Published on 29th October, 2016, on firstpost.com
Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book, Olympus – an Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, neatly and with somewhat unpronounceable names, turns the tables on the usual re-tellings, by giving us a beloved foreign mythology in his trademark style. Curses are flung about with gay abandon, the dead brought back to life routinely, with beings half-men, half-women, and babies born to human moms and animal dads – in short, Greek snapshots that could be from ancient Indian albums. The similarities are fascinating: our Narada and their Iris, Olympus vs Kailash Parbat. God of the sea Poseidon’s desi counterpart Varuna who rides a dolphin. Prometheus embodies forethought and his brother Epimetheus, afterthought; in Hindu mythology Bhrigu is an intuitive and Brihaspati a rational adviser. Plus, the stories of sons raised by single moms, like Bharat by Shakuntala, and Theseus by Aethra.
As he draws us to this colourful compelling world of Greek gods and folklores, Pattanaik tells us why he found any similarity between Indian and Greek myths to be merely superficial. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
What does it feel like to write a story?
To see the world through different eyes. To realise that there is no one world, but different eyes create different worlds. And how the mismatch creates the soup of experience and emotions.
When was the first time you wrote something and thought, yes, this is what I want to do, write?
I wrote my first published article in a magazine that has a notorious reputation, but gave space to young writers always (perhaps to offset notoriety): Debonair. My first article was on ‘a son is born’. I did not accept the idea that men are privileged in our society. I see them as entrapped in the system that we choose to call patriarchy that someone assumes one gender is privileged over the other. When I wrote it, I knew writing helped me clarify my emotions, and express my thoughts. And that is when I said, yes, this is what I want to do.
What is your preferred time to write? And where usually do you write?
Early morning. Till noon preferably. On my desk if at home. On hotel desks, if I am in hotels. On restaurant tables in airport lounges, if travelling. In boardrooms, when waiting for a meeting.
What is your usual process of writing?
Directly on computer. Love writing the title first, blurb second, then table of contents, and then the book… Of course as I write, everything changes – title, blurb, table of contents and the book, of course.
How do you ‘see’ God?
A subjective truth born out of human acknowledgement of the very human ability to empathize, and understand, infinitely.
Would you call yourself a loner or someone who thrives on company?
When writing or thinking I like being alone. And after a talk. But in free time I love company – sometimes for intellectual conversations, sometimes to be silly, sometimes to just watch beautiful people being beautiful, but never fake polite conversations in a party.
While writing the story Are You Fresh? You say you were spooked…
I think as I imagined the world I was creating, it became so real, like a movie in my mind’s eye, and that got me spooked… the idea of human sacrifice and the detailed gory description that a pulp fiction demands.
You hint that life began with fear – and that fear is the one primary emotion that can have you believe anything.
The difference between a living organism and a lifeless object is hunger, the quest for food. Why does that organism seek food? To nourish itself. To prevent itself from starving, from dying. That is the most primal of fears. Of not being alive, when one has no food, or when one becomes food, or when the body simply is unable to fetch or consume food. This fear, like our body, has evolved and amplified over millions of years. We never discuss it. Herein lies the seed of our yearning for validation and meaning.
In The Girl Who Chose you give us Sita’s five choices. Which choice, according to you, most changed the course of the story?
Each course of the story is dependent on the choice made by Sita, in a way. But the decision to feed a hungry man rather than worry about personal safety was the most impactful. It reveals how good actions and intentions need not have good results, a lesson that impacts all moral and ethical thinking.
Which among all your books was the most traumatic to write?
Business Sutra. Suddenly a whole world of unexplored frameworks exploded; wealth (Lakshmi), power (Durga) and knowledge (Saraswati), and finally the whole world of identity (Brahma, Indra, Shiva, Vishnu). It was awesome.
You go back into the myth, legend and histories of queerness in India, especially in Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You. Do you think we are still struggling, as a society, to accept differences?
I only write on myth (transmitted beliefs that establish worldviews), not on legend (which is based on some historical fact) or history (that is obsessed with facts). Shikhandi deals with the Hindu (actually Indic belief) that there are more than two genders in mythologies based on rebirth. Actually there is a continuum of genders, which is why Sanskrit and Prakrit and Pali have words for third genders, and stories about them. We shy away from these stories as it challenges our assumed understanding of the world. I draw attention to them because if we get stuck in binaries we lose appreciation of nature in its most honest form – life.
In your new book Olympus – An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, you talk of how mythology and philosophy are the same and that they come together in symbols and precise language… Which was the first Greek tale you heard and what exactly fascinated you about it?
The first tale I heard about was about Medusa and her snake-like hair. And I kept wondering, would she not be most tortured about having snakes for hair. Would those snakes not have bitten her? In ancient art, Medusa’s face was shown as ferocious. In modern fantasy art, she was shown as sexy, a femme fatale. In South India and Sri Lanka we come upon many masks of folk gods and demons who have snakes for hair. Were they local Medusas? All this fascinated me.
And yes, to me the philosophy that reaches the masses takes the form of stories, symbols and rituals; rest remains in the ivory tower of the elite.
Everything here is so poetic – Iris and Arke who are rainbows… How did you balance all this poetry with your research? Were you ever overwhelmed by the lyrical aspect of the stories?
