List of Top 15 Must Read Indian Mythology Fictional Retellings
Diversity lies at the core of mythology, just as diversity lies at the core of India. Stories within stories, often overlapping each other, anecdotes of morality and truth, beautifully woven oral traditions and an opulent culture: these mark the traditional mythology that runs through the veins of the country.
Mythology is everywhere. It is there in the popular screen and stage adaptations of folklore and famous tales. It is there in both the social and physical architecture of India. For some, they form the base of nostalgic sentiment, a reminder of that hot summer afternoon when mangoes were as abundant as the stories on your grandmother's lips. It is there in the way we view good and evil, a portrayal of the ideal man, of the ideal wife. Our perspectives are formed by those lessons driven rendition of The Ramayana, a Japanese anime that most have watched on television.
It is therefore, hardly a surprise that Indian writers are delving deep into mythological fiction. Mythological fiction is a much loved genre that has been flooding the Indian market for the past decade or so, starting from Amish Tripathi's infamous trilogy to Devdutt Pattnaik's work. It found its way into films such as Ra.One and Lajja. Even Shashi Tharoor wrote a retelling of the Mahabharata - The Great Indian Novel, albeit from the perspective of the Indian Independence Movement. Retellings of Indian Mythology today helps shed light on a lot of perspectives, such as that of the women in the stories. Mythological fiction, therefore, is always worth it.
Here is a list of the top 15 mythological retellings in India:
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
With vivid dialogues of the women in The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni establishes herself as a splendid storyteller. Her work serves as a feminist retelling of the Mahabharata through the eyes of Panchaali or Draupadi, a layered character who acted as the catalyst that launched the war for Dharma. Divakaruni follows the narrative style of 'story within a story', an element from the Mahabharata to narrate the incidents leading up to the Great War. Strong women, though opposites in nature, make up the characters in this book.
The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi
The series that propelled Indian mythology into the forefront, Amish Tripathi's The Immortals of Meluha along with the sequels, find their names on every list concerning Indian mythological fiction. Since their release almost a decade ago, Amish has become a household name, really, for bookworms. The story follows one mythological character, Shiva, a warrior. It talks about good and evil, and how they are often blurred, though one could say they are both sides of the same coin.
Lanka's Princess by Kavita Kane
Kavita Kane has a distinct literary voice that gives power to the voiceless and the marginalized. Her works are always a fresh take on characters that have been usually ignored or misrepresented by popular mainstream media. In Lanka's Princess, Kane narrates the story of Surpanakha, the cause that launched the events in the Ramayana. An unconventional and therefore, an important take on the Ramayana written compellingly by one of the very best writers in the Indian mythological fiction genre. Here, one sees how mythological retellings help to subvert the traditional, mostly, patriarchal narratives.
Asura:Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
Was Raavana truly the devious villain that he is portrayed as or was there more to his character? Anand Neelakantan delves deep into this infamous character from the Ramayana to provide a fresh perspective. He humanizes the so-called enemy by letting them take the reigns and tell the story. The story is narrated by Bhadra and sheds light on Raavan's point of view, as well as his role as the young leader of the Asuras, a clan that was declining.
Andhayug by Dharamvir Bharti
The character of Ashwathama may have garnered more attention after the Netflix series Sacred Games was popularized. However, the real Ashwathama has forever drawn the eyes of such literary greats as Dharamvir Bharti’s towards him. Andhayug is a play, an existential portrayal of the aftermath of the Mahabharata. It is one of the best works of the Hindi literary canon and a must read for all those who wish to read a dark, morbid retelling of the destruction that the Mahabharata left behind in its wake.
The Liberation of Sita by Volga
Translated from Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree, The Liberation of Sita is certainly one of the most important texts amongst Indian mythology retellings. Sita's perspective has often been retold in the modern versions of the Ramayana yet Volga stands out with a poignant interpretation of the the character that was Sita. It talks about the dynamics of the relationship between Sita and the other women present in the Ramayana, as Sita meets Surpanakha, Urmila, Renuka among others. The conversations are empowering and revealing, as they lead Sita to understand her own position in the grand scheme of things: destiny.
Dharmyoddha Kalki by Kevin Missal
The story of the tenth avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, will enthral you. A mythological flight of fantasy that is meant to serve as both escaping and as a reiteration of values. The plot is engaging and the characters well developed, enough to retain your attention. Kalki tells the story of a sheltered boy who finds himself at the mercy of destiny which he must fulfil. Politics, fantasy and betrayals form the heady cocktail that is this book. Kevin Missal wrote his first book at the age of fourteen, and he was only twenty one when Dharmayoddha Kalki was published.
The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattnaik
One reason why the Mahabharata is still being reinterpreted and retold by writers, is because of the multitude of characters that exist in that universe. Some like the Pandavas or even the Kauravas gather mass appeal and adoration. Others, like The Pregnant King, are hardly ever mentioned. Dr Devdutt Pattnaik is one of the biggest names in the genre of Indian mythology retellings, for both fiction and nonfiction. He brings to light those characters that have faded into oblivion and gives them a voice. The Pregnant King is one such story which can have several queer interpretations as it certainly alludes to the precolonial perspective of gender identity and sexual orientation in India.
