We spoke to Anand Neelkanthan, the author who introduced and popularized the counter-telling of mythological tales in Indian literature. The session was aimed at decoding the mythology game, and we jumped straight to our first question:
Anand’s upbringing and his comfort with the genre resulted in his choosing mythology as his main muse. All his books are counter-telling because every villain is a hero whose story has not been told, so for Anand, it was more interesting to explore the perspective of the vanquished instead of churning out another saga from the victor’s point of view, which in his opinion was overdone. When you explore the story from the perspective of the villain, he/she becomes the hero, blurring the lines between good and bad while forcing the reader to expand their thoughts and truly open their mind.
Anand began his answer by clarifying the term ‘mythology’ and how it can be a misnomer for Indian Puranas, which are living stories and are much more than the word mythology encompasses. Mythology, in his opinion, describes dead stories, for e.g. Greek mythology: as the religion associated with it is dead. But in India, mythology is a belief which is alive even today.
The Indian epic sagas are open to regional interpretations so when writing, Anand caters to the target audience based on the language his TV series are filmed in. His content is relevant to the audience that consumes it.
When asked if he worries about offending his readers, he said that his books are character based, exploring one character through the mind of another. Book readers understand that an author’s perspective is being narrated through the mouth of the character. He has so far not found himself in the midst of controversy, with this modus operandi.
Anand’s journey for his first book began 14 years ago. He started with researching the concept, which also required extensive travel, all of which took him 6 years to complete. He then wrote the book and started looking for publishers, faced 18 rejections, but persevered and after 2 years of finding a publisher, met with success. The rest, as they say, is history.
By this time, authors like Chetan Bhagat were gracing the scene and were writing romantic novels. Comparing this to Anand’s mythological books about Ramayana or Mahabharata, even his wife didn’t think many people would opt for, given the other genres available. So, while Anand wanted his work to be recognized and appreciated, he hadn’t thought he’d see the kind of success and popularity his work has seen. He shares that the first sentence he wrote was that the book will go on to be a big hit, this before even commencing his work. Such was his desire, but he didn’t know what kind of success awaited him.
The other aspect that influenced the world was that Indian English was coming of age. There had been a sudden crop of authors that leveraged Indian English, which was being recognized. While there had been Booker prize winning authors in the generation earlier, they weren’t aiming their offerings to Indian readers, in Anand’s opinion. But Anand’s peers were aspiring for region-agnostic targets, focussing their efforts toward Indian readers. Add to this, the fact that almost 3 to 4 crore Indians (4 to 5% of the Indian population) speak English almost as a first language, over their mother tongue. Even if they choose other languages to communicate in, they prefer reading English books. Anand’s theory is that this new generation of English-speaking Indians consumed mythology, consisting of references to the stories they had grown up listening to, but were reading this material in a language they were more comfortable with, English.
Anand believes that mythology has a place on the global bookshelf. While the new generation, his daughter included, enjoys the creations of Marvel comics and the likes, Anand believes that Indian mythological stories provide richer detail and immersion. While we may be behind on crafting cinematic masterpieces, there’s progress being made with films like Bahubali. He believes that the next 5 to 20 years will see a sharp incline in the inclusion of mythological sagas in the story telling business spanning books and movies. The voracious appetite of content providers like Netflix, will result in a higher consumption of stories from mythology.
When an audience member asked for Anand’s opinion on the continued popularity of mythology even in a world full of sci-fi offerings, he said that Mythology is sci-fi! Mythology interests us because of our cultural connection to these epics, and also because in all phases of life, it is possible to relate to the characters of these sagas. For e.g. for every mother, her son is Krishna and her daughter is Radha. If you belong to the older generations, you see yourself in Bhishma pitamaha, well respected but not always listened to. Anand further adds that mythological stories and characters have resonated with people across the ages, which is why they have been popular for 5000+ years and continue to be so.
You can view the full live here.
Mythology Facebook Live with Anand Neelakantan was one of our sessions at Blogchatter Writing Festival. We have many more different author-sessions planned ahead under this. You can screenshot the below schedule: