Writer Nilanjan Choudhury’s book, Bali and the Ocean of Milk, centres around the ‘sagar manthan’ myth—how gods and asusras forget their differences and come together to churn out the nectar that promises immortality from the ocean. Only that he turns around this story, ever represented in comic books and school textbooks, into a ‘mythological thriller’, complete with deceitful and saucy apsaras and scheming gods and asuras in rival camps. The two rival camps are helped by the holy trinity of Samba, Jai and Viru, Indianised versions of the names mentioned in the Hurrian myth from where the story has been picked up. It also begins with the apsara Urvashi ranting about the failings of the otherwise omnipotent Indy (or Indra, the king of gods, as he is usually known to mortals and immortals) in pleasing her, an outcome of his rather delicate health following a mysterious ailment that struck him.
“The myth was just the point of departure for me. What follows is my own story, which stems from my imagination. It is essentially a thriller with mythology possibly giving it some colour,” says the writer who claims to have written the novel—his first—while caught in traffic jams on Bangalore’s roads.
Having grown up listening to stories at home and later reading comics like Amar Chitra Katha, Choudhury says that mythology seemed the most obvious backdrop for his first book. “I was always interested in mythology, so there was no research to be done. The sagar manthan story is about rivals coming together and forming alliances, similar to politics,” Choudhury explains, adding that apart from mythology, the book reflects his interest in black humour and satire. “There is a steady element of black humour that reminds us of movies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Dr Strangelove. It is my way of looking at really serious things in a flippant and comic way,” he says.
Choudhury’s book is one of several to hit bookstands recently with Hindu mythology as the basis for storytelling. Following the success of the Meluha series by writer Amish Tripathi over the past couple of years, mythology seems to have become a recurring theme explored by writers dabbling in fiction, particularly fantasy and thrillers. Filled with stories of war, deceit, philandering gods and goddesses and their rivalries, mythology provides writers with a readymade blend of fantasy fiction, adventure and thrills.
Literary agent Anuj Bahri of Red Ink Literary Agency blames it on the ‘now’ success of the Meluha series. Bahri’s firm represented Amish Tripathi for his first book, Immortals of Meluha, and then he decided to publish the book himself after the manuscript was turned down by all the publishers they approached. “There is a new breed of authors who want to get published and mythology is the answer because it is the easiest to write about—no research required and we all know the stories that exist,” Bahri says.
While Choudhury explores the idea of political alliances being formed in an hour of need in a satirical tone, Sangeeta Bahadur’s Jaal (the first part of a trilogy called Kaal) borrows from the Hindu creation myth and the birth of Krishna to form an alternate world that is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings series. And while Tripathi’s Meluha series centres around Lord Shiva, and, through the character of a Tibetan tribal by the same name, illustrates his primary proposition of all gods being human before rising to that stature, writer Jugal Mody picks Lord Vishnu to share a joint with Nikhil, the main character of his recently published ‘stoner novel’ Toke, while looking for a way to save the world (nurtured by Vishnu himself for the purpose of entertainment and avoiding the trouble of having to take a tenth avatar).
“Mythology is an intrinsic part of our consciousness, having grown up on Ramayana and Mahabharata on television. So even if I am writing a book about smoking up and a stoned world, the fact that I introduced the God Vishnu as a character should come as no surprise. Our gods are part of everything we do,” says 28-year-old Mody, who is based in Mumbai and worked as a web journalist before he wrote Toke, his first book.
Saugata Mukherjee, publisher of Picador, Pan & Macmillan India, agrees. “Mythology offers a huge corpus of work already available for use. People tend to follow what they know, be it the reader or the author,” he says. While he agrees that stories from mythology are part of any Indian’s world and there has been an increase in the number of ideas coming in, he says that the fantasy fiction genre offers more scope for Indian mythology being used as a motif in such work. “The success of such books in the past couple of years and works of people like Devdutt Pattanaik have added to the interest in mythology,” he says.
Tripathi, who says his Meluha series has had a print run of 750,000 copies since it was first published in 2010, claims that the inception of the book lay in a family discussion that took place in their drawing room. The family was talking of the notion of devas and asuras till Tripathi decided to pen down his ideas. The exercise later developed into a trilogy of books around Lord Shiva, two of which have already been published. “I was born in the family of a pandit and so there was not much extensive research required. I already knew the stories,” he says. While Tripathi decided to write fiction only after suggestions from within the family, and did face rejection at the hands of publishers till his agent decided to publish the novel himself, he claims that the genre was quite popular in the Hindi language already. Even though English publishing has woken up to the genre only now, he feels that mythology is here to stay. “In English language publishing, mythology has been largely restricted to comics and graphic novels. But it is not so in the regional language publishing business. Consider the success of novels like Mrityunjay and Maha Samar. Our mythology is an intrinsic part of our culture, it will never die out,” he says. Mrityunjay is a novel by Marathi writer Shivaji Sawant, written as an ‘autobiography’ of Karna, one of the characters in the Mahabharata.
Writer Sangeeta Bahadur, who recently penned Jaal as part of the Kaal trilogy published by Pan MacMillan, believes that the Indian reader has only now matured enough to appreciate different themes and genres. “We were earlier brought up on a diet of ‘scientific reading’ and the belief that realistic and socialist reading was the only form of writing worth reading. It is only now, with an exposure to global trends and attitudes and a sense of confidence in ourselves as a nation, that people have become more receptive to new ideas,” says Bahadur, who lives in London and is also director of the Nehru Centre there.
Conceived as a heroic epic, Jaal is inspired by the avatar tradition. The book combines laws of matter, the Hindu story of creation, mythology, Vedic philosophy and metaphysics to weave the epic of Aushij, Lord of Maya (illusion), and Arihant, a young warrior with divine powers. Arihant is both a Taraak (saviour) and Vinashak (destroyer). Like Tripathi, Bahadur too is inspired by the idea of divinity and humans attaining divinity, not divinity manifesting itself in humanity.
While most writers claim to have got an encouraging response from readers, a few conservative readers have objected to the language used. Tripathi himself faced rejection over the use of ‘pedestrian’ English. “The gods talk like us; it is a similar milieu of politics, problems as faced by Indy the god worried about his weaning powers, even physically,” says Choudhury of his book.
Vijayendra Mohanty, co-creator of a web comic called Ravanaya released last July, feels that the current flux of writing based on mythology is a result of the widening access of Indians to writing and reading, away from the old hegemony of university professors and a ‘foreign’ readership.
“Earlier, mythology and fantasy fiction as we know it was restricted to comic books published by Raj or Diamond comics. Later, graphic novels came but they were expensive. Books were either written by scholars and professors looking for academic research, which was boring, or there were books written by Indians for a foreign audience, “he says, citing the example of a comic that had the story of a local god descending on a village, wearing an overcoat.
Mohanty’s comic Ravanayan turns Valmiki’s Ramayana on its head, and is about ‘Lord’ Ravana—who is ‘a handsome man with long white hair’, though without the clichéd moustache that characterises Ravana in most texts. Instead of the ten heads that he is often portrayed with, Ravana in his web-comic is shown to possess the abilities each head represents.
“It is only now that a generation of writers is thinking of what has been instilled in us over the years, which is why the language is so simple and very ‘today’.” Mohanty also feels that the ongoing criticism over language and milieu will eventually be put to rest. “Even RK Narayan faced the same trouble initially,” he says.
“The bottomline is that Indian mythology is taking an interesting turn; it is not re-telling a story. It is about re-inventing and then telling the story,” Mohanty says.