Books and Beyond with Bound

5.06 Ashok Banker: Epic And Unknown Love Stories From The Mahabharata

February 14, 2023 Bound Podcasts Season 5 Episode 6
Books and Beyond with Bound
5.06 Ashok Banker: Epic And Unknown Love Stories From The Mahabharata
Show Notes Transcript

Find out how romance is depicted throughout Indian mythology!

Ashok Banker makes Tara and Michelle travel through centuries as they talk about his book “Epic Loves: Stories from the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata”. A book which finds love within the epic war of Mahabharata. Find out how love has transformed in our mythologies throughout centuries. If all the mythological stories are written by men, can we avoid the trap of male gaze and misogyny? Whilst retelling the epics, how can you be true to the original text and bring along your own spin to it? And… are there any LGBTQ+ characters in the epic of Mahabharata? Tune in to find out!

Books & movies mentioned in this episode:

  • Amar Chitra
  • Stephen King 
  • Ponyo by Ghibli studio
  • Joseph and his brothers by Thomas Mann
  • Harry Potter
  • Lord of the Rings

If you live, eat and breathe books, subscribe to Books and Beyond!

Produced by Aishwarya Javalgekar
Sound edit by Kshitij Jadhav

‘Books and Beyond with Bound’ is the podcast where Tara Khandelwal and Michelle D’costa uncover how their books reflect the realities of our lives and society today. Find out what drives India’s finest authors: from personal experiences to jugaad research methods, insecurities to publishing journeys. Created by Bound, a storytelling company that helps you grow through stories. Follow us @boundindia on all social media platforms.




obviously, because that guy's writing it so he will just gloss over whatever abuses she might have hurled at him or, you know, maybe she threw some stuff at him. Maybe she, they continue to have fights over it for years saying, you know, don't you remember the time that you ghosted me for nine years? You bloody bastard? Yeah, in my imagination, that's what happens.



Yeah, yeah, I mean, so why not? Absolutely, that would be valid.



Welcome to Books and Beyond with bound. I'm Tara Khandelwal and Michelle D'costa. And in this podcast, we uncover the stories behind some of the best written books of our time, and find out how these books reflect our lives and our society today. So tune in every Wednesday to enter a whole new world with a new author and a new idea. Yes, and after three years and 2 million lessons we are back with our factories and five with hard hitting questions and life changing books. So let's dive in.



Hi, everyone, welcome back to Books and Beyond. With bound we are really thrilled to interview the one and only Ashok banker who shot to fame with his retelling of the Ramayana. He is known to have started the whole trend of mythological stories in India, actually. And he's published in 56 countries with over 1.2 million copies in print. Wow. I'm very excited about today because it's a Valentine special and we're going to be talking about Ashok bankers new book, epic love stories from the Mahabharata. And it had us head over heels in love with the characters. I love, love stories. I love Indian mythology. This is a perfect book to read just in time for Valentine's Day. And also Who could imagine one can find love in a book known for war. So it Ashok Packard did that and we will find out how. And we're going to explore what love has looked like for centuries in our mythology. And does it look the same as it did back then today. Welcome, Ashok. Welcome. Hi. Hi, Michelle. And great to hear. And Tara. Hi, I just want to just a slight correction that by you, you read of me is one of obviously it's valid for the basics. It's also you know, because epic loves is actually a book a collection of stories published about 12 or 13 years ago. The Bible's a little out of date, the book is in the book is timeless. And so I've actually now published just over 80 books, and they sold over 3 million copies and in, I don't know, 70 countries and 30 Something languages. So. So I just wanted to bring that point to you. Thank you. Thank you. I'm sorry about the thing I think maybe they like online.



Yeah, no worries, sometimes even I lose track of how many books I've written.



So, but that that's, that's amazing. Yeah, we're so we're so excited to have you here. Especially because, you know, before conversation, Michelle and I were talking and we were like, you know, you're really sort of like father of you know, Indian mythology in India. Thing You also know, one of the names that is synonymous with making mythology accessible and sort of like mass market reading. Yeah. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Appreciate that. I was actually just talking to these guys the other day, you know, Valmiki. And we asked, and they were saying here, what is this thing about you being called the Father? We ask that I'm the father and girl because and I'm the



I'm just I'm the grandson. Okay. I'm the grandson. Yeah, well, it's very.



