Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You

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Book Cover: Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don't Tell You

Patriarchy asserts men are superior to women, Feminism clarifies women and men are equal, Queerness questions what constitutes male and female.

Queerness isn't only modern, Western or sexual, says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. Take a close look at the vast written and oral traditions in Hinduism, some over two thousand years old and you will find tales of: Shikhandi, who became a man to satisfy her wife Mahadeva, who became a woman to deliver a devotee's child Chudala, who became a man to enlighten her husband Samavan, who became the wife of his male friend and many more.

Playful and touching-and sometimes disturbing-these stories when compared with tales of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh, the Greek Ganymede, the biblical Sodom or the Chinese 'cut sleeve' Emperor reveal the unique Indian way of making sense of queerness.

Published: July 20, 2014
Publisher: Zubaan Books & Penguin Books India
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Reviews:Vikram Johri on DNA wrote:

In the fight for greater acceptance of homosexuality in India, a common argument that the LGBT community adopts is the effort to show that there is nothing 'Western' about gayness. Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra are often adduced as examples of Indian art forms where homosexuality is not only tolerated but celebrated. In such tellings, Section 377, which today dangles tantalisingly between the executive and the judiciary, is shown to be a vestige of the British Raj.

For a community that is fighting to be decriminalised, it is indeed tempting to locate examples of acceptance in mythology. In a country as drenched in its epics as India, arguments on human rights are perhaps bolstered by a mandatory dip into the divine. And who better to walk us through the fluid thickets of the Gods' sexuality than the chief mythologist of our times?

In books that are approachable to the lay reader, Devdutt Pattanaik has discussed our epics from what might be called subaltern lenses. In Sita: An Illustrated Retelling Of The Ramayana, for instance, he narrates the Ramayana from her perspective, bringing out the trials she faced as a woman who was first abducted and exiled and then made to undergo the ignominy of having to prove her chastity. Ram is celebrated as the ideal man because he pined for his wife and did not remarry while she was away in Lanka. The same truth applied to Sita, yet she was made to undergo an agni pariksha to satisfy the kingdom's prurience.

In his latest book, Shikhandi: And Other Tales They don't Tell You, Pattanaik shifts his gaze to queer theory. The title tale of Shikhandi is fairly well-known to Hindus, but Pattanaik plumbs deeper into his readings to ferret out instances where gods and goddesses chose to shed their sex/gender so that order might be returned to the world.

What a cornucopia of riches! Lord Shiva becomes a woman to deliver the child of a devotee, Arjun takes the form of a snake to enchant a difficult princess, Lord Ram welcomes hijras to his kingdom, and so on. So readily do the gods change their sex that it is a wonder why transgenders are not more easily accepted in our society. Most of these stories represent the gods choosing to adorn a particular sex in order to achieve certain aims, such as producing a child or ending a drought. It is always fated so, and there is a remarkable capacity for forgiveness.

However, retellings also often, as Pattanaik alludes in the Shikhandi story, end up acquiring patriarchal biases.

Due to the reasons for which queerness is adopted in mythology, it unwittingly becomes a handmaiden to the larger narratives of what might be called 'straight' stories. True, queerness as an inherent construct is also discussed – such as in the tale of Kopperuncholan, the king who wished to be buried next to his poet friend – but not nearly as often. On their own merit, these stories are a rich source of alternative readings of our epics. But when there is a clamour to parse the Indian roots of homosexuality, such a utilitarian reading of queerness may not help.

Sankalpita on Book Geeks wrote:

It is with these strong and effective words that the blurb to the book starts and in my humble opinion it very aptly catches the essence of the book. In a world where homosexuality it constantly gaining acceptance and legality in major nations of the world, the book highlights that the same is not a recent phenomenon. Hinduism is a very shy religion and people practising Hinduism are shyer still. We don’t like to discuss the “S” word at all, and least of all anything to do with “homosexuality”. But how many of us know that homosexuality is not a modern or even a western concept. Our ancient texts and even oral traditions (which are passed from over thousands of years from one generation to generation by the word of mouth) are filled with references to Queerness.

The famous mythologist Devdutt Patnaik brings to the forefront the long concealed or long forgotten mentions of Queerness in this great religion of ours. The book consists of thirty odd chapters with each one of them dealing with a character or incident of Queerness finding mention either in any one of our ancient texts or surviving the wrath of time by making its way through the still prevailing ancient oral traditions; all of them pertaining to Hinduism.

This book unlike what many may assume it to be is not the least bit scandalizing or belittling our religion, it rather seeks to highlight and celebrate something which our ancient folks had accepted and even celebrated in its most natural form. Thus queerness, as the author likes to call it, is least bit unnatural and by accepting it today we are not blindly aping the west or trying to forgo our culture. Instead, by acknowledging it, we are simply catching up on a lost part of our glorious ancient culture.

The most important character which also imparts the title to the book and with catches the fancy of the author in the very first chapter of the book is none other than “Shikhandi”, the woman who became a man to satisfy her wife. Other chapters are devoted to Lord Mahadeva, Lord Vishnu, the goddess Kali, Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, Bhima, Narada, Indra, Arjuna, Urvashi and the lesser known Rishyashringa, Pramila, Alli, Samba, Aruna, Ila, Vijaya, Skanda, Chudala and many others.

Just like all other works of Devdutt, this book too is full of beautiful and creative illustrations done by none other than the author himself. The illustrations if not the best are next best part I liked about the book, second only to the stories which the author have so marvellously put together to form this book. They are a pleasure to read and the brevity and conciseness of each story would remind of the days when your grandmother will tell you stories till you slept. Thus needless to say, I loved the book in totality and would recommend it to all my readers.​