It’s not a book that you would immediately associate with Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan. The young author, who shot to fame with her blog, The Compulsive Confessor, is known for books that are far removed from mythology. So her latest, The One who Swam with the Fishes, which released in June, came as a surprise to many. The book reimagines the life of Satyavati, the queen of Shantanu, the Kuru king of Hastinapur, and mother of Mahabharata’s author Vyasa. With this book, Madhavan has joined the long list of writers who have succumbed to the latest trend of writing about lesser-known characters from India’s ancient texts. Talking about her decision to turn to mythology for her new book, Madhavan says, “I have been always interested in writing about strong female characters. Having written five books already on different subjects, I thought of exploring mythology this time.”
Published by HarperCollins, the book is the first in a series of 12 books called Girls of Mahabharata, with each book retelling stories of different women from the epic. In her next, The One who had Two Lives, Madhavan will focus on Shikhandi, narrating the tale of the transgender who played a significant role in the Mahabharata.Mythological fiction is nothing new in India. Over the years, many writers have explored and made a success of the genre—one of the earliest trendsetters was, in fact, Ashok Banker, who wrote a reimagined series of eight books on the Ramayana in 2003. But soon, the market met its saturation and a need was felt to bring in something new. What followed was writers picking and focusing on the fringe characters of India’s ancient epics, reimagining their stories like never before.
And it’s not just Madhavan. Many other writers are picking up characters who may not have gotten their due in the ancient texts. Writer Kavita Kane, for instance, created ripples in 2013 with her debut book, Karna’s Wife: The Outcast Queen, which told the story of Karna through the eyes of his wife Uruvi. Last year, Kane came out with Lanka’s Princess, the story of Surpanakha, Ravan’s infamous sister. Kane’s other books in the genre include Menaka’s Choice (about the apsara Menaka) and Sita’s Sister (about Urmila, Sita’s sister and the neglected wife of Lakshman). Talking about her debut book, Kane says, “Karna is the classic tragic hero, but I was more keen to tell his story through the eyes of his wife.” The book is in its 14th edition now, with a Marathi translation expected soon.
“Retelling from mythology is not new. Kalidas’ Shakuntala is very different from the original Shakuntala by Vyasa. It’s the different perspective that changes the narrative, even though the plot remains the same.” Kane explains. Talking about her next literary venture, the author says, “I can’t divulge the name of my next book yet, but it’s on an intriguing lady from the Mahabharata.” There are many more in the offing. Penguin Random House is coming up with Vyasa by Sankha Banerjee and Sibaji Bandyopadhyay. Rupa Publications has lined up Ravana-Leela by Radha Viswanath, while HarperCollins will come out with Sharath Komarraju’s Queens of Hastinapur later this year. Komarraju’s second title in the Hastinapur series, Rise of Hastinapur, came out early this year. In the recent past, there have been books like Vamsee Juluri’s The Kishkindha Chronicles. The trilogy from Westland chronicles the life of Hanuman and his people. The first book of the trilogy, Saraswati’s Intelligence, was published in January. Apart from Westland, another publishing house that is working extensively in the genre is Rupa Publications, which has titles like Kamadeva: The God of Desire, Shakti: The Divine Feminine (both by Anuja Chandramouli), Tunnel of Varanavat (about a Kuru warrior from the Mahabharata, written by Gautam Chikermane) and The Curse of Brahma (by Jagmohan Bhanver).
Elaborating on the reasons for the popularity of the genre, Madhavan says, “People are getting more and more curious about their history, culture and mythology. This generation is interested in reading about what happened many centuries back,” says the 35-year-old author, adding, “These are stories that have a good mix of fantasy along with a strong storyline, which appeals to younger readers.” Madhavan has a point. Mythology is everywhere today, be it movies, television, computer games, visual arts, traditional literature or graphic novels. “There is a new generation of readers that’s keen on mythological fiction that is far removed from contemporary reality, which makes it fascinating,” says Thomas Abraham, managing editor, Hachette India, adding that their bestseller is Krishna Udayasankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles, a reimagining of Krishna’s story, the first book of which sold 30,000 copies. “The great thing about mythology is that there are so many ancillary characters whose stories have enough substance and scope for full-length novels.”
A point reiterated by most publishers. “In India, we are fortunate to have a horde of mythological stories from which a writer can draw out new tales,” says Udayan Mitra, publisher-literary, HarperCollins India. He argues that the genre has the liberty to be more freewheeling, opening up new possibilities for the writer, as well as the reader. “Ancient myths can be told in new, subjective and individualistic ways from today’s perspective. There are tremendous possibilities and these can make for very interesting new stories,” says Mitra.
It’s no surprise then that people with diverse backgrounds—politicians, academics, journalists, management gurus, etc—are exploring the genre. Former chief minister of Karnataka Veerappa Moily, for instance, released his book, The Flaming Tresses of Draupadi, in April. Then there is Utkarsh Patel. The professor of comparative mythology at Mumbai University is the author of Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged and Satyavati, both published by Rupa Publications. Writer Kavita Kane is a former journalist, Jagmohan Bhanver is a leadership coach, while Saiswaroopa Iyer (author of Abhaya, a tale set in the times of the Mahabharata) is a former investment professional.
But the person who really brought the spotlight on the genre in India was author Amish. “Though Ashok Banker pioneered this sort of fantasy-style writing with his Ramayana series in 2003, it was with Amish’s Shiva trilogy (2010) that mythology as a genre really broke out in India… the Shiva trilogy exploded the category,” says Abraham. Amish has now shifted his focus to the Ramayana. His latest is Sita: Warrior of Mithila, which is the second book in the Ram Chandra series. In the pipeline is a book that will focus on Parshu Ram, the sixth avatar of Vishnu. Another popular author in this genre is Devdutt Pattanaik. The mythologist, who has written bestsellers like The Pregnant King and Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, has close to 30 books in his repertoire.
The tremendous success of historical fiction in India can also be attributed to the fact that it’s a genre people are already familiar with, say experts. “We have noticed that the majority of the audience of these books is young adults. Overall, though, the books appeal to all age groups,” says Swagat Sengupta, chief executive officer, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores, an Indian bookstore chain, adding, “We have seen approximately 14% growth over last year.”
Contemporary reinterpretations of ancient mythological stories reflect the attitudes of the current culture, says Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa Publications. “The number of manuscripts I receive in this genre has shot up drastically in the past two-three years,” he says. So how do writers choose their protagonists from the vast sea of stories available to them? Patel, who has written books on Satyavati and Shakuntala in the past, says he chose those characters because he found them intriguing. “I felt that there was a story waiting to be told. Many of us have been brought up on Kalidasa’s version of the Mahabharata, which wasn’t the original. Many readers don’t know that Shakuntala was one of the first female characters from Vyasa’s Mahabharata and that she was very different from the docile portrayal of Kalidasa,” he says. Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged, Patel’s book on Shakuntala, was published in September 2015 and went in for a reprint within six months. While reinterpreting, however, creative liberties have to be taken with care, says Patel, adding, “In these changing times, one does worry about what one writes. Often a certain word has to be changed to suit the present fragile sensibilities of people.”