Even the sacrosanct lotus, with its unfortunate political appropriation, has been sullied in recent times. Thankfully, the title of Meena Arora Nayak’s new book is qualified by a blue and not an orange one. She clarifies in her introduction that the blue lotus is a mythical flower (no, she isn’t referring to the Krishna Kamal, which isn’t a lotus at all).

The colour blue is representative of both the material and the ethereal, while the lotus flower is accepted an important symbol of wisdom, beauty and purity in most cultures that have thrived on the Indian subcontinent. Within the Indic faiths, in particular, the lotus has deep spiritual connotations.

The blue lotus, therefore, embodies within itself the many story-petals which comprise the flowers that make up India’s cultures. Its complex beauty is exquisitely rendered on the cover, designed by Bena Sareen, and illustrated by Sonali Zohra. A closer look reveals motifs of plants, beasts and magical beings that populate the tales between its covers.

Story and backstory

Tales are important, whether historical or fictional. The rush for changing history textbooks by people in power is not without reason, because as George Orwell said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

A large part of our social identity – a sense of belonging to the social world – is derived from our historical and cultural narratives. Like our political histories, myths, legends and fables – like the ones in Arora Nayak’s book – occupy a fair bit of space in our collective consciousness. This might explain the seemingly mindboggling preference for accepting statues and temples instead of urging the government to deal with real problems like agrarian crises, unemployment, health and economy. It is hard to argue with zealots seeking to glorify certain gods and heroes when there is a primal emotionality attached to it.

According to the social identity theory of the noted Twentieth Century psychologist Henri Tajfel, we divide the world into “them” (out-group) and “us” (in-group) through social categorisation. Often, the in-group discriminates against the out-group. The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image. Mudslinging about multiple gods or multiple wives is one way of doing it. Conversely, one could also play the game of “my statue is bigger than yours” in self-esteem shopping.

Wash, rinse, tell

The solution, though? At least part of it? Reading a book like The Blue Lotus, which juxtaposes the stories of diverse gods and heroes, thereby blurring the lines between “ours” and “theirs”. Since stories of gods and legendary figures often occur in religious texts, they tend to acquire a communal colour. By placing them in a secular collection, the author is able to depict them a little more neutrally. Read with some discretion, the stories yield the distinctly common elements of universal goodness and the frailties of mankind.

For Arora Nayak, a US-based author of Indian origin, curating such stories from mythology and religious annals is not new. Her previous book, Evil in the Mahabharata (2018) is a monograph on the subject mentioned in the title, and The Puffin Book of Legendary Lives (2004) is an anthology of 24 stories of Indian heroes and heroines. She also has three novels to her credit. An academic by profession, she brings considerable research to the table, while writing in a lucidly simple style.

For The Blue Lotus, the author takes upon herself the immense task of sometimes simply recollecting, sometimes retelling, and sometimes suturing different parts to recreate a wide variety of tales. And she does it in a neutral voice. Paring away the superlatives accorded to gods in religious literature, her stories retain the plots and the names while leaving judgements and conclusions to the reader.

Wherever possible, Arora Nayak tells the stories for what they are: versions of the human condition. The stress is on universal traits and behaviours like greed, fear, kindness, love, common sense, manipulation, cheating, lying, brotherhood and other such. These happen to everyone – whatever their religion, whatever their milieu.

A body collective

Arora Nayak’s playing field for The Blue Lotus is astoundingly vast, as she casts her net far and wide –from the religious to the secular, from the mainstream and to the hyperlocal. Her sources include the Vedas, the Quran, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Puranas, the Jatakas, the Bundahishn, the Kathasaritsagara, Brihatkatha, the Janamsakhis, Voga Vashishtha, the fables of Sheikh Chilli, Tenali Raman, Akbar-and-Birbal, Vikram-and-Betal, and folk myths from various states and tribes.

Imagine reading in one book the famous story about the samudra manthan (churning of the ocean), a Garo tribe story of ghouls titled “Mehmang Gitting”, a Bengali folktale about how opium came to be, a Punjabi folktale about why weavers can’t go to heaven, a Zoroastrian creation tale, Judas’s betrayal of Christ, a Haryanvi folktale about how Kurukshetra became the location for the great war, and fables about talking animals!

Myths and folklore converge easily in this anthology, because, as the writer argues, they are not really separate entities in India. The dichotomy is sharp in the Western tradition, but in the case of stories from this part of the world, the two form a connective, a continuum.

Thus, many folk gods have found their way through interpolations into classical mythology, and vice versa. Some folk tales may never find place in authoritative versions of the epics, but they are just as legitimate in the minds of the people who tell them. And mythology cannot claim antecedent superiority either, because many of the folk traditions developed in parallel to them – such as the Jataka and the Panchatantra alongside the Puranas.

In addition to preserving the stories, the author also seems keen on redeeming the reputations of some of them. The “regressive” tag on folklore and mythology from India is a colonial consequence, she contends. The “Manu-isation” of Indian culture took place when the British chose to refer to the Manusmriti as the definitive codebook of the Hindus. The idea that this infamous and misogynistic text best represents thinking and culture is one that must be dismantled.

The cultures of India are gloriously syncretic, comprising stories that are as intense as they are in a light vein, as wise as seemingly silly, as discriminatory as inclusive, as preachy as playful. There is no single way of looking at them. For they are just like you and me: human.

The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India, Meena Arora Nayak, Aleph Book Company.