by Roopa Pai
Some stories stand the test of time. The core themes of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, are recognizable tropes in modern film and theatre across the world, and his words have passed into modern English usage so seamlessly that few of us realize that a particular combination of words, in a phrase or an idiom, did not exist until the Bard dreamt them up. Stories from the Old and New Testaments, with their themes of good vs evil, and Greek myths, with their classic arc of the hero’s journey, dated to at least two millennia before Shakespeare, are retold to this day, and adapted to the 21st century even in children’s books, of which the best example is the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.
It has to be said, however, that one of the main reasons for the dissemination of these particular tales over others, which are often older and, in many instances, wiser, more lyrical, and more inclusive, has been economic and political power. Both western culture and, before the Renaissance, middle-eastern culture, were profoundly influenced by Greek thought and philosophy. The vast footprint of the Islamic empire during the Islamic Golden Age towards the end of the first millennium CE, and western European colonialism in the second, ensured that it was Greek stories, that offered a Greek world-view, that were planted and grew deep roots in fresh fields and pastures new. Since World War II, American (read: Christian Anglo-Saxon) culture has dominated, continuing the hegemony of these themes as part of mainstream global narrative.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Indian stories – the ancient ones, from thousands of years ago – have not just survived to this day but continue to be vibrantly alive in the land of their birth, inspiring not just rancorous debate about our identity but also endless adaptations, in cinema, literature, theatre, dance, music, art and politics, in each of the subcontinent’s over 200 tongues and her countless traditions of performing and visual art. Despite all the political, economic, religious and social upheaval the region has been through over the last two and a half millennia, the stories of Bharata or Jambudweepa, a land described by the master 3rd century BCE political strategist Chanakya Kautilya in his renowned work Arthashastra as bounded by the river Brahmaputra in the east, the mouths of the river Indus on the west and the Indian Ocean in the south, continue to enthrall and engage, in ways both positive and negative, millions of people in modern India and beyond.
Everything in India – colours, smells, flavours, emotions, the mountains, the diversity of its people, its literal and metaphorical ‘messiness’ – is larger than life, so it stands to reason that her old, old stories should be the same. The most glittering of them all, in terms of the vastness of its canvas, the preoccupations of its staggeringly large cast of characters, and its central premise, a great war that swallows all of Bharata into itself, is the Mahabharata, of which it has often been said that there does not exist a single human emotion that does not find expression in its 100,000 couplets.
The other great Indian story, the Ramayana, is composed in a more lyrical style, and is only about a quarter of the length of the Mahabharata. It is a story about filial duty, destructive passion, and the moral code and responsibilities of a leader and the citizens of a functioning society, and has as its central thread a journey – ayana – that the eponymous hero, Rama, makes through the Indian subcontinent from Ayodhya (today in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh) to Sri Lanka (beyond the south-eastern boundary of the mainland). The story of the Ramayana, and its parallel theme of assimilation, has found immense popular appeal outside India, particularly in southeast Asia.
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are only two of the many, many great Indian stories, but they are special because they occupy a separate genre in Indian literature – both these legends are considered to be part of itihaasa, or history, accounts of events that actually happened, give or take some poetic licence. Whether you believe that or not, what is unarguable is that these two stories have fired and nurtured the Indian imagination for more years than anyone can be certain of, and shaped how Indians – and not just Hindu Indians – view themselves, their families, the purpose of their existence, and their place in the web of life.
That is only one of the reasons why I, and so many others like me, delight in bringing the essence, the spiritual core, of these old, old stories to today’s children. For unless the young know who they are and where they come from, they will never be able to understand or evaluate the peculiar ways in which they and their communities engage with the world. More importantly, they will not be able to identify and attack the rot, wherever it lies, in their societies, and may choose to flee elsewhere instead of digging deeper, seduced by the siren songs of other ways of being that, on closer examination, may not resonate with their truest selves, leaving them confused and adrift. Worse, they will begin to believe the stories that others tell them about themselves, leaving them with a deep self-hate exceedingly detrimental to their growth.
Here are three other reasons:
- Krishna and Rama, the heroes of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana respectively, are often posited as avatars or incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, who descends to earth in human form whenever dharma – right conduct – is in decline, to set the balance right. But both are equally humans who choose to yoke themselves to their higher, nobler selves, demonstrating in their actions such restraint, understanding of human frailty, and lack of human failings like envy, greed, hate and self-agrandisement, that they seem to be divine beings. There is a great and empowering lesson in there for children – we contain in ourselves, each of us, the capacity to be divine, we only need to choose to exercise it.
- While many theologies and myth traditions emphasize the good vs evil binary, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and indeed all of the Indian storytelling traditions, focus instead on the grey areas between the two extremes; in these stories, fatally flawed heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses abound, as do noble villains. The righteous hero often falls from grace, and the villain, on account of a selfless act, is elevated to his place, until, in an endless whirligig of boons and curses that sometimes spans several lifetimes, their spots are once again reversed. In other words, these stories consistently turn a dispassionate gaze towards both so-called heroes and villains, and emphasize that even your worst acts do not make you an irredeemable sinner; there exist, they assure us, in this wide and wonderful world, an infinite number of second chances. What child, what human, would not be comforted by that thought?
- ‘Happily ever after’, the traditional ending to so many stories we read as children, is unheard of in Indian storytelling. The climax of the stories, the ‘happily ever after’ moments – which in the Ramayana is Rama’s triumphant return from Lanka after having rescued his wife Sita from the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and in the Mahabharata is the end of the Great War of Kurukshetra, which is won by the ‘good guys’, the Pandavas – appear not at the end of their respective epics, but somewhere in the middle. For the rest of the story, the heroes, and every other character, even the minor ones, must deal with and reflect on the consequences of their actions, the ones that had seemed, at the time that they were executed, perfectly righteous, that have led to this particular result.
- This part of each story is where true wisdom lies, an understanding that even when we do everything ‘right’, and even when we attain the prize we so desperately sought, there is a heavy price to pay, for our every action sets in motion a great chain of unforeseeable consequences. For children, this is an essential cautionary tale, a reality check that warns them not to be taken in by the tinselly razzle-dazzle of the ‘happily ever after’. Instead of hankering after that chimera, suggest the epics, let go of fear and focus on the joy and ‘rightness’ of the journey, for in that alone lies fulfilment.
In the increasingly polarized world of the young, where even the slightest misstep from what is believed to be ‘politically correct’ behaviour leads to ruthless ‘cancelling’ and trolling, India’s ancient stories invite children into a liberal, inclusive world where certainties blur and dissolve, doubt is encouraged, an infinite number of pov’s are entertained, and everyone contains multitudes. How could I not choose to be part of bringing that bounty to them?
Roopa Pai is one of India’s best-known writers for children. This Bangalore-based author has written on themes as varied as sci-fi fantasy, economics, Indian philosophy, and medicine. Many of her books are bestsellers and are enjoyed as much by adults as by children.
Her 8-part fiction series, Taranauts, is India’s first fantasy-adventure series for children in English, and her award-winning ‘The Gita For Children’ has sold over 100,000 copies, been translated into five languages, and is on Amazon India’s list of ‘100 Indian Books To Read In A Lifetime’.
Roopa is also a popular motivational speaker at corporate and school events. Her TEDx talk ‘Decoding The Gita, India’s Book Of Answers’, has received over 1.9 million views to date.
When she is not writing, Roopa can be found leading groups on history and heritage walks across her beloved Bangalore, for a company she co-founded, BangaloreWalks.
September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult.
- Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.
- Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School. She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.