But you know, I just wanted to point out that these stories have been told and retold for 1000s of years, you know, in the 12th century, combined, famously retold the Ramayana in the south version, where he reset even Yoda set in the south, everything is set in the south, and even the tribes actually the south cultures and tribes, and languages. And he did it so beautifully with such beautiful language and descriptions. He made it his own. So this is something that's been happening down the ages. And all great stories are retold time. And again. As you know, I've mentioned in one of my introductions to the ramen series, actually, I wrote it in the late 1990s. It was published in 2003. I wrote that, you know, every time a grandmother returns these stories, that becomes her version. And we are all retelling these stories in one way or the other time and again, and it belongs to all of us. And we all remake it and reinvent it every time he tells the story. So I'm just one among these billions of retailers. And I guess I'm just happy and lucky that of course



Is my retelling caught on and I think people, especially young people, when it was first published now those young people are older, but back then they were young. And they all loved it and took to it. And I think that's, I'm just lucky to have been that person. Yeah, absolutely. And you know what, what I really like about this book is I shall see, I know that, you know, it's an old book, but it's a new collected edition from speaking Tiger, you know, so I love that, you know, you have brought it together, Canada resurrected it, you know, for for today's generation, and I am really looking forward to today's episode, because, you know, my context of let's say, you know, Valentine's Day has always been St. Valentine's, right, who was a third century Saint? And, and you know, then that's how I would say the day has evolved. And of course, now it's become a more commercialized holiday. But today, I'm looking to learn a lot more about Indian mythology. You know, the very first question that I have is, you know, see, there are so many lessons that one can actually experience from mythological tales, you know, there are certain virtues like, you know, being honest, being ethical, and one would, you know, rarely think of romance, especially, you know, in the Mahabharata, which is known for war. So why did you actually decide to focus on the love stories from the Adebola? Great question. And very good point epic loves is a new book. And I should have clarified that that, while the stories in it were published about 12, or 14 years ago, basically, this collection of the, of all the stories, is a new addition. And also, it's a beautiful addition, I love the cover that speaking tiger has given it, it's been re edited. So there are some little errors that have been corrected between the earlier editions. And most of all, what you said is so apt, because the Mavado is an epic known for war and known for, let me put it, how do I put this in today's terms, in a way for its masculinity, and it's, you know, macho, almost toxic masculinity in many ways. It is, in fact, quite misogynistic, also, in some places, very misogynistic, which I always used to try and explain this. I mean, not I'm not trying to justify it, because who the hell am I to justify it? You know, it's not my epic, I didn't write it. But the fact is that it was written by these old bearded men, celibate, bearded men's living in the forest all their lives. So what would you expect those guys to write? You know, obviously, then it becomes a male dominated story. So what I actually found interesting, and what I was my way into the epic, into the world of the story of the Mahabharat, was basically to find the stories about real people, which somehow comes through despite the storyteller, you know, there's a line, I think, Stephen King, he's used it on a few of his books, which says this The tale, not the teller. And that's what I went for, I tried to find what is the soul? What is the heart of the story. And if you really go down deep, and you ignore, as I said, you know, the misogyny, the old, celebrate men, obviously, you know, their descriptions, and the way they describe the women and all is very much, not just for that era, because their ankles like that, even today, let's face it, but of their kind of background. But at the same time, they were not able to completely bury the feminism, the fiery spirit of the real people, that some of these characters, and I speak of them as characters with using air quotes, because maybe they were real people, maybe they were based on real people, we don't know. But they are real in their emotions, in their connections, most of all, in their love. That's what I found, for example, the famous dialogue of the Mahabharat is often regarded as a justification for war, and thermal, or thermal. But actually, I see it as love. It's, it's a thesis on love, which is the argument is saying, These are the people I love, how can I kill them? And of course, his mentor, Krishna is saying, Yes, but you have to because that's your term, that's your duty, and so on. So, time and time again, what I kept finding is, it's a battle between love and war. And that is what I went for. And that's why I said, let me find the stories that are purely about love First, let's take it over. I mean, let's make it our Indian Desi Valentine's Day, forget Saint Valentine, and forget the commercialism. Let's talk about love. And let's talk about love which is so timeless and eternal, that it's been there from the days of the Mahabharat and far beyond, beyond and before that, and it will never die. Even war can't kill it. Those are the stories that I wanted to tell because that's such a beautiful thing to know that these stories still resonate even today. Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I agree



