Anand Neelakantan rose to fame with the runaway success of Asura, Ravana’s Ramayana, and Ajaya, which is Duryodhana’s Mahabharata. A contrarian to the core, he has never been afraid to take on the sacred cows of Indian mythology with his trademark irreverence, wicked wit and fierce commitment towards giving voice to the marginalised and oppressed.
In his latest book, Valmiki’s Women, Neelakantan opens with Bhoomija, a heartbreaking tale of two Krauncha birds, their killer and the heavy price they paid to get the creative juices of a poet flowing, so that he may compose an epic poem. Written with rare sensitivity and empathy, the tale pries open the eyes of those who are content to avert their gaze from the suffering of others as long as they themselves get to indulge in a life of privilege, uncaring that the ease they enjoy stems from the toil and trouble of others. It also serves as a beautiful reminder that this world belongs not only to humans but our four-legged, winged friends and other living creatures as well.
The second short story featuring Shanta, the little-known sister of the famed royal quartet hailing from Ayodhya, was the pick of the lot for me. In Neelakantan’s retelling, Shanta is not fierce or feisty unlike her more infamous stepmother, Kaikeyi, but nevertheless her strength of character and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice untainted by bitterness for those who have wronged her, sees her emerge as an extraordinary character that deserves an epic. Her love story with the sweet and saintly Rishyasringa is exquisitely sketched and is sure to give the modern reader couple goals!
Manthara is one of the most reviled characters in Indian mythology and Neelakantan picks up the cudgels for her. She cuts a tragic figure. In an amazing twist of fate, Manthara who is born with a disability and a frightening visage is given the charge of the royal heirs of the Kingdom of Kaikeya. Having served with unswerving loyalty at the cost of personal happiness, she is rewarded with nothing but further scorn.
Tataka and Meenakshi aka Soorpanakha, traditionally portrayed as lusty, demented demonesses with insatiable appetites, stand tall as remarkable women who fought for their beliefs and lived and died as they saw fit. Neelakantan is in vintage form and these fine women of the Ramayana will no doubt bless his efforts!
‘The Women of the Puranas weren’t Submissive’
Anand Neelakantan tells Medha Dutta Yadav that Ramayana and Mahabharata will always be relevant. They delve deep into the human psyche. As long as humans exist, these epics would keep evolving.
Sita has always been depicted as docile and submissive.
It is a very Ramcharitmanas concept. Maybe Tulsidas was influenced by society and the interaction with cultures that came through invasions. Sita, in many Ramayanas across India, is neither docile nor submissive. In Shakteya tradition, after the killing of Ravana, a thousand-headed Ravana arises, and it is Sita who slays the Sahasramukha Ravana. Even in Valmiki Ramayana, it is Sita’s choices that drive the story. Unlike Urmila, she refuses to obey her husband’s advice to stay back in Ayodhya and follows him to the forest. When Hanuman comes to Lanka and offers to take her back from Ashoka Vana, she refuses, saying it is her husband’s honour at stake and he should win her back. It is Sita’s choice to undergo the test by fire in Lanka. When Rama abandons a pregnant Sita, she doesn’t give up, but makes her children exemplary warriors. When she is asked for an Agnipariksha the second time, she chooses not to take it. None of these indicate anything docile about Sita.
You say how Sita is perhaps literature’s first single mother. Isn’t that glamourising her pain?
There is no doubt that Sita underwent pain when she was deserted by her husband. But by focusing on her docility, her sufferings and obedience to her husband, the medieval Ramayanas, especially from the Hindi heartland, have changed Sita from the fiercely independent woman of Valmiki’s Ramayana. If she were the submissive, docile wife, she wouldn’t have the courage to bring up her sons as a single mother. If emphasising her resolve and courage is glamourising her story, so be it. That is what makes Sita, and not Draupadi, the strongest woman in the Puranas.
Are women in Ramayana and Mahabharata post-modern?
I don’t know what is meant by post-modern. The women of the Puranas weren’t voiceless, faceless women as they are made out to be. They faced life, questioned gods and chose a fiercely independent path.
What fascinates you about the mytho-fiction genre? Would you like to explore any other genres?
The Purana world is deep and layered, and there are so many tales to tell. However, I am coming up with thrillers, and a fantasy series. The Bahubali Trilogy was not based on mythology.
You once said, “history is full of lies”. Could you expand on that?
The official history is the lie agreed on, as dictated by the winner. A counter-history, often concocted by the vanquished, also exists. While the prominent history would demonise the vanquished, the counter-history would talk about the unjust means the victor used that caused their defeat. Both sides harbour a delusion of grandeur. Both are lies. The truth would be somewhere in between.
You have also written for kids. Was it more difficult?
Kids are unforgiving. If a single line is unentertaining or out of place, they will abandon the book. Thus, writing for kids is the most challenging task.
Tell us about your recent audiobook project.
Many Ramayanas, Many Lessons is my first audio original for Audible. It follows the storytelling tradition, drawing on versions while narrating the linear story of Ramayana and its relevance to our day-to-day life. It mimicks a storytelling session by bards.
You are working on a new mythological drama, Karna.
It is a multi-lingual film project, and I am co-writing the screenplay with filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra.
Lastly, tell us about that one woman in mythology who fascinates you.
Tara. She was the wife of Baali, then Sugriva, followed by Baali and then Sugriva again. I had explored her story in Vanara. However, it is more of Tara’s story. Vanara too is becoming a major film.