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Legendary appeal

Rihan Najib | Updated on August 24, 2018 Published on August 24, 2018

In a country deeply familiar with its ancient epics, the genre of mythological fiction is turning the spotlight on hitherto overlooked narratives and characters. Alongside fuelling the rise of several celebrity authors, this literary device is serving as a barometer of cultural shifts in society

Surrounded by constantly ringing phones and shop attendants clamouring for his attention, Mithilesh Singh, at Bahrison’s Booksellers in New Delhi, cuts a harangued figure. The head of book sales wearily looks at the shelves stacked with Indian mythological fiction and remarks, “These days, there is a book being written for every mythological character there is. I wonder what’s left now.”

He singles out Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan and Amish’s Shiva and Ram Chandra series as works that are especially in demand. Rajni Malhotra, the owner of this iconic bookshop in upscale Khan Market, adds that there have been enquiries for the third instalment of Amish’s Ram Chandra series, slated for release later this year.

At the nearby Faqir Chand and Sons bookshop, another local landmark, a few Delhi University students are browsing among the shelves. Sania, 21, a student of political science, is an avid reader of mythology. “I find the genre fascinating because it has room for multiple retellings of the stories we all grew up on,” she says.

 

No longer just about good triumphing over evil, mythological fiction today has become an important medium of interrogating morality, social conventions, and gender roles, she adds. Her favourite is Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva: The Churning of the Ocean. Is she also eagerly waiting for Amish’s latest book? She shakes her head with a smile, saying, “It’s too racy — too divergent from source texts.”

There’s a new wave in Indian mythological fiction published in English. Not only do all the mainstream publishing houses now have prominent books in this genre, but the authors too — most notably, Amish, Devdutt Pattanaik and Ashok Banker — are receiving increased media attention and commercial success.

In addition to having more authors and books in the genre, there is now a diverse range of subjects taken up in the retellings and interpretations of ancient Indian epics. As Sania put it, mythological fiction is increasingly becoming a barometer of the kinds of questions people are asking society and of themselves.

Creating a category

This new wave in mythological writing in India, from a modern publishing point of view, can be dated back to 15 years or so, says Anish Chandy, founder, Labyrinth Literary Agency. As the former head of business development and sales at Juggernaut Books and, before that, a senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House, Chandy had witnessed the creation of this new market for mythology. “Before Amish, Pattanaik and Banker, mythological fiction had a niche audience,” he explains. “It was Amish’s unprecedented success that brought mythology to the mainstream.”

In 2010, when Amish, a former banker, wrote The Immortals of Meluha, the first book in the Shiva trilogy, he had simply wanted to delve deeper into the question ‘What is evil?’. He ended up taking it further with the book.

Casting the god Shiva as a Tibetan immigrant, Amish created a universe on a vast and ambitious scale, the likes of which had not been seen in Indian publishing. However, all the publishers he approached rejected the first book.

“Their contention was that the youth wasn’t interested in mythology, and so they thought the book had no chance of success. I was advised to write college romances,” Amish tells BLink on the phone. Undaunted, he decided to self-publish the book, which was commercially so successful that the publishers returned to bid for rights. Amish’s books are published by Westland. The Shiva trilogy alone reportedly generated over ₹60 crore in sales, at over 25 lakh copies. Chandy puts it down to Amish’s accessible and thrilling storytelling, backed by great character development. He says, “Amish created the market, which is now overcrowded. There is so much out there in the genre that one could characterise it as a supply glut.”

Cultural shifts

This is not to say that there was no one else in the genre before Amish came along. Banker had published his Ramayana series starting in 2003. The books largely stayed within the narrative limits of the epic. Amish, on the other hand, is credited with taking radically imaginative leaps with his interpretations.

According to Urmi Chanda, a culturalist and literary critic, few authors had taken liberties with mythology the way Amish had in The Immortals of Meluha. “When he recast mythological characters in a manner that was less-god-more-superhero, stripped of religious hubris and speaking a language of easy familiarity — it was as if someone had made our gods into something from DC comics!” she says.

Aditya Mani Jha, commissioning editor at Penguin Random House, explains this further: “When you have access to the latest Marvel and DC releases through platforms such as Netflix and [Amazon] Prime, then you can rest assured that your readers will be familiar with certain kinds of design elements, trailers and marketing strategies.” Citing the cover of Amish’s latest book Sita: Warrior of Mithila, which shows the back of a muscular woman leaping towards battle, Jha says, “That’s a Marvel cover right there.”

This enhanced visual literacy, as he puts it, emerges from a familiarity with the templates of contemporary Hollywood action movies. “We’re constantly bombarded with images like these, and you see the handprints of this visual culture in publishing too.” This works well with mythology, which lends itself to artistic illustrations and subjective visual interpretations. Little wonder then that many books in the genre are exquisitely illustrated and aesthetically pleasing. Popular examples include Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva and Sauptik, as well as Pattanaik’s Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata. “We realise how hard it is to hold the attention of a reader for 300 to 400 pages. So, when you have a visually arresting product, you capitalise on it. This primacy of images is one concrete way in which comic book culture and a franchisee culture have affected the genre,” says Jha.

Even otherwise, several significant cultural shifts are strongly reflected in the genre, including one that harks back to the remark made by Bahrison’s Singh about every mythological character getting a book. Characters who were otherwise consigned to the margins, such as Ashwattama, Shikhandi and the numerous female characters of the epics, are hogging the spotlight as principal narrators, giving their stories a new life and a sharp bite.

