THE MAGIC OF MYTHOLOGY

In recent times, the tidal wave of interest in alternative mythology as a genre has become a publishing phenomenon in India. Thanks to the extraordinary success of authors such as Ashwin Sanghi, Arshia Sattar, Anand Neelakantan, Devdutt Pattnaik, Kavita Kane and Amish Tripathi, among others, the heroes, the villains, the feted and the forgotten, and the 33 crore deities of the Hindu pantheon, have been retrieved from the musty passageways of memory and legend, dusted off, polished, retro-fitted and propelled into the collective consciousness as gleaming, often glamorous, but ever-fascinating avatars. And the reading populace has taken to them with avid interest. Alternative Mythology appears to have established itself as a safe bet for publishers in a highly volatile market, hence an endless stream of myth-based fiction is making its way to shops and shelves, tablets and audio.

But is this surfeit of a good thing really a good thing?

Market analysts may perhaps wish that aspiring authors would quit this mythology obsession and give space to other muses, for the present rate of content pouring into this space, circumscribed only by the writers’ imaginations, will inevitably create a glut, reader-fatigue, saturate and perhaps kill a promising market. But such a view is perhaps taking too harsh a view of this remarkable phenomenon.

It behoves us to look at it from a more objective point of view.

While those with a religious bent or a deep appreciation of our diverse culture and heritage, are doubtless delighted that youngsters have taken to Puranic lore in such a big way, the more conservative are equally furious about some of the artistic liberties taken with the sacrosanct tales that they first heard seated on their grandmothers’ laps, who told the edifying stories just so, the way they had heard them, seated cross-legged on earthen floors, from their elders. But today is a brave new world. The Gods are no longer all-powerful entities who leave the pious quaking with awe and fear or lost in devotion. Instead, they have been brought to the level of mortals and one may get up close and personal with them, warts and all.

This brand new relationship that has been forged with the supreme consciousness, appalling as it may seem to some, is nevertheless a wonderful thing. And before extremists grab their weapons of sweeping condemnation and moral outrage, allow me to elaborate. Indian culture, with its grandiose, sweeping range, traditions, and religious thought that has been handed down over millennia, survived because of its inclusivity, its ability to adapt to new schools of thought, despite repeated and brutal invasions.

Many old civilizations perished under such onslaughts.

The powerful Gods of Roman and Greek mythology now rule only in the pages of charming fiction, but are otherwise forgotten, and certainly not worshipped. Youngsters know little of the Norse Gods, excepting Thor and Loki, the mighty God of Thunder and his nemesis, resurrected by the creative Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Nor have the Egyptian Gods or the way of life that came into being with the magnificent Nile Valley Civilization, retained their relevance. The same befell the Incas, Maya and Aztecs. What then spared India from a similar fate?

That the Indian civilization, in its myriad manifestations, survived, was not an aberration.

While it has not been worked to a science, the general consensus is that Indians have always had the ability to assimilate the best from other religions, cultures and traditions, even when such things belonged to hated conquerors. The ability to retain the best of all that the land and people were exposed to over centuries of human ebb and flow, invasion and migration, knowledge and development, was embedded in a land where trade routes criss-crossed from West and East, to North and South, where a long coastline harboured ships which sailed along the entire rim of the Indian Ocean and across the Arabian Sea. Vast stores of human knowledge was thus accumulated and assimilated. In such a land of diversity, there could never be just one colour. It was through this remarkable symbiotic process that the legacy of our predecessors, in the fields of art, science, philosophy etc. were preserved from being erased by the relentless hand of time.

It was and is a remarkable thing.

Returning to our present discussion, if the modern era demands that we re-examine the way we connect with our gods and heroes, the victorious and the fallen, the villain and the conniver, treating them as friends, adversaries or intriguing puzzles to be scrutinized every which way, surely it is part of the same flowing river of thought and experience which has carried us here? For the most part, readers pick up these new-fangled books not merely because they are a fad or an amusing curiosity, but from an embedded love for a heritage and culture that is an amalgamation of so many streams of thought and being; rigid at times, and open to the sky at others; a part of who we are. 

It is a heritage we can take rightful pride in.

Many readers also seek to know more of the past without having to delve into the old florid and deeply layered styles of narration in languages the turbo-charged modern mind is not adept at. They question what really happened, looking past fantastical elements and allegorical events, to the reality. Stripped down to modern truths of human existence, in all its pain and achievement, vileness and nobility, is why this new genre of books has found so many takers.

This abiding affinity for all things Indian, be it myth, pickles or item numbers allows us to stay connected to our roots and feel the sanctuary of a grandmother’s lap even as we barrel through life, make our homes on strange shores, embrace cutting-edge technology or wrap our heads around ideas and notions that are entirely foreign but are now accepted as the norm. Why then disparage authors for taking the mythology that is our common heritage and doing with it what they will, if it means that our children and their children will know and cherish the treasure trove of our ancient culture?  No doubt future generations will take the old stories, adding yet another touch of something new, in keeping with their times, infusing them with delicious irreverencies that will make the most sacrilegious and contentious authors of our own day roll their eyes or stir in their graves.

Ultimately, we cannot have too much of a good thing when it is our good thing. 

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The author is a bestselling author and new-age classicist, considered to be one of the finest writers in the Indian mythology, historical fiction and fantasy genres. A columnist and book critic, she is also a TEDx speaker. Her Storytelling with Anuja series on You Tube, based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana, is popular with all ages. Her book Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince (Leadstart 2013) remains a bestseller. Abhimanyu, Son Of Arjuna (Leadstart 2021) is to be released shortly.

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