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Unfair tales: was Ravana's sister Surpanakha more hated than hateful?

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 5 December 2016, 11:07 IST

India's love affair with mythology began when Ashok Banker jumped literary genres to retell the Ramayana in eight volumes way back in 2003. His mythological retellings beginning with his first book Prince of Ayodhya have sold over 2 million copies in 16 languages and 58 countries since - a literary phenomenon that has pushed mythology as a top publishing category.

In the decade following Banker's stupendous success, several other writers tried their hand at mythological retellings - all with considerable success.

Ashwin Sanghi made a mark with mythological fiction. So did Devdutt Patnaik, Amish Tripathi, Krishna Udayasankar, Sudha Murty and Kavita Kane. While there may be a difference in their story-telling (or retelling) what connects them is that they are all bestselling authors, often signing million-dollar deals, and all feeding off the two great epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Blame it on the rise of the Hindutva in Modi's India or the urgency to escape to the make-believe world of angels and demons, but mythological fiction or non-fiction is unlikely to go out of fashion anytime soon.

Catch spoke to Kavita Kane, who has just published her fourth book in this genre. Lanka's Princess (Rupa) relooks at Surpanakha's life - Ravana's sister - who is also arguably the most hated woman character in mythology.

Surpanakha born as Meenakshi, "the one with beautiful, fish-shaped eyes", ends up being perceived as "ugly and untamed, brutal and brazen". One whose nose was sliced off by Lakshman, and the one who started a war.

"But was she really just a perpetrator of war? Or was she a victim? Was she 'Lanka's princess'? Or was she the reason behind its destruction?" asks Kane.

Her book is a racy account of Surpanakha's world - who we learn was perhaps "more hated than hateful".

Kavita Kane

Edited excerpts from the interview:

LH: Lanka's Princess is a beautiful, racy read. What does it take to turn a mythological tale on its head?

KK: Just a different perspective. We often see Surpanakha as a symbol of brute ugliness. Valmiki has described her so. But for Kamban, she was a lovely girl born as Meenakshi. She earned her name Surpanakha. But how and why? That's how her story begins.

Surpanakha means the one with long nails. Talon, again, is an animalistic feature portending a certain brutality. From being Meenakshi to a Surpanakha is her story.

LH: There is a sudden interest in mythology - it is a genre a lot of writers are taking to. Why do you think is this happening?

KK: I can't answer for others, but yes there is a huge interest about our mythology amongst the readers. The authors in their individual way are assuaging this collective curiosity and the keen interest to know more.

LH: What you've done is brave - generate empathy for one of the most vicious and hated mythological characters. How and when did you think of writing about Surpanakha?

KK: I had never imagined I would write on Surpanakha simply because I don't know much about her besides she was Ravana's sister.

Two things struck me though. One was her name. It was an ugly name to denote an ugly person: ugly from inside as well outside. Who would give such a cruel name to one's child?

The other fact was her nose being chopped off by which she is famously associated. It is one of the most brutal acts in the epic. But we accept it matter-of-factly because it was inflicted on a villainous character.

But then after this episode did she cease to be a vamp and become the victim? That's when I wondered about her, her story and what could have been...

Sudha Murty: 'Our world is not very different from the world of Mahabarata'

Valmiki has described Suparnakha as a symbol of ugliness But for Kamban, she was a lovely girl

LH: How do you explain the sudden interest in the retelling of mythological stories - often from a woman's perspective?

KK: Because I think every woman in our mythology is essentially a strong woman, a person who lives with her convictions, loyal to her beliefs, be it a major or minor character in the epics. A Shabri is as much a woman of substance as is Tara or Sita or Mandodari as is a Sharmistha or a Devyani if compared to Kunti or Draupadi.

However big or small, each are very finely etched and part of the narrative. They are irreplaceable and each have their own story to tell.

LH: In a recent interview Sudha Murty said that 'our world is not very different from the world of Mahabharata'. Your comment.

KK: Certainly. That's why we identify with our mythology so much. Man has not changed nor have the times, it's just the eras which have. Man makes the same mistakes, commits the same crimes, suffers the same grief and guilt and faces the same conflicts he confronted thousands of years ago.

That is the charm of our mythology. It tells us stories of the past which is yet relevant in our present. Love, jealousy, power, corruption, politics, intrigue and insecurity: the same issues, same themes persist even today, probably more sullied than before.

LH: You have dedicated this book to 'Aaji' - she was your first source of information as a child. But how much reference work goes into every story - what are the challenges, what are the advantages?

KK: It takes more time in reference and research than actually writing the book! It is an exhausting, exhaustive effort: the material needs to be checked rechecked, read and re-read and till sure, I cannot start writing.

LH: This is your fifth book in mythology genre - do we see you jumping genres in the future?

KK: Possibly.

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First published: 5 December 2016, 11:07 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.