Aranyaka: Book of the Forest, the recently-released graphic novel, conceptualised by Devdutt Pattanaik and translated into word and image by Amruta Patil, borrows an Upanishadic frame-narrative and builds upon forest symbolism from Vedic literature, to present a new rendition of mythology. As someone familiar with a considerable number of contemporary mythology-based adaptations, including those of the authors in question, I had my fair share of scepticism about this book.
What does it mean to return to mythology in times saturated with its unending adaptation and its more sinister deployment to legitimise increasingly authoritarian public and political discourses that have a tangible effect on the nation? Do we really need more of them? Shouldn’t we invest our creative energies in deliberately new stories, with different characters, tropes, symbolisms, more representative of our diversity and in keeping with the pluralistic community many of us still audaciously believe ourselves to inhabit? Or can one formulate and express dissent with hegemonic discourses that is not dismissive, but engaging, using similar tools, but towards different purposes?
How sincere can a telling be, which positions itself outside, and in resistance to, utopic fantasy and overt political criticism – the two common lenses through which such tales are told anew? Is it not a sign of structurally-instituted and inherited privilege to read mythology for its symbols and allegories alone, and not its material context – such as its obvious gender and caste biases, for instance?
And yet, given that ours is not the moral universe of the ancients, what strategies can one employ to find meaningful relevance in old stories, avoiding presentist lenses, and yet imagine a new politics? More specifically, what would a collaboration between two very different approaches – Pattanaik, given to demystifying-corporate-style-straightforwardness, and Patil, prone to the eclectic-allusive-cryptic – yield?
The ignored wife
Aranyaka’s characters are drawn from the story of the sage Yajnavalkya and his two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayani. Rishi Yajnavalkya is remembered today mostly for his philosophical debate with Gargi at the court of King Janaka – their exchange is cited by some as a token example of the presence of the female intellectual in “ancient India”, while from others comes the rejoinder that this could not have been acceptable practice if Yajnavalkya had to silence his opponent by warning her that her head would fall off if she kept up her barrage of questions.
But Aranyaka is not preoccupied with this ancient-India-was-egalitarian-or-not debate. Its focus is Katyayani, Yajnavalkya’s ignored “domestic” wife, who has little by way of intellectual output to offer. She says: “Forest stories are mostly about men…Rarely one hears of aranyanis like me, women who contain aranya within them.” Is this then another instance of the tale of the underdog, the marginalised figure from the epics, whose point-of-view narratives have helped some authors build entire oeuvres?
But Aranyaka’s politics, according to its authors, is one that does not fall into line with moral righteousness, while also carefully avoiding the merely politically correct. So, what could an alternative “politics through aesthetics and compassion, not rage” look like?
Returning to the forest
Aranyaka (meaning “of the forest”) is a tribute of sorts to the fascination of Vedic lore with the forestscape. The forest here is not an exotic setting for urban sophisticates, or merely the place of true origin for “daughters of the earth” (like Sita or Shakuntala), but a site for profound personal and spiritual transformation. Forests in mythology are symbolic of travels into the recesses of the human mind, with an implicit recognition of life in the forest as an important rite of passage for the maturing of pivotal characters.
It is in forests that Rama and the Pandavas go into exile, face and defeat “demons”, form alliances, train themselves for bigger wars in the world outside it. Equally, the forest is acknowledged as site of meditation for rishis and also for retirement in vanaprastha, the third stage of the Hindu fourfold way of life (signalling literal/metaphorical retreat into the forest, away from household concerns).
And yet, the forest has effectively disappeared from most of our present narratives with their jaded, urban vision. In Aranyaka, “aranya” (the forest) is not just a setting, but a character in itself. The story explores old dichotomies of nature versus civilisation, forest versus ashram, wild sensuality versus restrained celibacy, but is not limited to them. Patil brings a keen nature-friendly eye to deliver a refreshingly zoomorphic story for our anthropogenic gaze.
Indeed, one discerns a more careful artist’s hand in the depiction of bird and animal figures, invested in details of proportion and motion, than in the comparatively less careful hand drawing of the human characters. Humans metaphorically (verbally and visually) turn into crows, partridges, honeybees, monkeys, turtles, gorillas, wolf packs, moths, snails, salmon, tigers, whales, spiders, etc. This is so because the aranya is integral to Katyayani’s imagination, and it is through allegories of trees and animals, that she decodes human behaviour and experience, even as she transitions from life in forest to that in the settlement.
As a result, there is much in the tale that is an affirmation of the natural world and its centrality to non-mainstream value systems and aesthetics. And yet, the forest is not sentimentalised; there is realisation of its dangers contrasted with the security that the settlement offers. At the same time, Katyayani’s clearing of forest land is not the same as the deforestation we today witness, for she feels remorse, and replicates something of the forest in the grove she plants.
The restoration of the natural into the mythological is an expansion of Patil’s eco-critique which informed her previous Mahabharata-inspired graphic duology, Adi Parva and Sauptik. “To put the aranya back in people’s consciousness” acquires particular urgency in times of climate emergency.