We're now sort of like reading a lot about, you know, Indian mythology, Amar Chitra. Katha watching it on TV, grandparents talking about it and things like that. And when you're a child, you sort of take all of this as par for the course. Right? And then, you know, as we grow up, then we realize that, oh, you know, we start analyzing a little deeper. So I want to actually ask you about the misogyny in some of these tropes that we come across, you know, and how to deal with them. So we have love stories that are problematic, like, you know, Sita having to walk through the fire to, to for purity to ram or dropper, the with the five husbands, and how do we situate these stories in their context, as well as read them as millennials? Like, how are we supposed to wrap our heads around these contradictions around these elements? Oh, I see, I can't speak, you know, and give advice for everyone. That's not my worldview. But I can tell you how I approached it, which is, I found that hugely problematic. And it's a very tough thing to do when you're trying to retell a story that is inherently problematic, and you don't fight with those kind of views and those kinds of attitudes and outdated mores, and morality, because you know, at the same time, you're telling the story. So how do you do it because the story has those problematic elements? So I don't know if I really found a solution in my retelling. And I would say, maybe my retelling has those problematic elements. Even though I don't agree with them, I strongly disagree. But at the same time, I think there is a way for us as people who are not looking to retell like Ashok banker, which I did, you know, retell the whole drama and the whole Mahabharata. You're just trying to relate to the stories and as a person, not as the writer, as a person, I tell you, I reject those those elements or reject those parts, or even question whether the author current is actually a part of the Roman story, because there is a lot of evidence that shows that it's a later edition, and that it wasn't written by the same person or persons who wrote the earlier six columns, there is a lot of reason to doubt it, question it and even outright reject it. And I say Ya reject it? I don't accept. You know, first of all, how can it be a love story when, you know, the dude is making his woman walked through fire? I mean, like, what kind of a test is that?



I mean, first of all, why do you need a test? And you know, we are living in an age where not only has articles recently been knocked down, and but we are living in an age where even adultery is not even considered illegal or necessarily grounds for divorce. So which is absolutely right, because a person's body is their own. A person's sexuality is their own. And even if Sita I say, Let's go all the way, let's take this all the way, let's say okay, suppose Sita, chose to sleep with Robert. Okay, it's a different question. And that itself goes into another business logistic area. If Robin sort of took her by force, that's another problematic area. But let's say that, you know, we're questioning whether she either willingly submitted and I'm, again, using air quotes for the word because again, that's a problematic concept. Or let's take it even further and say, what if she willingly had an affair with him, you know, whether it was Stockholm syndrome, and she was, you know, intimidated or not? Or maybe she chose to let's even take the extreme and say she chose to? So what? So what, what, what is this bullshit about purity? And what is purity? Versus purity come from from and why isn't it applicable to males? You know, so I reject it. And I say, we should just reject those parts that we don't agree with. As I said earlier, this is our raw mind. This is our time. This is our Mahabharata, we get to decide what these stories are really about. We don't have to take it as gospel, we are not. First of all, we're not in a culture that historically says that, oh, this is the word of God. And we have to accept it as it is, we cannot question it. We are not that culture. So it has always been a culture of retellings of reinvention of new versions. We have the right to reinvent certain works, for sure. Which are first of all, problematic, questionable, and any we have been told and retold umpteen times by myriads of writers. So that's what I say. Just rejected. Yeah. I love the story of Shakuntala and the shrimp. Actually, maybe you could tell us a story, a shocker transition for our listeners, I think you'd be better at telling the story. And then, you know, we have a couple of questions around this topic. Sure, sure. Yeah, I mean, everyone knows the basics of Shakuntala into shell. Sorry, I'm fumbling over words over here. I'll be very honest, you know, I have a problem pronouncing and saying these words aloud because a lot of these names



is a fine to read, but they don't really trip easily off the tongue. They're not like, you know, Michelle and Tara in a for instance, or a shock. So



I tend to be untrusted, which is why I hate reading my own work because I get so caught up in all the Sanskrit and you know the pronunciations. Anyway, to come back to the point, we all know the basics of Shakuntala intuition. Basically, a prince goes into a forest to hunt, he happens across this sages daughter, he falls in love with her, she falls in love with him, they have an affair. And then he leaves and goes back to his kingdom, he promises to come back to her in, never comes back. And at the end of it, she decides she has a baby because he left her, you know, with, with child, so to speak. And so she has the baby. And she named the baby parrot, parrot, actually, which is after his tribe, which is the paratha tribe. And then she takes birth, her little son, and she goes to the kingdom. And she goes and meets Raja Duchenne and tells him You know, you don't you remember, we made a promise and you want to come back and fetch me and our kid is growing up. Now he needs to go to school, he needs, you know, clothes and uniform and money for books and stuff like that, excuse my, you know, modernization. But that's not the way it is in the story that have returned. I've told it very scrupulously, according to the original, but I'm just having a little fun here when chatting about it.



