama, “...goes across the world over several centuries seeking the Syamantaka gem that only materialises during times of war. The Syamantaka can finally rid him of his curse and allow him to die. It can also rid him of Krishna, who is present as a voice in his head till the end of time – or till Ashwatthama ends his own life. It’s a mad quest series with Ashwatthama and Krishna that (if I can pull it off) melds various genres – historical fiction, picaresque adventure, gothic horror, etc.”
The first book of what one hopes will be a series was called Palace of Assassins: The Rise of Ashwatthama (2017). It used the violent episode of the mass murder of the Pandavas’ children by the protagonist as its premise; but Iyengar’s plentiful addition of exhilarating fiction gave the story a very different face. The author says “...the next part has Ashwatthama in the Trojan war”.
More than the Mahabharata
Given its scope and complexity, the Mahabharata naturally offers an irresistible temptation to many writers operating in the domain of mythological fiction. However, others working in this genre are getting increasingly experimental and seeking out different sources from Indian mythology to base their stories on.
We are familiar, of course, with Amish Tripathi’s recent Ramchandra series based on the Ramayana. Other prolific writers, such as Ashok Banker, Kavita Kane, Anuja Chandramouli, Ashwin Sanghi, Usha Narayanan, Shatrujeet Nath and Utkarsh Patel, have also contributed considerably to the pool of diverse mythological fiction. Nath, for example, uses the character of King Vikramaditya (remember Vikram-Betal?) for his fantasy series Vikramaditya Veergatha. Utkarsh Patel bases his novel Kannaki’s Anklet on the Tamil epic, Silappadikaram. And Ashok Banker takes a famous Vedic story and retells it in his Ten Kings: Dasarajna.
More gods, heroes, and underdogs from the Vedas and Puranas make appearances in the pages of mythological fiction novels as readers get hungrier. We aren’t complaining. Who doesn’t like to be spoilt for choice?