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Devdutt Pattanaik: The mythic imagination

CultureDevdutt Pattanaik: The mythic imagination

In his series of bestselling books, Devdutt Pattanaik has explored the nuances and complexities of Indian, Greek and Christian mythologies. It is to the great mythological tales of humanity that he often turns for ideas that touch upon the meaning of life and the essence of being. He speaks to Sneha Gohri about what brings together myth and fiction, and what drives them apart.



Q. What’s the most complex mythological theme you’ve tackled in your work? 

A. Chinese mythology is one of the toughest to work with because it does not follow the easy myth structures you find in Greek, Biblical and Indian myths. Therefore, deconstructing the [Chinese] myths is very difficult.

Q. Which mythology do you think you’ve yet to tackle or explore in your book?

A. Again, Chinese mythology. My books have dealt with Greek mythology and the rebirth mythology of India. I will soon be dealing with Biblical mythology [in the next book].

Q. Do you think Bollywood should be making more movies on mythological subjects?

A. I hope Bollywood focuses on Indian mythology more. It does retell Indian stories, but it is increasingly becoming Westernised, following the Western mono-myth of following the hero’s journey, of the sort popularised by Joseph Campbell about 50 years ago. That is because Hollywood considers this to be the only myth in the world.

Q. How do you manage to keep your books about mythology light and relatively easy to understand?

A. I empathise with the readers and try to keep the narrative informative as well as interesting from the perspective of the youth.

Pattanaik’s latest offering is a flipbook that has two stories from the Mahabharata.

Q. You talked about the fact that all myths are pluralistic by default. Yet in today›s India, we seem to be developing a very one-dimensional idea of myth? How can we change that?

A. Some people believe in India that myths should be singular and these people are a small minority. But they are in a powerful position and they are loud. Still, they have not yet converted the discourse of India. India remains diverse, and therefore you will have different kinds of stories here.

Q. What is your advice for budding authors in India? 

A. Writing for passion is always appreciated,but so should writing for fame and limelight.It is like a fresh breeze in the journey.

Q. How and when did you become interested in mythology?

A. Around 20 years ago. It had become my private world to escape to. I enjoyed the intellectual challenges it gave me. But suddenly one day this led to writing articles, which turned to writing books about myths, which further turned to analysing myths, to teaching them, and to making shows on them… Nothing was planned.

Q. You mentioned that you might be working on Biblical mythology and the Vedas in your next work… What can your fans expect from this book?

A. I have been very blessed to have readers who like my writings and who look forward to my upcoming works. But every book carries its own suspense and story. So I’d say just be patient for my upcoming books.

Q. Are you planning to write more fiction on queer-centric myths, as you did in your 2008 novel The Pregnant King?

A. No, I am not.

Q. What do you think is the difference between mythology and mythological fiction? 

A. You wouldn’t pick up a science-fiction book and tell someone to read it expecting them to become a scientist. But for some weird reason we confuse mythological fiction with mythology. Both are different. Mythology is the framework a culture transmits over generations. It’s never fixed, it keeps shifting. For example, if you read Christian mythology, the concept of the devil emerges much later. Television shows such as Good Omens and Supernatural are mythological fiction; the Bible and the Ramayana are not. That is the fundamental difference between both these categories.

Q. How would you explain the immense popularity of mythological themes in India? 

A. Mythology is popular all around the world. Only Indians think it is popular in India. If you see Chinese movies, you will see they focus on Chinese mythology. If you see some Netflix or Amazon Prime shows, likeGood Omens,SupernaturalZombieDracula, they are all based on Christian mythology. It is just that we don’t want to see them as mythology; we see them as fantasy. But the fact is, mythology shapes the way we think about the world, whether we are talking about the ancients or the moderns.

Q. Are you currently reading anything you would like to recommend to others?

A. One Last Drink at Guapa, by Salim Haddad, published by Speaking Tiger. I have just started it, but I think it is a very passionate story about being gay in a Middle Eastern Islamic country, and it is a fine fictional read.

Q. Tell us about your new book.

A. It is a flipbook that has two stories from the Mahabharata, “The Girl Who Chose” and “The Boys Who Fought”. It is a retelling of the Mahabharata for children. To know more you will need to read the book.

Q. What sort of storytelling strategies do you use when writing for children?

A. When everybody reads the Ramayana, people think of Sita as someone being presented as a victim. As for me, when I was working on my book Sita, I realised the story of Sita is a story of choices. If I am going to tell a child the story of Sita as a victim, he or she is not going to feel empowered. But if I present the story talking about choices and about agency, the child is going to feel empowered.

Q. What is the definition of storytelling for you?

A. Storytelling is about giving meaning to life. Human beings are the only creatures who seek meaning in life. You see, we all have imagination. A thousand years ago, our ancestors had imagination. When you have imagination, you can imagine a world without you and you realise the world continues without you, which means you suddenly realise you do not matter—which is depressing. On the other hand, you can imagine a world where your problems do not exist. Therefore, a storyteller brings that imagination into the tangible world. Through storytelling, we convey to each other what is possible. All possibilities emerge from storytelling.


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