how far can one deviate in retelling our mythologies?

In India along with books of chick-lit genre written by the ilks of Chetan Bhagat, the books of another genre that sell well are those based on the characters of our mythologies like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Some authors like Devdutt Patnaik call their books as re-tellings, which of course is nothing new. Retelling is perhaps as old as these epics. That is how we have so many versions of Ramayana in different languages written over different periods of time. Of course with each retelling, a little bit of deviation takes place from the earlier versions depending upon the inclination, the ignorance, and the wisdom of the author. But usually the basic plot line and the characteristics of various characters remain the same.

But then there are mythical character based on books which are akin to fan fictions popular in western countries. These type of books written on characters of Indian mythologies have become popular these days in India. Take for example the books of Amish. His books are not re-tellings like those of Devdutt Patnaik. He only uses the names of the characters from our epics and weaves fantasies in his own way. The plots and even the the historical time frame when these are set are far removed from the original plots and historical time.

In western countries, the character on whom the majority of fan fictions and screen adaptations has been done is Sherlock Holmes. (It could be so because they did not have the luxury of epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana) But, I have noticed a glaring difference between the fan fictions of Western authors and the fan fictions on epics written by Indian authors.

To make this clear let me give two examples. There are a large number of fan fictions on Sherlock Holmes. In some versions he is a twenty first century guy. However, throughout all such versions the basic characteristic of Sherlock Holmes does not change. He continues to be the eccentric logician with sharp observations and a scientific approach to crimes. However, in Shiva Trilogy I found that Amish has portrayed the character of Shiva as a weed smoking guy. In our epics there is no such reference of Lord Shiva smoking Ganja. Of course, some (not all) of his devotees do it. In popular culture Shiva devotees are portrayed as weed smoking sadhus. But in our epics he has never been portrayed as someone who is addicted to Ganja.

Similarly in many such fan fictions written by Indian authors (which are moslty based on characters from Hindu Epics), I find that the characters are far removed in their basic characteristics from their epic namesakes. In such a situation the question arises as to how far can you distort the epic characters in your fan fictions?

I do not think that as a fan fiction author you can get away if you do such kind of distortions to Sherlock Holmes (even though no temples are dedicated to him yet). The reason for this could be that most of of the western readers are acquainted with the basic characteristic of Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So, if someone tries show Sherlock Holmes as some kind of a James Bond, the backlash from fans would be huge. But in India that is not the case. Most of the millennials from Hindu families may be reading about Shiva for the first time from a book written by someone like Amish.

For me, for that for many of my generation, this was not the case. I grew up in a small village called Nua Mahulia in the Ganjam District of Odisha. Those days the only forms of entertainment were live performances by folk artists and the open air dramas staged by the local amateur artists. The themes of all such performances invariably revolved around characters from the Indian epics. So every village boy or girl, including those who who did not go to school or even did not know reading or writing, ended up knowing the stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata and other epics by the time he or she was in early teens.

In a way it is a good thing that many authors are taking up such re-tellings and in the process creating awareness about our epic characters among those who otherwise would never read about such characters even in their distorted versions. However, to do justice to the characters that inspired such retelling or fan fiction, the authors should themselves decide where to draw the Laksman Rekha of distorting the characteristics of epic characters.

At the same time I would urge the readers not to restrict their readings only to the fan fictions of epic characters. If possible they should read at least some retold version of the epics. Take again the case of Sherlock Holmes, the guy who rarely left a case unsolved. If you read the original Sherlock Holmes, your fun of enjoying the fan fictions based on his characters will increase manifold. Moreover, you will be able to appreciate Sherlock better.

And in case any one tries to portray him as a James Bond you will have equal fun in reminding the author, “It is elementary, dude. That is not the way Sherlock would behave in such a situation.”

8 thoughts on “how far can one deviate in retelling our mythologies?

  1. For some reason, I have never bothered to read any of Amish Tripathi’s books, in fact I do not like the very idea of someone making up a fictional story based upon mythology. May be because I am too old-fashioned. But yes, of course I love reading retellings of Hindu mythologies or rather reading about the other perspectives. ‘Mrutyunjay’ (English translated version of the Marathi book) by Shivaji Sawant; ‘Yajnaseni’ The Story of Draupadi by Dr. Prativa Ray; ‘Asura The Story of Ravana’ written by Anand Neelakantan; Karna’s Wife By Kavita Kane; ‘Yuganta’ by Irawati Karve;P.K. Balakrishnan’s Ini Njan Urangatte (English translated version “I Can Sleep Now”), a book about the life of Karna are some of the retellings that I have enjoyed reading… I loved the way these authors interpreted the characters and tried to retell the same story from another perspective.

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  2. The much acclaimed book ‘Palace of Illusions’ has depicted Draupdi to be in love with Karna and there are many other inaccuracies too. If it’s a retelling then it should be true to the original epic.

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    1. You could know the deviation because you had read an authentic version of Mahabharata. That is why people should also read Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharat or Valmiki’s Ramayana to see the deviations / perspectives of modern interpretations – whether in the form of retellings or fan fiction.
      Thank you for visiting the blog.


  3. You are right. They (writer like Amish) weave a story as per their view point and we can’t do anything about it in India. You can relate with Da Vinci code example, that book become controversial and faced a court case.

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  4. Totally agree.
    But, who will decide the “Lakshman Rekha”?
    We are very lenient. But, this is at a huge cost.
    The next generations do not know about our culture. Reading original versions can be enlightening.
    You have rightly said- “with each retelling, a little bit of deviation takes place from the earlier versions depending upon the inclination, the ignorance, and the wisdom of the author.”
    Take the case of our Rasagola. This is how distortion happens, fake stories are considered as true, and misinformation spreads.

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