Kavita Kane, who made her debut in the genre with Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen, in 2014, prefers to write about the women in the epics — Urmila, Menaka, Satyavati — who have hitherto been reduced to stereotypes. “Traditionally, mythology has been used as a convenient weapon to serve patriarchy, shaping socio-cultural mores. Now, it is a literary tool to shape a changing narrative — a creative device to question and contest.”

Draupadi, the wife of the Pandava princes in the Mahabharata, has remained a tragic figure in retellings such as Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s Palace of Illusions, whereas Trisha Das in Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas plants the mythological figure in the middle of modern-day Delhi.

Swati Daftuar, commissioning editor at HarperCollins India, says, “I see a lot experimentaion in the manuscripts I evaluate. Authors are looking at mythological texts through a contemporary lens.” Many of them even bend the boundaries of the genre. “I am currently working on the Age of Kalki Trilogy by Vishwas Mudagal, which uses the story of Kalki as its base. So, in that sense, it is mythological fiction. But it is set in the future and has very strong political themes, thereby making it a hybrid of mythological fiction, science fiction and a political thriller,” she says, highlighting the untapped potential in mythology as a genre.

An existing legacy

Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are said to date back to 7th and 8th BCE, and there have since been innumerable retellings in local languages. The 16th-century poet Atukuri Molla, for instance, translated the Ramayana into colloquial Telugu for a wider audience. Before Volga’s The Liberation of Sita or the acclaimed 2008 film Sita Sings the Blues, both lamenting the plight of women caught in the machinations of overtly moral men, the medieval Bengali poet Chandravati’s Ramayana took Rama to task.

Old wine, many new bottles: Epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have inspired countless retellings in various regional languages

 

 

The critic Chanda argues that India has always had mythological fiction in its literary landscape. “If you think about it, even Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas was a ‘fictionalised’ version of Valmiki’s original Ramayana... The so-called trend in the genre only holds water when one focuses only on Indian writers writing in English,” she explains.

The noted Ramayana scholar, Arshia Sattar, seconds this. “These retellings are new and fascinating only because they appear in English. Other Indian languages have been telling them for decades, and some of them are pretty subversive. The English novels based on the epics reach a metropolitan audience, so we notice and wonder if they represent a cultural shift or a new way to think about the past.”

Popular contemporary retellings of the epics in regional languages include Mrityunjay and Yugandhar by Shivaji Sawant in Marathi, Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni in Oriya, and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham in Malayalam. Like contemporary mythological fiction in English, these works focus on telling a larger story through a character who is usually relegated to the sidelines. Their narrative voice is used to expand the scope of interpretation of the epics. For instance, the protagonist in Randamoozham is Bhima, a character associated with physical strength and stoicism. The novel, while remaining faithful to the original story, brings to light Bhima’s anguish at having to play second fiddle throughout this life.

Marketing mythology

Given that there is an existing culture intimately familiar with mythology, the factors driving this revived interest partly owe to the publishing industry’s dynamics. According to Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland Books, “English language publishing only emerged in the late ’80s, so there was hardly any market for this genre until the likes of Banker and Amish arrived on the scene.”

Amish: sparked the craze for contemporary mythological fiction in India. When his first work was rejected by all publishers, he published the book himself and made history with The Immortals of Meluha

 

 

But Amish disagrees with the notion that the market for mythology didn’t exist earlier, arguing that the lack of demand emerged out of a lack of supply.

“The market was always there. But the English language publishing industry in India then was Indian only in name. They just wouldn’t pick up books in this genre.”

 

With The Immortals of Meluha, Amish engineered his own marketing success by combining his business acumen with an intimate understanding of consumer behaviour. He was the first author in India to have book trailers screened in movie theatres, even featuring a custom soundtrack. Additionally, the design of his book covers reflects the links that connect all his books.

Hemal Majithia, founder-CEO of Oktobuzz, the company that designed the cover of Amish’s Ram: Scion of Ishvaku, says, “Increasingly, for books in the genre of mythology and fantasy, one sees book covers as not just promotional platforms but also a way to make readers participate, engage and anticipate forthcoming books. Amish does this by leaving clues within the cover.”

The cover of Ram: Scion ofIshvaku, for instance, depicts Ram, Lakshman and Sita leaving the royal court for the forest, with Ram wielding a dhanush, or arrow, on whose tip is a tiny Shivling — a marker of the preceding Shiva trilogy books. Similarly, characters in the Brahmi script are used to provide important clues to the upcoming books. “Before Amish, this sort of engagement didn’t exist,” says Majithia.

Just a good story

With readers now hungry for the screen adaptations of popular novels, especially after the recent success of Sacred Games, one can expect mythological best-sellers to go the same way. Bollywood director Karan Johar had secured the film rights to The Immortals of Meluha. But Amish clarifies that he had taken back the rights and they had parted ways as friends. “I am currently exploring the possibility of making the series into an adaptation, and I shall make an announcement in due course,” he says.

But even without adaptations, the genre has a revived appeal and commercial value, says Aditya Iyengar, author of myth-fictions The Thirteenth Day and Palace of Assassins. He explains, “One of the most heartening things about the genre expanding is that people are increasingly reading mythological fiction — which tends to have a religious angle — as commercial fiction. There is a lot of beauty and depth in these stories, so it’s great that more people are reading them — as just stories.”

 

Published on August 24, 2018
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