Going back to folklore

Updated: 11 October, 2020 08:46 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Anand Neelakantan takes inspiration from temple folk-tellers for his debut children's book, about the mighty, naughty and intelligent asuras

Asura brothers Shumba and Nishumba were so naughty that they set fire to the beard of an old maharishi. Illustrations/Subhadeep Roy and Shiladitya Bose
Asura brothers Shumba and Nishumba were so naughty that they set fire to the beard of an old maharishi. Illustrations/Subhadeep Roy and Shiladitya Bose

For a bestselling writer, whose take on mythology has won him fans across all quarters, including Baahubali filmmaker SS Rajamouli, admitting nervousness about a new book, comes as a surprise. But writing for kids isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, admits Anand Neelakantan, who has debuted as children’s author with his recently released title, The Very, Extremely, Most Naughty Asura Tales for Kids (Puffin Books).

"They are the toughest readers to please," says Neelakantan. "When my children were younger, I’d tell them stories, and if I would slack off at some point, they’d immediately go off to sleep. The best storytellers are the mothers, because they know how to modify a story, based on what they feel their child would like."

Asura brothers Shumba and Nishumba were so naughty that they set fire to the beard of an old maharishi. Illustrations/Subhadeep Roy and Shiladitya Bose

Neelakantan’s new book is far removed from his 2012 title, Asura: Tale of The Vanquished. The subject is the same, and so is his intent, which is to re-introduce these mythological greats, and remind us why their stories must be celebrated. In this book, Neelakantan’s asuras are a powerhouse of talent—they are gifted musicians and warriors, and are also intelligent superhumans, born with magical and shapeshifting powers. "Did you know that many of them were even granted boons to get the Vedas from Lord Brahma so that they could gain more knowledge and power? Many asuras, like Raavan, are actually interested in meditation and the quest for spiritual peace," he shares in the book.

The asuras being reviled as dark and evil is a recent phenomenon, he says. "The devas, asuras and humans were considered to be brothers. In fact, asuras are actually revered in the south. Raavan was an asura—he was Vishnu’s bodyguard, who was cursed and takes birth as Raavan. We have temples where people pray to him even today," says Neelakantan, adding that this might sound blasphemous, if seen from the lens of the West, which believes in the concept of heaven and hell. "But Indian puranas were never meant to be preachy or judgmental, and did not invest values of good or evil in their gods or the mortals."

Anand Neelakantan
Anand Neelakantan

Be it the tale of the clumsy Bhasmasura, who threatens to destroy Lord Shiva after the latter gifts him the power to turn anything into ashes, or the asura brothers Shumba and Nishumba, who thought women were weaker than men, these short stories offer a light-hearted take on the asuras. Neelakantan’s witty, conversational and self-deprecating humour—he tells his reader that he is "often mistaken for an asura, for he too has curly hair"—makes it a pleasurable read. "I grew up in a village in Kerala, where folk-tellers would travel between temples, and tell stories with gay abandon. Humour was very much part of their storytelling. They made fun of gods, heroes and the so-called villains. Nobody was spared. Many of these stories were layered. A kid listening to this story would experience it differently from an adult. They also contemporised the tales, to make them more relatable to our times," he remembers. He says, he had to change his writing style for this work. "This one is very folksy. I have included songs as well, so that it can be read aloud in a group. I am trying to recreate the oral storytelling tradition, which we are slowly losing." Neelakantan hopes to mainstream less-popular tales from our ancient texts with this book.

What: The Very, Extremely, Most Naughty Asura Tales for Kids
Where: Amazon.in
Price: Rs 399

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First Published: 11 October, 2020 07:44 IST

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