“Myths are, in fact…neither primitive nor untrue. They are, rather, a kind of poetry that helps us make sense of the world and our place in it.”
― Stephen H. Furrer
I have rather elaborately put down my feelings about mythology, and in ways – my origin story in this storytelling universe. You can read that here. What I had failed to do was compile my favourite Indian mythology retellings, since I went down other rabbit holes of storytelling. Without digressing into the other realms, here are my recommendations:
Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee
Palace of Illusions is a subliminal piece of work. Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s writing is melancholic, accessible without trying to be ornate for the sake of the genre. When CDB explores Mahabharata from Draupadi’s POV, what we get is an authentic and clarified voice of a character that has always either been spoken for or sidelined.
In previously popularised narratives of Mahabharata, Draupadi is demure or opinionated, she is the siren, or she is the quiet. There had never before been an exploration that showed her in her wholeness – being vulnerable, strategic, arrogant, prejudiced, and even manipulative.
Many stories that are passed on to us either get sterilised or woven by men, it is undeniable when we see the marks of their beliefs through the stories told. How women are considered, how wars are glorified, or so little is about the human but much more about achieving greatness. This retelling by CDB is a much-needed addition to how we will continue to form and narrate our epics.
Shikandi by Devdutt Pattanaik
Although I no longer share Pattanaik’s thought system or volatility, I cannot help but look back fondly on his initial work that was co-published by Zubaan and Penguin publishers in 2014.
“Beware of a land where celibate men decide what is good sex”
Shikandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You opens with this forewarning and is a collection of 30 stories from the universe of Indian mythology that speak of queerness. The intention was to showcase that while queerness was being tagged as a predominantly western culture seeping into India, was untrue and we, in our stories, have always represented the truth otherwise.
We have a long lineage of stories that have been ignored to fall into good graces with a new order that found sexual expression as less than. It can be traced back to the colonising British with their sodomy laws, the crux of which the Indian subcontinent still echoes, surely for the worse.
What Pattanaik does is throw light on the varied stories that we haven’t been told, and tells us that our history and storytelling is a richer, nuanced one than what we have been passing it off for.
The Liberation of Sita by Volga
Volga’s Liberation of Sita is translated into English from Telugu, which brings us to the immense variations and powers vested in regional retellings of mythology. Mythology finds its roots in the oral tradition; our stories weren’t written down until years later. What that would mean is that we have as many versions of the myths as there have been oral storytellers of it.
In Volga’s retelling, Sita after being forsaken by Rama, goes on a journey of self-realisation. This path takes her to other women in the epic that have woven journeys with hers, or have also been scorned. She learns from all these conversations, the atrocity of the kingdom, patriarchy and ignorance that these women have had to bear.
In the end, we are left with the weight of Sita’s existence and strength, one that is barely acknowledged but is just as fierce as Draupadi’s.
“In Ayodhya, everyone swore by Rama’s protection. Who knew Sita was Sri Rama’s protective charm?”
Honourable mention to The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee which gives us a comprehensive story of Sita, and is written just as delicately as Palace of Illusions.
Other books I look forward to reading in the genre are –
Bhima by M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Karna’s Wife by Kavita Kane, Chandrabati’s Ramayan translated by Nabaneta Dev Sen, Parva by S.L Byrappa, Draupadi by Mahashweta Devi and Yuganta by Irawati Karve.
Wishing you words and worlds.