Because I'm trying to make the point that the context is always contemporary, whatever story we read, even if it said 3000 years in the past, we have to relate to it as we are today. And even if those details are different, even though she's in that sense, literally a sages wife and goes to the end, he's a Raja, and so on. So basically, she wants him to do right by her and marry her and she still loves him, you know, and her son wants to meet his father and Shante refuses to even recognize her, you know, he absolutely pretends to have forgotten and this is justified, again by the sage sages who have written these epics, as have been the result of a curse of another stage, which is very convenient, because you know, you're sort of pushing your own agenda there. Once again, things in law, look at the power of the Brahmins have. So which is very uncool, in a way, but okay, let's say that he has been cursed, and so he's forgotten. But even then, seeing her and just linked to her, I mean, believe the woman for God's sake, you know, but he still refuses to acknowledge her, and she gets mad. And then through a series of circumstances, I'll leave something for the reading. Also, you have to read the story to know how it turns out. But let's say that things take an interesting turn towards the end. And that's basically the story of Shackleton and to share all that really beautifully. So thank you for that. Yes, yeah, I just wanted to add that, you know, there's this term in romance stories, which is called meet cute, which is the very first time a couple actually meets on page. And I still remember when I was reading chocolate, the transition story, I just, you know, gasped at that scene. It was so beautiful, you know, the way he actually goes through the whole forest. And finally, he meets this Rishis daughter, I think that's one of the most beautiful moments I've come across in any romance story that I've read. Yeah. So you know, one of the things that I because I've read I remember the first time I read Chuck de Landa the tion I actually read the Amar Chitra Katha version. And in that version,



you know, the king loses his memory, because he Shakuntala gives him a ring, and the ring gets lost. And that's why he forgets Shakuntala. And then there's another version of the story where Masha, Allah doesn't forgive him, and sends the son with him, but refuses to come, you know, so there's multiple versions. And when I was reading your version, I actually, I had never come across this version where his memory begins to deceive him, you know, and it's not because of some magic ring or anything like that. But he's sort of almost in self denial, or,



you know, that he just forgets or, as you said, goes Shakuntala. And then in the end after nine years, he tells her that it was all always part of the plan to pretend like he forgot who



I wanted to know. Was it really? And does she really forgive him? And okay, there's many question which version is true and why so many versions? Okay, so as I said, there have been so many versions and retellings, each person has made this the story and all the stories from the epics, they're all when they retold it. Now, what I have done in my Mahabharata, retelling, in particular, not my Rama and so much, which is a reinvention and reimagining. But in the Mahabharata, I've been scrupulously faithful to the original. So I've actually worked with the Sanskrit in front of me, with all the available translations in front of me so I can because obviously I am not Sanskrit. I'm not I'm not educated.



In Sanskrit, I've never learned it. But I have learned to figure it out as I go along. So I kept all these originals authentic versions, which are acknowledged to be the authentic ones. And basically what you're reading in epic loves, in all these stories in this book is basically the way it is actually in the Mahabharata. So I can't claim to have read all the versions that you've described, and but I'm aware that there are multiple versions. But this is the authentic original Mahabharat version, which is the original version of these stories. So that's how it is, believe it or not, and I have stuck to that. But I also wanted to ask, you know, the in the story that you think that she really does forgive him, I just wanted to know, because I don't know, it seems like such an egregious error. Was it really sort of part of the plan that, what do you think what is your opinion? So okay, like I said earlier, I said, it's very important to know, who is telling the story, even though Stephen King says this The tale, not the teller, but that is the attempt of the writer, to be honest to the story and its world and his characters. But as readers, we have to know, who is written it. And we have to, especially in today's time, asked, what is their agenda? You know, if it's a guy writing it, obviously, we are on alert for whether there's male gaze in it, you know, and things like that, and misogyny and, you know, how is he accepted it? So these are valid questions. As I said, I've been honest and faithful to the original source, which is the Mahabharata. And so I've kept the original ending and everything. Now, you're asking me a question about what is my opinion about it? Well, again, like I said earlier, feel free to reject this version, or the original and to make it your own. I have chosen not to do that, because I felt there should be a version, which is the original edition, which was the original. And I also say that we can also look at this also in a modern context, which is that yeah, I mean, he's a guy like is such a guy thing to do? Right. You know, in the sense that saying that, Oh, you know, maybe I have early onset Alzheimer's. I mean, this is me sort of just riffing that, you know, you know, I forgot. It is like, what is the ridiculous shaggy song? You know, it wasn't me. You know, it's that kind of a very guy thing to have to say and do. And whether she really accepts him or not, maybe because the guy telling the story. I don't mean me, too. Of course, I'm a guy. But I mean, the original sage who wrote the original source story, obviously, because that guy's writing it. So he will just gloss over whatever abuses she might have hurled at him, or, you know, maybe she threw some stuff at him. Maybe she, they continue to have fights over it for years saying, you know, don't you remember the time that you ghosted me for nine years? You bloody bastard? Yeah, in my imagination, that's what happens.



