Devdutt Pattanaik brings the celestial down to earth, says Smriti Lamech.
It took fifteen years in the health industry for Devdutt Pattanaik to realise that mythology, not medicine, was his vocation. He completed a course in Comparative Mythology from Mumbai University and wrote columns and books on the subject, even while he worked in the pharmacology sector. Eventually, Pattanaik found employment that chimed with his deeper interests— as Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group.
Pattanaik had already written some books for adults when, in 2010, he published the first three books of Puffin’s Fun in Devlok series. Following the success of An Identity Card for Krishna, Indra Finds Happiness and Gauri and the Talking Cow, Pattanaik recently wrote another set of three kids’ books, Kama vs Yama, Saraswati’s Secret River and Shiva Plays Dumb Charades, which bring the gods into the modern world.
What made you think of doing a children’s series?
I was horrified by children’s mythological content on television. Gods came across as bullies who keep hitting “bad” people. It comes from a lack of understanding, or a superficial understanding, of the scriptures. Rather than simply criticise, I decided to write something to reveal the spirit of mythological characters.
How do you pick your topics for each of the series?
Quite randomly, actually. For example, I always associated the flags of the gods with identity cards and the mudras with dumb charades. And so were born the stories of Devlok.
Why did you choose to place the gods in a contemporary time frame?
Gods are timeless. They belong everywhere and at all times. What better way to say this than to make them participate in modern society and respond as divinities would?
What are the challenges of writing about well-known myths or Gods and how much literary license do you allow yourself?
I never stray from the spirit of the character. Krishna is mischievous and will always have curly hair. Shiva will be wise and distant yet amusing. Saraswati is serene and thought provoking. Yama is strict and Kama irresponsible. You will be surprised at how little is actually known about the gods. There are a few stories that everyone knows, but these are merely the tip of the vast iceberg of Indian mythology.
So, gods in the modern world… Were you ever worried that children wouldn’t be able to tell your series apart from the actual epics?
Human beings have the same issues be they children or adults. Gods exist to help us navigate through life. Modern times are no different from ancient times. We had issues then, we have issues now. It is just that we feel our issues are somehow more complex and special; they are not.
There is no such thing as “actual epics” — there are actual ideas. If people get the actual idea behind Yagnavalkya or Chyavana or Bhoja, then we have done our job of communicating ideas to the next generation.
If you could meet one mythological figure, who would it be and why?
Lakshmi, I guess. She is restless and always running away from imperfect human beings. So even the richest people in the world suffer a sense of scarcity. I want to understand my imperfection.
What sort of literature do you enjoy other than mythology?
I enjoy fantasy graphic novels. Also reflective novels like [Michael Cunningham’s] The Hours. Currently, I am reading an English translation of the Puranas.