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A Book to Have and to Hold

Arshia Sattar

By Amruta Patil
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 270, Rs. 799.00


People often ask me whether there is something special about our times in terms of an apparent resurgence in the tellings of our ancient tales, myths and the epics. Why are we retelling these stories and why are we re-telling them now? I don’t think we live in especially myth-interested times. In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading Hindu mythology is precisely the fact that there is no single version of any beloved story. And that every beloved (or problematic) story has been told over and over again through the centuries. What we are seeing now, more acccurately, is that metropolitan, urban Indians, many of them young, have started to retell the old stories, shaped now by their own narrative instincts and trajectories and told in ways that address their own concerns. These new retellings grapple with the same questions (how to understand Krishna’s actions in the Mahabharata), the same problems (how can the so-called ‘ideal man’ be so cruel to his innocent wife in the Ramayana), but the questions and the answers are voiced for a new generation that lives and loves in an entirely different milieu from the traditional village story teller or the equally traditional grandmother.   Amruta Patil’s exquisite graphic volume, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, takes on, as declared, the first book of the Mahabharata. Like so many of her contemporaries involved in the same enterprise, Patil does not reach for Sanskrit tomes or for other classical texts to guide her through the story that she chooses to re-examine. Rather, she relies upon a multitude of translations into English, a hundred other retellings, her own instinctive empathy for the characters she picks to attend to and eventually, her own skills as a story teller. To that extent, and as she places herself in a long line of tellers, she claims that the story of the Mahabharata that we are experiencing in her book comes ‘via’ her to her readers.   Patil does not flinch before the complexity of the Adi Parva’s narrative, a nice change from other retellings which tend to pare down this rambling prologue with its seemingly random stories about other fathers and sons and brothers and women who want their sons to be kings. What Patil does do, to ease (and at the same time to highlight) the complications of the multiple tellers, is to set her ...

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