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Book Review: Shyam by Devdutt Pattanaik

When it comes to mythology in India, Devdutt Pattanaik is a name to reckon with. In times like these, when history (and religious texts) have become tools of political power play, and mythology is being sanitised and re-imagined to propagate a narrative that suits a certain belief system, Devdutt Pattanaik’s works help set the record straight.

India is a land of diversity. It is but natural that the ancient texts – the Vedas, Upanishads, and even our epics – would have diverse interpretations across the subcontinent. Even as some attempt to reposition (or repackage) ‘Hinduism’ as a monotheistic, toxically masculine religion (like the Abrahamic faiths), Devdutt Pattanaik relies on, and puts on record, the various narratives centred around the same characters, and stories.

In his latest book, Shyam – An illustrated retelling of the Bhagavata, Devdutt weaves together the tales of Krishna. It is the “story from Krishna’s birth to his death” and chronicles his transformation from “his descent to the butter-smeared world of happy women and his ascent from the blood-soaked world of angry men”. The title of the book, as the author explains, can be attributed to the colour of Krishna’s skin, which was dark (but has now been sanitised to blue).

There is no single source chronicling Krishna’s story in entirety. It has been narrated in fragments in various scriptures – in the Mahabharata (where we learn about Krishna’s adulthood and his relationship with the Pandavas), then in the Harivamsa (that speaks of his pastoral foster family). It also finds a mention then in the Vishnu Purana (where he is described as one of Vishnu’s avatars), and of course, the Geeta Govind of Jayadeva (that is a tribute to his love story with Radha).

Shyam, the book, comes in eighteen chapters (16 chapters and the prologue and the epilogue). Krishna’s life story is narrated sequentially – from the circumstances that led to Vishnu’s eighth avatar till Krishna’s death, and subsequent description of Goloka – a heaven for cows. The author has been politically incorrect, and presented facts as they stand. Krishna’s story has been dissected in great detail, and his persona explored in all his forms. Devdutt minces no words when he laments the current trends of portraying Krishna only as a ‘masculine, war hero’. This is a great disservice to Shyam, who is incomplete without his androgyny. In fact, his feminine self is worshipped in many parts of the country.

The life of Krishna has been narrated in various stages – the infant, the son, the lover, the cowherd, the warrior, the king. Anecdotes have been cited from different sources. like the Bhagavata Purana, the Harivamsa, Geeta Govinda, the Greek mythology as well as Buddhist texts. References have been drawn to traditions prevalent in south India, Rajasthan, Bengal or Odisha. No one interpretation of Krishna has been declared superior (or real) over the other. Krishna is a complete figure, only when we accept all the facets of his personality in entirety.

Anyone with interest in mythology – and also thanks to Amar Chitra Katha – may know most of the stories that Devdutt Pattanaik shares in this book. What sets this book apart are the myriad factoids that he presents, in an illustrated presentation. And he also shares new information with us, which spikes your interest in the subject. Like, the paradise for cows or the references of Krishna in Buddhism, the two Bhagavat Gitas, the interpolation of Krishna and Kali, and so on.

Unlike Ram, who is now a political icon because he was ‘maryada puroshottam’ (the ideal man) and exemplified masculinity, Krishna is as human as much he is an avatar. His ‘colourful’ life comes with frailties. And that’s why his story needs to be told more and more. For Shyam is the perfect epitome of pluralistic, multi-faceted diversity that our country stands for.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

P.S. This review is part of the Flipkart Bloggers’ Affiliate Programme

DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights 

Book Review: The Curse of Surya by Dev Prasad

curse of suryaThe Curse of Surya is a fast-paced thriller set against the backdrop of Indian mythology. I would not be exaggerating if I said Dev Prasad is India’s answer to Dan Brown. There is a dearth of good thriller writers in India. The few we have are repetitive or lack originality. This novel comes as a big surprise. Believe you me, this page-turner will keep you hooked until the end.

The plot involves three protagonists from different parts of the world who stumble upon each other in India. Twist of fate brings them together in a race against time to find Shyamantaka, the famed jewel which was lost 5,000 years ago. The plot is centred around Shyamantaka which Surya, The Sun God, gave to his disciple Satyajit as a boon. However, the jewel comes with a curse as it “can result in misunderstandings, fights, thefts and wars.”

The story is set in Krishna Brijbhumi encompassing various cities in a particular region in Uttar Pradesh, around Mathura and Vrindavan, where Krishna is believed to have lived. The descriptions, factoids and information capsule that the author provides as you turn the pages clearly shows how well-researched the book is. This is a treat for anyone in India  mythology and history. The crisp detailing, fluid narrative, simple language and short sentences are an added advantage.

International All Saints’ World Religions Conference at Krishna Janmasthan Temple in Mathura a day before the Presidents of Singapore and India will organise a photo-op at the Taj Mahal in Agra. It is believed that the location of Shyamantaka will be revealed at the Conference. A day before the Mathura event, a Tibetan is mysteriously murdered at Krishna Janmasthan temple. Incidentally, he was a reporter working for Channel 7 TV, Singapore. His colleague Sangeeta is sent to India to cover the Presidents’ meeting at Agra.

Sangeeta meets Alan Davies at the Taj and her heart skips a beat; they bond over coffee and decide to go for the conference at Mathura. Sangeeta hopes to find clues about the death of her colleague. However, fate has different plans for them. The narrative moves in the Dan Brown-ish format; every chapter begins at a different location and time. The author has imbibed hugely from Dan Brown’s writing; the protagonists are embroiled in cracking codes, solving historical puzzles in the hunt for a historical treasure that can destroy the earth.

Sangeeta Rao, the fearless reporter from Singapore will remind you of Sydney Sheldon’s novels which also have strong-willed, determined women as protagonists who fight against all odds. Unsurprising because the author has admitted in many interviews that he is a fan of Sheldon’s works. She and Alan not only fight against terrorist organizations in the quest for Shyamantaka but also against SP Nisha Sharma who thinks they are fugitives and thus wanted by law.

Overall, The Curse of Surya is a good rapid reader for a long train journey. After a long time, India can proudly boast of a mythological fiction that will keep you glued till the end.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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