The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi
A blend of thriller and mythology, The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi boasts of the same elements as that of Dan Brown. It is the story of a boy who believes that he is the Blue God, the avatar of Vishnu known as Krishna. A historian seeks that invaluable possession of Krishna, by delving deep into the remains of Dwarka, in a temple in Vrindavan which was destroyed by King Aurangzeb. One of the finest books in Indian mythology retellings, The Krishna Key makes for a compelling read, replete with twists and turns.
Mrutyunjay by Shivaji Savant
The writer of contemporary Marathi novel, the late Shivaji Savant wrote Mrutyunjay. The book is often hailed as a masterpiece which narrates the story of the Mahabharata and gives insight into the mind of the incredibly complex warrior Karna. The book has been translated into both English and Hindi and is a must read for anyone who devours Indian mythology fictional retellings. One could say that Mrutyunjay is an autobiography of Karna. However, it cannot be limited to the genre. It comprises nine books and has six dramatic soliloquies which enables the reader to understand the characters of the original epic.
Ahalya by Koral Dasgupta
A new perspective emerges as Koral Dasgupta writes about Ahalya, she who was cursed by her husband for adultery. This is the first book of the Sati series which explores the lives of Panch Kanyas from the rich tapestry of Indian mythology. These women had partners outside of the bonds of marriage.
Ahalya is married to Rishi Gautam. The marriage is supposed to balance Ahalya's innocence with Gautam's intelligence. That however is not enough as the marriage is bereft of love. Ahalya was cursed, turned into a stone, an alteration of the Greek myth of Medusa who could turn people into stone. Medusa was victim-blamed, Ahalya was cursed for she dared to step out of her bounds. Both, a result of their sex. Would a man be questioned on the same principles as Ahalya? The answer is right there in the Greek myths, which could have ended faster had Zeus not been a philanderer. He however suffers from no consequences, unlike Ahalya.
The Pandava Series by Roshani Chokshi
Roshani Chokshi narrates the story of a twelve year old Aru Shah, something along the lines of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson, but not quite. If you want to ease your children into reading Indian mythology books, then grab the chance that Chokshi provides you. Aru's family is the caretaker of the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture. One unfortunate day, however, Aru lights up a lamp that was cursed thereby launching a chain of events, by waking up a sleeping demon. Now she must go on a quest to find the reincarnations of the Pandavas and traverse the land of the dead. It is the perfect book to enlarge your children's imagination, as is oft the case with reading Indian mythology books.
Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince by Anuja Chandramouli
Anuja Chandramouli is an extraordinary figure in the genre of Indian mythological fiction. It can be determined from the sheer number of Mahabharata retellings that the epic is a classic people still cannot get enough of and thirst for more. Arjun could perhaps be the protagonist of the Mahabharata, he after all sees the true form of the Lord Krishna. Even if you do not agree with this view, you cannot deny that Arjun was one of the most important characters in Indian mythology. Chandramouli writes about this character, shedding light on the flaws and imperfections of the godly Pandavas.
The Rise Of Hastinapur By Sharath Komarraju
The first of The Rise of Hastinapur series talks of Ganga and her seven dead children. It talks about Satyawati and the infatuation of King Shantanu. This is the tale that precedes everything, the story of the birth of Devavrata, and how he donned the role of Bhishma Pitamah, the protector of the throne of Hastinapur and the grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
The second book, The Rise of Hastinapur narrates the story of Amba, the spirited princess who swore revenge on the Bhishma Pitamah, of Kunti and how she rescues her brother Vasudev and Gandhari's sacrifice as she decides to marry the blind King of Hastinapur.
The last installment, The Queens of Hastinapur, narrates the stories of Gandhari's rise to power as the Queen, Pritha trying to establish herself in her husband's heart, and Pandu's second marriage. In Mathura, Kamsa leaves no stone unturned to reign supreme by taking all control.
The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udayasankar
The Aryavarta Chronicles penned by Krishna Udayasankar is a fantastical leap into the complex story of Mahabharata. The series consists of three books titled Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra. The books were propelled into fame yet again when the Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor finally acquired the rights for a screen adaptation of the same. Based on the Mahabharata, it follows the usual style of the epic. The writer Krishna Udayasankar weaves philosophy into the story. She humanises the characters while still making them believable. The books hinge around the eternal lust for power and other core values: those which make us truly human.
To conclude, Indian mythology fictional retellings are a great way to reclaim that identity which was stolen by British colonizers. Read Indian mythological fiction to educate yourself, and also to be aware of the moral trappings of the universe. The morals were after all, the primary motivation for these mythological tales. The Indian mythology retellings are diverse and can hardly be compressed into one blog. They are multifaceted and a creative venture to better understand the characters of the original stories through the perspectives of other writers. Does the core of human values change or does it remain stagnant over the years? Can there be an alternative to what has always been portrayed as the right answer? This is why Indian mythology retellings are must reads. You do not have to belong to a particular religion to enjoy such books.
There is however one rule when reading Indian mythology retellings: never assume that you know it all. Mythology is complex and layered. It seeks to subvert your presumptions and enrich your imagination. A singular perspective hope to define rge.
- Debaduti Dey
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