Mythology has been a part our tradition since time immemorial. We grow up hearing mythological tales of Kings and Queens, love and betrayal, battles and victories. Yet we know so little about the characters that inhabit them. The huge edifice of the genre compels us to focus only on the protagonists of the tales and push the other characters to the background.
Author Indrani Deb chooses to focus her stories on such unsung warriors. She weaves psychological tales around the forgotten mythological characters in her book Myth and the Mind. Indrani Deb is the Principal of Nistarini College and has authored three academic books on English Literature. She has also published many articles in national and international books and journals. She is also the Chief Editor of an internationally recognised literary journal, Heteroglossia. She has received several national and state-level awards.
I recently had a wonderful conversation with the author about her novel and the characters that star in it.
Sanchari: The blurb of your book says that the mythological characters are psychological studies in themselves. What made you feel that way?
Indrani Deb: The main reason why mythology has lasted for centuries is that though the characters are shown to be larger than life, they actually represent real human beings with real feelings and impulses.
In Indian mythology, for example, Karna would not have joined the Kauravas, if he had not been insulted and intimidated by the Pandavas. Karna is a psychological study in himself. Every character is different and subject to the laws of causality. If we look on them as people like you and me, our reactions to them will be different. Ram may be a hero and a God, but he, too, had his lapses like any normal human being.
Seen closely, all the characters, live, love, fight, become angry, become insulted, want power, and love their families and children like any normal persons. Don’t forget that Arjun even refused to fight because he felt unable to pit himself against his own family members.
Sanchari: The six characters, whose tales you chose to retell, aren’t quite the “famous” characters of mythology. What attracted you towards weaving your stories around them?
Indrani Deb: You know, I always have a special interest in the underdog, and how he or she thinks. That is what has attracted me to those who have great hearts, but have been sidelined by history.
For example, my interest is not in Yajnavalkya, who won the philosophical debate, but in Gargi, the lone woman who dared to challenge him in such a debate. My interest is not in Arjun, the greatest of the great, but in Sahadev, who always shrinks from the forefront. Raavan is the great conqueror of the world, but what does his wife Mandodari think of his exploits and misdeeds? These are the areas in which my interests lie.
Sanchari: What are the ethics of writing about mythological characters?
Indrani Deb: You have raised a very important question – that of mythological ethics. To my mind, I may expatiate on a short incident or an unimportant character taken from the epics or the Puranas, but I cannot change the basic character or the basic incidents of that episode or person. I am free to offer alternative interpretations, but I should not lose sight of the original story-line or the original traits of the characters. This is very important.
I remember, one my readers once asked me – “Yes, the stories are very entertaining. But are they true?” I answered that they are absolutely true. The dialogues and descriptions, of course, are mine. But Sahadev is Sahadev, just as we find him in the Mahabharata.
Sanchari: In the preface, you said that “modernist theories are only codifications of what the poets have already shown to us.” Can you please elaborate on this a little?
Indrani Deb: The twentieth century ushered in an era of critical theory – feminism, post-colonialism, racism, Marxism, structuralism, existentialism, and such like. It must be remembered that no theory can stand on its own, but must have a reference point in the writings of literary artists. In this respect theories are codifications of what poets have already written about (by “poets” I mean literary writers).
For example, the entire gamut of feminist theory can be illustrated through the women characters in the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, alone. What greater feminist may one find than Draupadi herself? Racism can be illustrated through the human / rakshasa divide; the Marxist struggle through stories like those of Karna or Eklavya. The very basis of the Gita, as expounded by Krishna, is the existentialist struggle of Arjun. And the list is endless.
Sanchari: The six mythological characters that the book deals with have very interesting personalities and there is a lot to learn from them. Yet, they remain the unsung warriors. Why do you think that’s the case?
Indrani Deb: Indian mythology is teeming with interesting personalities, who are special in themselves. The entire mythological edifice is so huge and sprawling, that usually people imbibe it in essence, not in its entirety. As such, it is natural that more importance will be given to the great protagonists of the stories, while those of lesser importance in the story-line will be pushed to the background. One of major aspects of modernist interpretation is the tendency to de-centralize ideas and characters. I am only doing this in the stories that I have chosen to relate.
Sanchari: Most remarkable tale in your book is that of Shakuni, who is portrayed as a tragic hero rather than an evil advisor– something which is quite opposite to what we usually hear. What is the reason behind such a contrasting depiction?
Indrani Deb: I am glad that you are just as intrigued by Shakuni, as I have been. Shakuni is an extremely complex character, indeed, far more complex than great heroes like Yudhisthir or Duryodhan.
Since the Mahabharata is related from the point of view of the Pandavas, he has been relegated to the role of a cunning villain, who is the main cause of the woes of the Pandavas. The fact is that, as I have asserted, he was not born, but made. There is a history behind his elaborate plan of revenge, and I have tried to bring out the pain and torment that he himself suffers, and that he himself brings down on his own head. A tragic hero, by nature is great, but imperfect; and Shakuni is both. His story is a story of suffering, just as much as his own sister’s is.
Sanchari: How does mythology enrich one’s mind?
Indrani Deb: Myths are basically open-ended, but they are generally written from the point of view of the good, against the evil. Moreover, in Indian mythology particularly, no character is black or white completely. Even the so-called evil side has a positive face. For example, Raavan was a great Shiv-bhakt, and he was a great scholar, artist, and political thinker. On the other hand, Yudhisthir, the most moral of all the Pandavas, also had to lie, and he was the main instrument for Draupadi being insulted at the dice-game. As such, man is shown from all angles, along with all his virtues and vices.
Another way in which mythology enriches one’s mind is the fact that the essence of Indian philosophy is encapsulated in the great myths. A case in point is the circumstance in which the great Gita was given to Arjun, or the huge debate in which Yajnavalkya won against all the learned sages of the country, including Gargi.
Myths should be essential reading for everyone from childhood. It is a pity that we live in a time in which a large section of the young population has not heard the stories of the epics and the Puranas of this country.
Sanchari: Does the reimagination of mythological characters take away their original aura or enhance them more?
Indrani Deb: All stories have to be re-imagined from age to age. Those stories that stand the test of time, are also open-ended, open to the realities of every moment in history. Those stories that have withstood the vagaries of time the most are myths, and never more so than the myths and legends of the Indian sub-continent. The ability of a story to keep its original flavour, yet remain contemporary over the ages, gives it its enduring quality. As such, even if we re-imagine myths from the modern perspective, its aura is not lost, rather, it is enhanced.
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Wonderful interview, Sanchari.