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Myth, and a little something

Myth, and a little something
Tell us about yourself. How did you start writing?
I have been writing since childhood. Apparently, when I was asked the all important ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ question, my reply was: ‘A writer. Or an astronaut.’ I also remember creating imaginary worlds in my head and weaving stories in and out of them – everything from staged battles to horseback chase sequences. But then, life caught up with me, and childhood was left slightly, if not far behind. Despite which, when I look back at the kind of careers I chose – law and then academia – I can see a link to the issues and ideas that I found fascinating, the issues that now show up in my writing, such as the history and philosophy of the complex socio-economic world around us. In fact, the topics that come up during the classes I now teach – business-government-society interlinks, democracy, capitalism, international trade and political relations – all of these give me the grounding to approach my books the way I do, as stories of socio-political change.
 
How did the Aryavarta Chronicles come to your mind?
I often joke that these stories were fed to me with my green vegetables – I was a terrible eater as a child, and my gastronomic idiosyncrasies finally drove my despairing parents to try different ways of getting me to eat. The poor, harassed couple were at the end of their tethers, when they that realised that epic stories often left me with my jaw hanging, making it easy to stuff the said greens in. But as I grew older, I felt the need to be able to make sense of these stories as plausible reality. I wanted to see these as tales of humanity, not divinity; as something that could have been history and not some improbable fantasy-tale that defied all logic and science. Working on
The Aryavarta Chronicles
has been a way of reclaiming culture, identity and making sense of the world around me… They say most writers’ first work tends to be autobiographical –
The Chronicles
, in that sense, are a biography of not just me as an individual, but the whole society and way of life that I... we... are a part of.
 
Taking off from the basic story of the Mahabharata, what did you think needed change or reinterpretation?
The first thing that needed, and still needs change is our understanding of what we consider the basic story of the
Mahabharata
– we have become so entrenched with a particular version or narrative because it has been part of our popular culture, to the point that we ignore the obvious as rebellious interpretations, or even an author’s imagination. But the fact is, the huge number of regional variations of the Mahabharata aside, what is by and large considered the definitive version of Mahabharata
– the BORI critical edition – sometimes tells a different story. As someone trained in social sciences research, I have tried my best to draw on that strength, that scientific approach, to look into the various
versions and tell a story based on the probabilities of why or how things
happened in a particular way. For example, Krishna/Govinda makes categorical statement in nearly every version of the Mahabharata that he did not and could not come to Panchali’s aid during the dice game because Dwaraka was under attack. He admits his failure in no uncertain terms! In the same vein, it is Karna who argues in favour of Panchali’s enslavement and consequently her disrobing, but in popular versions he is shown as the quiet loyalist bound to Duryodhana’s evil rage. And that is what a reader will see when they read Book 2:
Kaurava
. To tell that story, there is no need to change anything except our outlook as an audience, to be willing to see characters not as gods and demi-gods but as real people living in the political situation and society of that time.
 
Recent works (like Ajaya) has reconstructed Mahabharata from the point of view of the Kauravas, there are books extolling Karna as the wronged in the epic – why do you think, from the reader's perspective, would anyone want to read another side of a story they have grown up with?

When Govinda, the first book of The Aryavarta Chronicles, was published in 2012, I had not expected in the least that the market for alternative or contrarian versions of the Mahabharata was going to explode this way! In fact, I sometimes wonder if I should have made good on being an early entrant in this current wave by writing a more-universally popular retelling of the story as everyone knows it instead of attempting to reconstruct the entire narrative as a non-magical, socio-historical story. But every time I see another book on the
Mahabharata
hit the stores, I am convinced about having taking a different approach, rather than going the counter-retelling route. The fact that readers are willing to try out so many books on the same topic suggest that they are looking for something they have not been able to find. Speaking here as a reader, I have been a voracious consumer of Mahabharata-related books – something we have a rich tradition of long before this current trend – precisely because I was searching for something – an answer, an explanation that would go beyond magic and divinity, something that will make you think, even as it
entertains you. While there are classics by great writers, which do fill that need, there are not near enough of them. My aim with The Aryavarta Chronicles was to produce something that is much more than a counter-mythology or a story told from a specific character’s point of view. I wanted to tell the story of an age of revolution, of society and humanity – just like the story that was told millennia ago.

Krishna is your hero. Where did this fascination come from?
Actually, I’d say that its not Krishna/Govinda who is my hero, but Panchali! I admit, Govinda intrigues me and I am driven to know what makes him the way he is, his thoughts, his beliefs. But always, my baseline has been Panchali. In Book 1: Govinda, she was the mirror through which the reader saw both Govinda and the world of Aryavarta. By Book 2:
Kaurava
, she has truly grown into her own and stands as a mirror to the world as it is today, and not just the world of the past. As for how she became the focus of the story – I had the responsibility of writing about one of the first and most famous instances of violence against women in our myth and history, of writing about its victim. To not have Panchali as the hero(ine) of the story would be to dismiss everything about her as an individual, dismiss the complex circumstances she faced, and reduce her to the single dimension of honour outraged. What happened to her was wrong, but it doesn’t diminish who she is. Panchali is every woman. That’s what makes her a real hero.
 
Why did you focus on Krishna’s role and in your trilogy, how is his role different from the way
Mahabharata
has defined so far?

Wow! That’s like asking me to summarise 1,500 pages worth of story into a few lines – particularly because Krishna/Govinda’s story goes beyond what the Mahabharata. But I guess the biggest difference I will point out is that Govinda of The Aryavarta Chronicles is not a god, nor does he have any supernatural powers. But the moment we take out the magic and divinity, it gets interesting to try and understand Govinda as a normal person, because he takes on a whole range of nuances and shades. Imagine – what intelligent, kind and humanitarian individual would
orchestrate a war that kills many thousands of people? It’s easy to say ‘divine will’ and that takes care of all explanations, but if you’re not willing to go down that road, you’re forced to ask the one question that many characters have in both Govinda and Kaurava: ‘What sort of a man really, is Govinda Shauri?’
Jhinuk Sen

Jhinuk Sen

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