The retelling of a classic tale: It’s (not) the same old story

November 1, 2020 5:30 AM

From a genderless fairy godmother to a Sita who makes her own life choices, childhoods are up for an inclusive revolution, one classic at a time

The new generation, however, is not new to the idea of inclusive literature, as a number of comic books have been tweaked in the last decade to talk about same-sex relationships, feminist women, female superheroes, realistic characters and much more.The new generation, however, is not new to the idea of inclusive literature, as a number of comic books have been tweaked in the last decade to talk about same-sex relationships, feminist women, female superheroes, realistic characters and much more.

By Reya Mehrotra

From 2021, childhoods will never be the same again. The fairy godmother who proved to be the light of Cinderella’s life will be donning a new 21st-century avatar in the upcoming cinematic remake of the classic tale, which is up for release next year. In a first, American actor and singer Billy Porter, who is known for his gender-fluid sartorial statements on the red carpet, will play the character of ‘Fab G’, the genderless fairy godmother, in the movie. “How profound is it that I am playing the fairy godmother? Magic has no gender. We are presenting this character as genderless, and it is powerful,” Porter was quoted as saying in a recent interview.

But that is not the only classic to come back into our lives. Recently, during the lockdown, Doordarshan started the re-telecast of Ramayan, Ramanand Sagar’s popular mythological series of the Eighties. While many loved the idea of rewatching the most popular show of their childhoods once again with their families in quarantine, the show also triggered a gender and religious debate on social media platforms.

The question arises: as centuries go by and literature changes, do we also need to have a relook at some of our popular myths? Because popular mythology often calls for a retelling from a fresh perspective to balance out the uneven or to adapt the story to modern times without changing the premise. Though the makers of fairytales have, every now and then, tried adapting the classics for a more contemporary audience, the genderless godmother in the Cinderella remake remains one of the biggest moves so far. “This is a classic fairytale for a new generation. The new-generation kids are really ready for this,” Porter said.

The need to retell

“Who decided that a woman’s highest purpose was to support men… I plan on doing other things with my life,” says a confident Draupadi to her tutor in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, a 2008 retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. Divakaruni, who has authored The Forest of Enchantments (2019), another retelling, is a champion at giving a voice to the ‘other’ characters in epics. “I have always been interested in the female characters of the great epics, as I feel they did not get as much attention as they deserved. There is a lot written about the men, but the women seemed to be their shadows. I wanted to focus a novel on them, telling their own stories in their own voice. That was my project in both my retellings,” she explains.

Sarannya V Pillai, PG coordinator (MA English) and assistant professor, Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru, seconds Divakaruni. “Rewriting classics involves the politics of rereading them in the first place to redefine the gaps that the written text has. A rewriting of a text that endorses patriarchal values in a convincing manner would prove to be a significant work, but can also do considerable damage to an existing narrative. Retellings from the perspective of the marginalised, neglected, muted characters offer a new and alternative way to approach the narrative,” says Pillai.

Retellings were, in fact, being written in other parts of the world as early as the late 1970s. English writer Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, published in 1979, retells fairytales in a manner far less romanticised with a stark horror-reality factor that stares you in the eye. In her short stories, she rewrites the tales of Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood to introduce the idea of gothic fairytales for the new age. Who could have imagined that the little Red Riding Hood would actually set her grandmother up to inherit her fortunes? The one in Carter’s short story The Werewolf does!

More recently, celebrated Indian author Anand Neelakantan, who has written tales extensively inspired by Indian epics, has come out with his book The Very, Extremely, Most Naughty Asura Tales for Kids, published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The book is a retelling of mythological stories, some of which originate from religious texts. It tells the stories of the clumsy Bhasma who creates trouble in the village, brothers Atapi and Vatapi who eat 96 cartfuls of fruit as dessert, the great Bana who claps with his 1,000 hands, and two seven-year-old asura twins Kundakka and Mandakka who, like other children, hate school and are yet dragged by their mother there everyday. The author portrays the asura kids in a completely new but real light, making the reader fall in love with them as the stories progress.

“I found that most children of this age are addicted to their electronic devices. We have one of the oldest storytelling traditions in the world and it is unfortunate that our kids grow up without getting familiar with them. Many kids find our Puranic stories boring with a heavy dose of morality, and parents force such books on them. But I have heard many hilarious Puranic tales in my childhood from folk singers. Who took the fun out of the Puranas and made them so serious and preachy? My attempt in this book is to bring back the fun and entertainment in storytelling,” says Neelakantan.

Talking about why he chose to do a funny take on the stories of the much feared asuras and what will make this an interesting read for children, he says, “Traditional Indian folk arts are meant for entertainment. They are never preachy or judgmental. Making asuras dark and evil is a recent phenomenon. There is a fascinating world out there… that has so many wonderful fantasy elements in our stories. This book is a small window to that world. This is an introduction to the marvellous world of Indian Puranas.”

Unchanged story, changed focus

Talking about the parameters to be kept in mind while writing retellings, mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik, who has written mythological books for children like The Boys Who Fought, The Girl Who Chose, Pashu, the Fun in Devlok series, among others, says, “You can’t change the story, but stick to what the author is trying to tell. The Ramayana teaches empathy and pathos, and has the recurring idea of lovers dying or separating. According to me, Ram is the one who is trapped in Ayodhya, as he’s born into a royal family as the eldest son and has to follow orders… Sita, the daughter of earth, is free and makes choices, which reflects in my book The Girl Who Chose, where she makes five important choices of her life. While retelling a story, there must be simplicity of idea and simplicity of expression.”

Divakaruni agrees that the major incidents must not be changed. “Each writer retells in a different way. For me, it is important to use the same incidents… just change the focus. All the major incidents in both my retellings are taken from the epics. I don’t want readers to say, ‘Oh, she just made up these stories, so they are not really about Draupadi or Sita, just her imagination’. I want readers to really understand the reality of these characters, their strength and intelligence,” she explains.

The author believes retellings are important in today’s time and so she plans to write more such books centred around women in mythology in the future. “Retellings are very important because they make us realise that the epics relate to our time just as much as earlier eras. When we retell intelligently, the readers will see the connection between the themes of the epic and their own lives. For instance, Sita is the earliest single mother figure in literature that I know of. If I focus on that aspect, how she brings up two sons on her own, a lot of current-time single mothers can relate to her and draw inspiration from her,” she says.

The flawed hero

The new generation, however, is not new to the idea of inclusive literature, as a number of comic books have been tweaked in the last decade to talk about same-sex relationships, feminist women, female superheroes, realistic characters and much more.

Reena I Purie, executive editor, Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), written primarily for children and youngsters, says, “In mythology, the gods can work miracles, therefore, they are godly and they can have flaws, which makes them human. Be it earlier or now, we have stayed true to the text. We do have a Sita who argues just as depicted by Valmiki… we have brought in folk renditions of Draupadi, which show her being helped by the women of the Kaurava court… our heroes make mistakes, fall, pick themselves up and ultimately win their battles because we are telling children that that is what they, too, can do.”

The good-versus-bad story doesn’t really work now, as today’s generation has realised that it’s okay to be flawed. Says Purie, “As our founder-editor Anant Pai used to say, ‘If Suppandi is the most popular character in Tinkle, it is because he makes mistakes. A child reading Suppandi gets the permission to make mistakes. So the thought is not new to ACK. However, in mythology, there are characters like Prahlad or Dhruva who do not show a grey side. We tell their stories as it is.”

Pillai adds, “A piece of writing needs to be rewritten if it does not accommodate or appreciate inclusiveness. Such work in children’s literature will ensure the reception of the pluralities of human existence, conditions such as racial, cultural and social factors. The young minds that engage with the retellings learn to critique the existing mainstream structures.”

Though retellings are in, publishers say that a certain amount of discretion has to be observed while depicting violence, talking about sexual encounters and highlighting the negative rather than the positive. “Stories glorifying sati were told earlier, we do not select such stories any more. We would rather write about women pathbreakers who fought and won Indian women the right to be free and to be seen as individuals. Our award-winning cover of Shakti is of a beautiful dark goddess. Our characters come in various hues and shades of skin as opposed to earlier times when the dark was always given to the evil. With the passage of time, there is an awareness of not typecasting. If earlier the battlefield was Panipat, today it is a sports stadium or a different kind of war, which is being waged to protect our planet. We have also introduced gender-neutral language wherever possible,” says Purie, adding that ACK also assures that there are no colours or costumes by which one can recognise a community or race unless a story demands it.

Preparing for life

According to Pattanaik, retellings prepare children for the real world where not everything is good or bad, and where the good does not always win over the bad. Therefore, the idea of the original must be preserved while retelling. “There is a problem in parenting if parents teach the children that the good always wins because when they grow up, they realise the horror of life. We have each of the characters of these epics within us, be it a little bit of Ram, Ravana, Duryodhan or Sita. There are no black and white characters. In my retellings for children, I make all the characters cute. For instance, there is Duryodhan with tattoos on his body and he is very cool. I also follow a particular structure, as it plays an important role in simplifying a story for children. I am talking about the five choices of Sita and the six times the boys (Kauravas and Pandavas) fought. The aim of the author while retelling should be to make the child think, ‘I want to fight for the weak without hating the mighty’. If parents are genuinely interested in children, they will have conversations on these retellings. These books are designed around conversations… through them, there will be an Upanishad in every home through children,” Pattanaik says.

Talking about his book Shikhandi (a character in Mahabharata born as a woman), which talks about gender issues, the author says, “My ideas about Shikhandi, a transgender, are very radical… the book deals with gender issues. There are many children who deal with gender issues and know they do not belong in the body they have been born with. Epics talk about so many things like making life’s choices… in Sita’s story, she makes a choice of crossing the line even though she does not know the consequences of her choice. It applies to life’s choices as well. We have to make choices without knowing what the future holds. There are no rules of the jungle… the moment you step out, you are prone to attacks… the same goes for life. Both Ravan and Sita are educated and use education… the former uses it to trick the latter, while the latter uses it to help the former. Ravana is working for the self, while Sita for others.”

Though retellings attract children, good illustrations can be the cherry on the cake. “A retelling with illustrations can attract young minds and inculcate in them the habit of reading,” says 25-year-old Miranda Ngangom from Manipur who has pursued her master’s in English literature and culture studies, where retellings were a part of the curriculum. “While we keep in mind that the classics are treasures, we should also note that with modernisation, the perspective changes. One of the most often told perspectives is that of the female voice, a character that may have been a victim of patriarchy… a character in this new setting is a master of her own. Many women are still affected by patriarchy, by social and cultural conventions. Children in particular need to be taught now more than ever the importance of equality, to be the change the world needs… and a retelling of any form of classic in any form of publication will be a huge contribution,” she adds.

Epics Retold Original:

Ramayana by Valmiki

Mahabharata by Vyasa

Folklores & legends like Beauty and the Beast, Blue Beard, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood

King Lear by Shakespeare

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


The Girl Who Chose by Devdutt Pattanaik talks about the brave choices of Sita

Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You by Pattanaik depicts a transgender Shikhandi, a character from the Mahabharata

The Boys Who Fought by Pattanaik talks about the Kauravas & Pandavas

The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a modern retelling of the Ramayana, with Sita as the protagonist

The Liberation of Sita by Volga is Sita’s story of self-realisation after she has been abandoned by Ram

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a rewriting of fairytales as gothic stories for adults

Karna’s Wife: The Outcast Queen, Sita’s Sister, Menaka’s Choice and Lanka’s Princess by Kavita Kane are all retellings of previously ignored women in Indian epics

The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi retells the story of Shiva and other Hindu gods and how they were human beings first, but their actions elevated them to the status of gods

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a reimagining of the story of King Lear written by Shakespeare

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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