Yeah, yeah. I mean, so why not? Absolutely, that would be valid. But at the same time, I also feel that what choice do the birthing have, you know what I mean, now that she had come and she exposed herself. till that point, she could have chosen to be a single mother. I mean, I was raised by a single mother. Okay. So she could have chosen to be a single mother and raised birth on our own and Set To hell with your father, you know, if you want to go to a fine, but I'm not interested and lived her life happily and who needs met? But since she came and did this in front of everybody, now, what choice did she have? So she had to sort of do it, your garden had to sort of accept his male bullshit. That's how I would look at it.



Yeah. Oh, I love it.



Yeah, and I didn't, you know, what I think is because it was set back in the day, right? Like, I do envision her forgiving him because of, you know, the stereotypes and what society expects of her. And you know, like, if I can immediately think of like a Christian reference, where, you know, Jesus said that if someone slaps your right cheek, you then show them your left cheek. And you know, people say that that might be okay, for that period of time. But in this world, you know, you can never expect someone to be that generous, right. So I also feel it's about timing. And and if we talk about her in today's day, yes. I don't think she would have forgiven him. Yeah, it is. Yeah. And other like thing that, you know, I think you touched upon this a little earlier is that, you know, obviously, it's a man writing it right. And there are all these tropes that come up, which, you know, where the tropes are dominant men, and these women are very shy, and they have this ideal beauty. They're describing this language, you know, the way they look all of those things. This is ideal, like sort of feminism that they all have, right, but but at the same time, I think what I really liked about these stories was that they also sort of really feminist So, for example, Shakuntala who says that, you know, you will be cursed you can't treat me this way to the Shabbat. And even the story of I really liked the story of Ganesh.



panthenol and how Ganga says that, you know, she will Maddie shone through. But you know, at the end of the day, he has to agree that he will never ask her where he's from. And she is able to sort of have the power to do whatever she likes. And at the end of the day, you know, she is the goddess. She has the power, even though she's conforming to the sort of tropes of you know, being a wife being a beautiful woman being a seductress, all of these things. Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So one thing that I've very consciously done in all my mythological retellings is, basically find the truth within this male gaze, male, celebrate old man version of these stories and try to find the real story within that version. Within that, you know, that epic, and I have then brought it out, I've tried to emphasize it, it's a very subtle thing. And it's not an easy thing to do. But I have tried to bring out and subtly emphasize the empowerment, and agency of the marginalized characters, basically, in these stories. Now, that's a conscious decision. And that's very much me at work. If you read the original, let me put it this way, that there might be two, two madmen, wherein both are shown as equally, you know, trying to, you know, push forward their point of view. And at the same time, even the original writer, the storyteller, whether it's we asked Valmiki, or whoever, is also forced to admit that, but she prevailed, and things like that. So it's often told in just one line, I've taken that as a cue to justify strengthening the language and the dialogue. And I'm not trying to put words in her mouth, all I'm trying to do is give back the agency that I believe she had, that it's a case of Ganga, whether it's the case of Shakuntala, whether it's the case of any of the other Sharmistha, for example, in one of the other stories and epic labs, I have tried to give it back to them, because as I always say, we are all empowered. It's only society and you know, the prevailing attitude that disempowers us. So it's not a question of women empowerment. It's a question that women have been disempowered and marginalized groups have been disempowered for so long. So all I'm trying to do is reclaim that power that they always had, and rightly possessed. So that's what I'm trying to do. That's wonderful. Yeah, I mean, that is something that definitely, you know, stuck out to me. And I love the story of Ganga and Shantanu. And I love the even the visual and the linguistic descriptions of her as a river. And how, you know, this river is now sort of has a physical manifestation and this beautiful woman, but this beautiful woman is so reminiscent of the power of the river. I loved all of those things as well. And then in the end, obviously, you know, I just wanted to add, actually, and you know, when I was reading about this, you know, Ganga being the holy river, obviously, you know, we know, because, you know, we are Indians, but I remember seeing this Japanese animated film, it's called Ponyo by Ghibli studio, and one of the best animations, you know, they've come up with, so in that actually, you know, the ocean is the mother, she's the mother of this goldfish. And it is just so beautiful. I just love to see the metaphor of a woman, you know, being, let's say, like, the mother of the ocean, or the mother of



Yeah, it's like water and life and all of those things.



And, you know, actually, let me go to the next story, because you're in your book, you know, it's you speak about love stories. And a love story doesn't only have to be a romantic love story, it can be a platonic love story. And one of the love stories that I really loved is the one about Shantanu son. So what happens is that Shantanu, Ganga and Shantanu, you know, they have to separate and Shantanu was heartbroken for years and years. And, you know, he's not found another woman to replace conga. And then finally, he does find a woman that he thinks, you know, he can make a life with and her father says that, you know, you already have a son from your previous marriage, and I can give my daughter to you, because,



you know, if you have children with her, they won't have any claim to the throne. So what champion whose son from Ganga does is that he says that, you know, I will not only not marry, but I will also take a vow of celibacy. So none of my sons will ever have claim of the throne. And he does it and this is the story of Bheeshma you know, who's such a main character Mahabharata, and I never knew this was the origin story of this character. Bheeshma and he says that, you know, I will remain celibate so that my father can, you know, have the love of his life and have partnership and I just found that story.



