Book Review: Sudha Murty’s The Upside-Down King

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New Delhi | Published: October 14, 2018 12:40:22 AM

Author Sudha Murty feels that most children’s mythology books in India are burdened with complicated descriptions and elaborate explanations.

Sudha Murty

Author Sudha Murty feels that most children’s mythology books in India are burdened with complicated descriptions and elaborate explanations. And this is exactly what she decided to do away with when she wrote The Upside-Down King, a collection of tales about Lord Ram and Krishna for children. “(Usually), there is too much explanation and description… I wanted a simple book without too much information… The mythology books that you read in school are not very convincing. If a child asks, ‘Why this happened?’, the answer they get is, ‘Because God made it like that’,” says Murty, who is also chairperson of the Infosys Foundation.

Before writing The Upside-Down King, in fact, Murty had a discussion with many adult Indians and realised that there is a dire need to teach mythology to children, especially those born and brought up outside India. And that’s why she wrote the book, she says.

A common problem while reading mythology, however, is that a child has trouble accepting it because these things don’t happen in day-to-day life. Murty has, therefore, tried to make her book as rational and convincing as possible and used extensive metaphors to interest her readers. In the case of Ravana, for instance, she says that the king didn’t really have 10 heads, but knowledge and wisdom equal to having 10 heads and that’s how she has explained it in The Upside-Down King. There are also two family trees at the end—one detailing Ram’s lineage, the other Krishna’s—that help young readers join the dots and grasp the content of the book well.

Her target audience, however, isn’t just children, but mothers as well. “Young mothers must first understand mythology themselves,” the 68-year-old says. But with a plethora of children’s mythology books available in the market today, does Murty feel any competition? “I asked my editor that if I write about mythology, do you really think people would be interested because there are so many mythological books available in the country today,” she says, adding, that her editor, however, asked her to stop worrying and assured her that her books would be well received because her style is different—uncomplicated and straightforward.

The Upside-Down King Sudha Murty Puffin Pp 256, Rs 250

Murty was also hesitant about bringing out a book at a time when information is just a click away, she says. “I thought why should I write this book? If you go to Google, you will get these stories. But then I realised that nobody will take that kind of pain, go from one story to another and connect them through a string,” she says, adding, “I was surprised my books sold so much… a second print is already out. This has proved that there is a market for simple writing without exaggeration.”

Talking about the cover of the book, Murty says, “I consulted the designer and, as you can see, the cover is upside down. Because of this unconventional angle, the image of the king (Satyavrata) remains with the reader.” Recounting the story of Satyavrata on the cover, Murty explains that he wanted to go to heaven with his body, but Indra would not accept anyone with a body. Rishi Vishvamitra was, however, adamant and believed that with his powers he could send him up, so Indra and Vishvamitra had a fight and, in between, the poor king got stuck, which has been depicted on the cover. “He is like Trishanku,” the author chuckles. “He is neither here nor there. A new heaven was created between the real heaven and earth for him.”

Murty’s favourite chapter in the book, however, is The Power of a Name, which talks about the fight between Ram and Hanuman. “In The Power of a Name, the fight between Ram and Hanuman is taken from the Karnataka version of the Ramayana. This way, people who are not familiar with the Karnataka version will get pleasantly surprised,” Murty says, adding that she read many different versions of the Ramayana from multiple Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka, etc, for her book.

Murty’s past books like Mahasweta and Dollar Bahu have had strong female leads, so it’s no wonder that for her next she has decided to write about women in mythology. But these women, interestingly, wouldn’t be the usual Draupadi or Sita, but lesser-known characters like Sukanya, Damayanti and Mandodari. “It is hard to write about the women characters in mythology because it’s a male-dominated society. All the books and characters are male. How many women really appear in mythology? How many of them were independent? How many made their own decisions?” she says, adding that these are some questions she will be addressing in her book.

In The Upside-Down King, too, she has delved into the stories behind the myths. Most people, for instance, know that once Lord Ram promised something, he would fulfill it at any cost. Murty examines his ancestry in her book to explain how this promise-keeping actually began with Dilipa, Ram’s ancestor, and continued over the years through Raghu, Aja, Dasharatha and Ram.

While she basks in the success of her latest book, one can’t help but wonder if she will ever go back to writing fiction for adults? “I will go back to adult books only when I have something from real life,” she says, adding, “I write because I enjoy it. I don’t think about rejection… I write what I want to read myself.”

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