I focus more on structure that emerges from the entire body of mythology, than on details of the story. I want to show how different Greek mythic structure is from Hindu mythology. So I do not pay attention to details of a tale or the lyrics of the literature, which can so enchant us that we forget the woods for the trees.
You speak about the curious mixing of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, calling it the beginning of secularism…
I prefer the use of the word mythology, subjective truth of a people communicated through stories, symbols and rituals. In the 19th century, Europeans equated monotheism as religion, and so described all polytheistic faiths as mythology. They valued Greek philosophy but not Greek myths, just as Greek philosophers valued philosophy over poetry. The created a new word ‘theology’ when it came to explaining the nature of God, since they wanted to distinguish it from philosophy, and religion, as well as mythology. All these are highly political terms, which have been ripped apart in the 20th century by the post-modernists, deconstructionists and post-structuralists who saw the power behind these assertions and these binaries. Many Hindu supremacists even today, rather ironically, suffer from colonial hangover, cling to colonial definitions and biases, and so hate this word mythology.
In the 20th century, we have a word called secularism, which is also a mythology, one that has no God, or gods, but is a subjective truth based on ideas such as justice and equality. We forget that justice was a goddess called Dike in Greek mythology and the Greeks did not believe in equality – they even had a special heaven for heroes, like a gated community for aristocrats. The idea of equality comes from Christian mythology where everyone is in the tribe before the God of Abraham, where loyalty to God’s commandment is what matters, not justice. Secularism seeks justice and equality but not Greek gods or Christian God. We refuse to see its mythic roots because we cannot see secularism as part of a Western mythic continuum. Underlying this is the colonial assumption that ‘myth’ is everywhere except in Western developed countries.
The tapestry weaving contest between Athena and Arachne has a vivid ending – the latter is a spider who will weave webs for all eternity. Why are gods and mortals always trying to outwit each other?
Greek gods, not all gods, are uncomfortable with Greek mortals. For the Greek gods feared being overthrown by humans as they overthrew Titans and as Titans overthrew the Giants before them. Fear of the next generation is a consistent theme in Greek mythology that we realise when we see the grand design of Greek mythology that Olympus seeks to reveal.
You draw constant parallels with Indian mythology in this book. Which, to you, is the biggest similarity of them all?
I found more points of departure than parallels to be honest. All similarities are superficial. For the Greeks believed in one life and so one chance, while Hindu mythology emerged to celebrate rebirth. This paradigm shift is the most mindboggling as even very educated and erudite modern scholars in some of the best universities around the world do not realise its implications and relevance in both ancient and modern thought. They are too consumed in seeing similarities and so forget the vast difference. Perhaps because of the underlying assumption that all religions (one God mythologies) are same as in the case of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and so all mythologies (many gods’ mythologies, actually) must also be same, as in case of Greek and Hindu mythology.
Do you think we are all part-Poseidons, never satisfied with what we have? Like Poseidon wasn’t content ruling merely the seas.
Yes, the various Greek gods do reflect different parts of our being. Like Zeus we struggle to keep unruly family members in check. And like Poseidon, we do feel deprived, denied, sidelined, often. So like Poseidon, we shake the system, and cause earthquakes from time to time – our family calls it a tantrum.
Prometheus made dolls out of clay and breathed life into them, creating mankind thus. Do all creation stories in mythology combine divinity with practical elements?
Brahma of Hindu Puranas creates humans (manavas) from his mind (manas). Here the material is actually non-material. Of course, we do have Sita emerging from earth, and Draupadi being born of fire. Ultimately, humans are created by matter and mind. The value placed on mind is very high in Hindu mythology.
Are we all at heart Tantalus – cursed with eternal hunger to have, to hold, always to be tantalized by what we don’t or can’t have?
Tantalus suffers eternal hunger and thirst and eternal deceptive enchantment by food and water. But this is not a human condition as much as punishment for daring to test the gods. And this test involves human sacrifice, which Zeus consistently frowns upon. Even worse is that the sacrifice is Tantalus’ own son. Thus a son is killed, a human is eaten, and gods are tested, all because of Tantalus, which justify his horrific punishment. Greeks were uncomfortable with human sacrifice, but not entirely, especially not of women. There is the sacrifice of Ipigeniah by Agamemnon to Artemis at start of Trojan War (later works say the Goddess abducted the girl before she was killed) and sacrifice of Polyxena at the insistence of the ghost of Achilles at the end of Trojan war.
Unfaithful wives are common in Greek mythology while fidelity is of paramount importance in Indian mythology. Does that underline gender dynamics between them and us then and now?
Penelope is a faithful wife. Helen, the mysterious daughter of Zeus, seems to love no one, as she embodies Nemesis, the vengeance of the gods. In Trojan War, the Greeks are punished by the gods who ensure their wives are unfaithful, which means faithfulness is desired but never obtained. Hindu mythology also values faithfulness and attributes magical powers to fidelity, just as men acquire magical powers through celibacy. So in Hinduism, both genders have to be restrained if they seek powers. In Greek mythology, when men try to be too chaste, they are eaten by the wild women of Bacchus, the Maenads, as in the story of Orpheus.