So beautiful. And I wanted to ask, you know, what other kinds of love have you tried to depict in this book which are not romantic love? So yeah, yeah, I'm so happy that you discovered and learned the story of Bheeshma through my epic loves book, because it is a very great story because he's now David Rock, which is what his original name was before he got this title of Bheeshma which is you know, you have to tell terrible Wow, basically is of such an interesting and fascinating character you know, born as he is half human half got a demigod so to speak. But not a demigod in the Percy Jackson kind of space is a demigod who's trapped, unfortunately, not in contemporary America,



but in ancient India, and he's caught in the Jarl of the morality and social expectations of that era. So when his father, you know, falls in love again with the official chief's daughter, and Vishnu takes his terrible Wow, in a way it locks him into celibacy and also to being alone. Because obviously, I mean, how is he going to ever get close to a partner all his life, if he cannot give her what the expected social contract was of that time, which is that they'll have kids together, they'll so on and so forth, you know, suntan and all that. So therefore, he had to also be alone. And that's such a sad thing, in a way. And yet, actually, when you read the Mahabharata, he's not a sad character. He's such a, he's so full of wisdom and knowledge, and grace, most of all, grace, that I found that so fascinating and so interesting. And I'm gonna say this, even if it seems somewhat controversially, I think he's a, he's a great gay icon. And who's to say that he didn't find love with other men, or another man, a special man, maybe, and maybe he had a husband. But in those days, the only thing that was recognizable was a formal union, between a man and woman, which was acknowledged before the court and society, for example, to give you an, you know, an actual example from the epic, the shot Ramas father actually had 350 concubines in his harem, in the special palace for them, so he slept with all these other women. But when it came to actually impregnating, he was obviously infertile, you know, that is obvious, because he could not actually father the four sons that are credited, you know, to him, but those were the only ones recognized as the official ones, because those were the sons boned by his three wives, which was official wives. So for example, just a Dashrath had three official wives and 350 other lovers, who's to say that the schema didn't have male lovers. And who's to say that he did not find love and maybe that the Rishis you know, who wrote the story did not mention that did not mention it completely glossed over it. Maybe they had an ancient version of article 370. Back in those days, who knows? So but that's the way I look at him. And I say, he's a great gay icon.



So I think, and at the same time, he's able to sublimate his sexuality into becoming a kind of a guru and great father, because he's not strictly speaking, just the grandfather is, in fact of, you know, the icon for several generations of the Mahabharata story. But the great father of all the all the gurus, including the Panthers and the Kauravas, everyone, and I just see that as certain fascinating things. So yeah, to come back to the point, which is that while of course epic loves is mostly romantic, heterosexual stories. At the same time, I think, I'd like to, you know, how I like to hope that I opened a small window on the world of that era, which was a world where



it was a different world, but a freer world, it was much more open, just because they're not told about all sorts of relationships and all sorts of connections, and all sorts of loves. That didn't mean they didn't exist. And I hope that in my style, and in the language of use in the way I've tried to describe the world that I've given that sense that it was a world where anything was possible. Everyone was free to love whomever they wanted, and go with whomever they chose. That is really beautiful. And I really like that perspective, because that was one of my questions. There's a lot of sort of heterosexual love. Also, you know, in terms of like gay icons and LGBTQ characters.



I recently saw this wonderful play called Shikhandi. Where you know, she can be is sort of a non binary character. And we're thinking there's a lot of elements that that are sadly not accepted in society today. But that has been portrayed in ancient texts. We have, you know, obviously the Kama Sutra we have, you know, Sex outside marriage, you know, we have the Gita Govinda, which is a series of epic, erotic waves between Radha and Krishna, you even have polyamory. So, what happened? What what do you think these myths are trying to tank to show? Why is it sort of not translated today? Sort of why are we so sort of, like, way more backwards today? Well, I mean, the answer is very simple that those in those days, I mean, we talk about, you know, you know, those times those times I need to when we justify how someone behave, even 10 years ago, we talk about those times. But actually, that's bullshit, because there have always been people who, you know, regressive and thinking and in their outlook, and they've always been people who are progressive. But back in those times, if you really, I feel personally, the truth about ancient era was that it was live and let live. Everyone did as they please. And there was no Twitter, everybody could you know, dogpile on someone because they didn't behave the way that you know, everyone felt they should be behaving or doing what they should, whether in a positive point of view, as in, you know, actually calling out people who have done wrong or even in a negative point of view, which, again, to use the example of Twitter, it's so good at, you know, being so toxic also. So maybe there were some people who felt that this is not right, maybe there was others who didn't, but it was a live and let live world, you know, because that is the human experience, just whatever terms we use today, whether it's polyamory, or whether it's triads, or whether it's non binary, you know, these are all terms, which are our attempts today, to capture in our modern language, concepts and relationships and roles which have always existed, it's just that we have chosen to, you know, trim out all this wonderful complexity of the real world, and to stick to a heterosexual, binary kind of a construct, which is a construct, it's a social construct, and that we've all sort of bought into of where we've been spoon fed from birth. Now, that's a choice that's been made. It's like the bullshit that, you know, people would say about the caste system, oh, it's because of division of labor. It's for the betterment of society are bullshit. I mean, come on. It's bias and bigotry, plain and simple. So in the same way, the fact that we are fighting today for LGBTQ rights, you know, at a time, you know, and the first trans India's first trans couple is about to have their child, which is such a beautiful and great moment, and I wish them all the happiness in the world. But the fact that this is historic is is shameful, from the point of view that this should be commonplace. You know, it should be a an accepted part of society. And that's, that is the sad thing that we live in a regressive world, the world has societies become more regressive. And if you ask me why that is, I feel because we're all in each other's business. We're all practically looking over each other's shoulders and looking into each other's houses, almost literally, because the density of population.



That's one thing and because of social media and connectivity, and I think the internet has actually exacerbated this problem is it's multiplied toxicity and weaponized it basically, which is a sad thing. So but that's how it goes, the same things that connect us and bring us so much of, you know, quality in our lives. The same technology also comes with a lot of inherent problems. And back then, there was no way to call out either the good things or the bad things or the things that one disagreed with, whether they were good or bad. In in the ancient world, yet people did everything and went about their lives and other people didn't even get into it. So the moment you start getting into other people's business, that's where the problem starts, in my opinion, the moment you are overthinking and over, you know, getting over involved in someone else's life, you are going to judge them whether you like it or not from your limited point of view. And I think it's a sad thing because we should be celebrating the diversity of you know, of everyone, not just of our country but of the world. So, in a way I actually one of the reasons why I retell these ancient epics



because I don't have to, you know, restrict myself to the accepted social mores of today, I can write about these things. And yes, like the example of Shikhandi there are lots of stories which are not as popular and highlighted. I would love to tell these stories too in time. And I do hope to, ya know, and I'm really glad that you actually brought up you know, about Bheeshma, you know, being a gay icon, because that's exactly what I wanted to ask you, you know, like, Are there enough stories in Indian mythology, right, not just the Mahabharata, but in other texts, or their inner stories that are not about heterosexual characters, you know, which is not just love between a man and a woman. And what are the



ger? That's a good question. Now, the flip side of it is that there are some stories, and they have been brought out and even, I think, retold in some LGBTQ anthologies.



But the fact is that they are not that widespread and that commonplace. I wonder, in fact, I question whether it's because, as I said earlier, the people who told these stories, whether we call them the US, again, I'm using air quotes over here, because nobody knows for sure whether there was only one Vyas they likely was a Vyas, but whether then the later recensions of the epic Mahabharata, as it grew from the original Jr, to paratha, to Mahabharata, as we know it today, and it went on getting added to over the centuries, whether it was retold by Southies, you know, the SE the retailer, or the person that who's retelling the retelling of the retelling, so on in the in the epic.



So the question is, basically, whether all these guys were trying to further a certain agenda, that agenda being Brahmanism. And here, cast becomes a very big question. So Brahmanism was the prevailing, you know, attitude of these tellers of these retailers, or, or storytellers. And they were promoting Brahmanism, because they were going through a period at that time, where shutters were considered superior simply because they were the kings, they own the wealth, the property, they had the army, so they could take things by force, and even Brahmins needed shutters to, to come to them and respect them, only then they could get. So it's very likely that there was a Brahmin agenda behind this, behind why they did not, you know, highlight all the diversity of the sexualities, and the sexual lifestyles that were practiced at that time. I believe that this is my personal opinion, based on my reading of these epics in the original form, time and again, and I believe that they did pursue that agenda and they did highlight and promote Brahmanism. That's why you'll find so many modifications of all the Swamis and the prominence and the rishis and maharishi's throughout all these versions.