Hunger and the kitchen
But what does any of this have to do with contemporary socio-cultural politics? Aranyaka is also a story that would make many uncomfortable – for it is the story of an unapologetic woman with an insatiable appetite. Katyayani’s appetite for food, sex, intimacy, and appreciation is presented in all its unbridled glory. Humanity has always collectively sought to curb, delegitimise, and punish different hungers (like the “hive” that rejects her in the tale), but this new story with an old foundation refuses to either denigrate or intellectualise voracious appetite, and challenges the righteousness of some appetites (eg, vegetarian, intellectual) over others.
So hungry is Katyayani that she does not even spare the food offered to the gods. There is a happy expansiveness to her that is visually reminiscent of Patil’s Hidimba from her book Sauptik. Indeed, the book’s politics is also embedded in its visual aesthetics. Where most graphic novels aim at the sophistication of high definition computer graphics, Patil’s hand-drawn art, using watercolour and water-soluble pencils, is deliberately uneven and imperfect, as are the characters themselves.
Her canvas has no use for fair-skinned muscular men, or demure and slender women, or superhero-like figures. Her bodies are variedly voluptuous or androgynous, and are evidently from geographically diverse origins, rejecting the standardisation of popular modern aesthetics.
To return to Katyayani, ancient forest lore is replete with the dichotomy of the rishi (sage) in tapasya and the apsara (celestial nymph) sent to seduce him, but Katyayani is different. She is no practised seducer or naive damsel, but a free forest woman, sent not at the behest of male gods, but one who approaches Y (Yajnavalkya) out of her own desire. If Katyayani is all body and appetite, Y is all intellect and negation of appetite.
And yet, theirs is a union of complementarity, of two souls who are solitary in their own ways. Each stirs different hungers in the other (especially those of sexuality and conjugality), and both test the limits of their worldviews under the other’s influence. If Sauptik had interrogated values of masculine military aggression, Aranyaka primarily probes the pitfalls of egocentric intellectuality found in many mythological narratives, and accomplishes this without derision.
Y, despite his name being shortened to a letter that doubles as a question, is not reduced to a caricature. For he too is a creature of appetite; only, his appetite is of a different order. He is portrayed with an empathetic eye – even as Katyayani seethes in frustration at him, there are tender moments depicting him as a doting father and a husband involved in domesticity, and he learns humbling lessons from his unlettered wife and her grove.
Kinds of appetites
Significantly, Katyayani’s world is not that of the classroom, but of the kitchen and the grove – it is here that she learns her science, her philosophy. But her overindulgence does not go unquestioned, and both she and Y learn the dangers of projecting one’s own needs and priorities onto another. Lest it appear to be a gendered division, Katyayani has two further foils, in the shape of The Fig (Maitreyi) and The Weaver (Gargi), Y’s two female students. The intimate rivalry among these three rishikas leads them all towards the insightful realisation of their fundamental difference: “She is not me”.
Ultimately, it is a story of different kinds of appetites – intellectual and corporeal – but also about different personalities, callings, learning styles, growth curves, ambitions, and a respectful mutual acknowledgment and solidarity in the midst of it all. There are questions of insecurity and inadequacy, domination and submission, resentment and respect, free-spiritedness and domesticity, personal integrity and social need.
In the end, we learn what is to be done with fundamental mutual differences – not to strive for full reconciliation or agreement, but mutual respect. It is in solidarity, cooperation, and collaboration that maturity lies, reflected also in the unusual partnership behind the book’s authorship. In polarising times splitting the world into smaller and smaller echo chambers, making such a statement is an important intervention.
No easy moralising
So, what difference does an unconventional telling of an obscure figure who is not a significant character in either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, make, in a world where prominent myths and legends are being fought over all the time? The book guides us towards the wilderness beyond the assured familiarity of the epics and the didactic and over-sure voices that tend to dominate their various tellings.
Aranyaka resists effortless consumption in the form of bullet-point, PPT style “morals” and nudges readers towards finding their own resonances. It is not interested in rescuing mythological characters and stories from appropriation, but invests its energies in retaining the aura of the mythological while extrapolating a new story for contemporary relevance. The mixing of its many linguistic and aesthetic registers that is so unsettling serves to draw attention to its variety of inspirations, as well as its historical location in a tradition of countless tellings.
Its ambition is not grand and its method is quiet and subtle – for what it interrogates, with gentle, loving wisdom, is a narrow value system that privileges one set of principles over all others, one kind of ambition over all others, and one kind of labour at the expense of others. And there are all manner of personal and larger recognitions to be chanced upon, even if they do not fit in neatly with our professed sympathies.
For instance, whose silent service are we reminded of, when Katyayani proudly claims, “To be unfettered and voluntarily feed others: this is love, not servitude”? Who is it who feeds all others and whose own appetite is seldom looked after? Whose contribution to keep the household running is ignored and undervalued?
There can be no “inner fire” without the “kitchen fire”, the text reminds us. Katyayani’s kitchen, Sita’s rasoi – how much there is to learn from these spaces and what they represent, if only one had the will and the vision for it! And Aranyaka has both. This too is resistance.
Aranyaka: Book of the Forest, Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik, Tranquebar.
Rituparna Sengupta is writing her doctoral dissertation, on Hindu mythology in contemporary popular culture texts, at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. Her reviews of books and films are catalogued here.