Mythologist, author and Chief Belief Officer at Future Group, Devdutt Pattanaik’s latest illustrated book, Sita (like his earlier work Jaya, based on the Mahabharata), brings to life the many sub-plots, machinations and well-rounded characters ensconced in the epic. Filled with simple-yet- distinct illustrations and with boxes for facts and alternate legends, it makes for a good read for readers, familiar and new to the epic. Excerpts from an interview with the author:
Why did you choose the Ramayana as the theme of your latest book?
It was a logical sequel to my book Jaya (Mahabharata). Also, I was tired of Sita as the victim and Ram as the abuser discourse that I saw in many modern retellings by authors and academicians catering to Western audiences. I was equally tired of the perfect Ram and helpless Sita discourse that I saw in
many popular retellings catering to Indian audiences.
After Jaya, why the gap before Sita?
It takes time to write one hundred thousand words and create 200 illustrations, besides lots of research. Also, I wanted to write Business Sutra, an Indian approach to management.
Visual elements play a huge role in your titles. Why?
It is to break free from the calendar image that seems to be imprinted now on Indian retinas.
Did you learn painting or art, since you have a distinct style of art that is evidenced in your books and columns?
No, this is my own style. I see my illustrations like diagrams in science textbooks to convey what words cannot convey.
Is there a message that you are trying to convey through Sita?
That there is so much you think you know and so much you don’t know, and so much you don’t know that you don’t know. Indian thought is not as simplistic as ‘educated’ Indians believe it is.
What are some of the challenges that you faced while writing Sita?
Trying to capture the historicity of the epic, how different authors have added their own views both in terms of plot and feeling, to enhance the epic. These changes have taken place in a variety of languages and luckily, most have been translated into English. But to get hold of all of them is not easy. And then present them in a simple, accessible way is also tough.
Compassion seeps through your works, where even the gods comfort the protagonists. Is it a conscious way to tell readers to be more compassionate towards others?
This is based on my years of work, the traditional Indian approach to narratives, based not so much on ‘valour’ but on ‘compassion’. Indian thought is far more feminine and nurturing as sages were sensitive to the trials and tribulations of the human condition. The West saw and continues to see Indian ‘femininity’ as weakness, since greatness is associated with war and domination; I see it as strength born of great wisdom.
Are you seeking to denote an alternate version of mythology?
It is not alternate at all. If anything, it is back to the traditional. What we consider as ‘traditional’ today is retellings by Indian authors who were apologising and defending India against British rulers and Oriental academicians. There was a strong need to invoke a ‘patriotic’ spirit by proving Indian greatness. I do not subscribe to such obligations.
What kind of research is involved in writing a book on an epic?
A lot, especially when the work has been translated and retold several hundred times over the past 2,000 years, not just in writing but also in song, in theatre and in visuals. The greater work is to help readers outgrow their assumptions that they know what the epic is all about and to reveal a whole new world in the retelling. So, you are seeing hours of poring over texts and the Internet, and hours of writing and rewriting for the right tone.
Whose works influence you?
No one in particular. I enjoy encyclopaedias a lot. I see my books as textbooks for future generations, and not quite as literature.
Sita : An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, Devdutt Pattanaik, Rs 499, Penguin. Available at leading bookstores.