And because of that, they glossed over or downplayed or even outright excised, cut out, you know these other stories. And that is a sad thing, because the few that we have left out sort of between the cracks, or in fact, you'll also find them if you want to look, if you go to the tribal versions, for example, the tribal version and each tribe of India, the Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribes, as we call them today, they are the original tribes of India, they the indigenous peoples of India, they are the Stoke keepers of our memory, actually. And if you look at their versions, for example, dropper D is recognized as a as what would today we called an outcast or shooter, or a tribal woman's icon, you know, for those people, and she is the hero of the epic. In a way, she is rightly the hero of the epic. And it's told from her point of view, and she is a force. And it's a view, they're beautiful versions of the Bavaro, which are nothing like this current or June, macho hero Giri kind of epic that we have all usually grown up watching and seeing and reading. So I think there are lost versions of the Mahabharat. And of the ancient times and the stories that we unfortunately have never seen. And the only way now to reclaim them is for someone, you know, to actually invent them. And at the same time, try to stay true to that world and that error, which is a tough task, because everyone occasionally can hear Coholic Hi, where is this written? From? Which scripture? Have you taken it? And the answer would be it isn't. So that is where the conundrum lies. And I don't really have a solution for it.



All I can say is that I think we've lost we've lost so much and therefore we are the poorer for it today. Yeah, I just I just thinking of all of those versions that you mentioned.



different tribal versions and it sort of makes you think, right. Like we're also always hell bent on the original the purity of the text. But there's so many I think the beauty and that's why we're so attracted to retellings and making these stories. Our own is because they're so universal. No. And, you know, what I was thinking of Tara is is that, you know, all these stories are set in ancient times, you know, but what if, you know, one of these stories were set in today's world, right. So we know that most of the modern dating and romance happens on apps right, you know, be Tinder wait Grindr that there's something for everyone? So Ashok, I'm very curious if you could take one of these stories and adapted for an online world, which would it be? And how would it play out? Oh, you know, you asked me something, and I'm smiling over here. While you've been, while you were saying that, because I'm right now in talks with major studio actually, to do an adaptation of epic loves, but it's very early days. So it's not like it's just happening. I don't know whether it ever happened. But it's money. But it's my wish to, to make it happen as in to take epic labs and adapt it, you know, for modern times. And the point being that these stories are eternal, that these, whether it's a love triangle, or whether it's a jilted lover, and requited love, as in the case of amber and dish, Ma, and all the different shades of love that we see in these epics, they are continuing even today, we are reliving the same stories in one form or the other, you know, time and again, and



you know, if you're familiar with the New York Times series, Modern Love, which was based on those, you know, yeah, yeah, one of my favorite Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So that came from real stories on the New York Times podcast, where real people called in and told their stories, and then they made it into a TV series. So similarly, I see no reason why we can't, you know, adapt these stories. And that's my attempt to do so. I'm not going to do it right now, because that comes too close to what I'm actually in talks with the production studio for. But, you know, let's hope that sometime soon. Yeah, I really wish it happened. I'm so excited. Like, I can't get your backside. No, Tara, let us manifest it on Brooklyn.



Yes, okay. So let's hope so. Let's hope so. And it, I think it will, but I agree with you, it would be really beautiful. Because, like you rightly said, whether it's through an app, whether it's through swiping, you know, whatever it is, I mean, then it really, it becomes so relevant, because you really see how the shunt is actually ghosting chakra, literally, you know, and it's so apt because that is what it is what's happening, whether it's, you know, even if it happened 5000 years ago, but that's what he was doing. And in that, I think the beauty of it is that, you know, in many ways, we are still the same. People don't really change not in the most essential ways. The outward trappings change, the paraphernalia changes, but we are the same. And love is always the same. And I think that is, you know, what epic loves the book is about and what I hope to achieve with the series. You know, yeah, I just, I just thought of one scenario because you mentioned ghosting, you know, I was just thinking, Okay, what if it was catfishing? And, and, you know, all the time Shakuntala has been chatting with someone, she thinks it's the shirt. And then when the person turns up, it's



so funny, that that actually is also there. It's an another story, but I won't get okay. Yes, I'm using all those present day tropes and things because trust, like I said, they've all been there. And actually, you can trace it back to any of these ancient stories and you say, oh, yeah, that's catfish shake. And that's, you know, to timing and three timing, as in the story of Sharmistha, Yachty, and Devyani. So, it's all there. It's just that, you know, the varying, you know, ancient garments, and they go rajai and things like that, instead of saying, Hey, dude, you know, whatever. So one of the questions that I had is that, you know, there's a lot of typical portrayals of the male gaze and the epics, right, which we spoken about. And one of the



scenes that I really liked is Shannon Shannon, who story.



You know, his son has a very sharp turn, who has a very funny reaction to his father describing a woman as sexually attractive. And he's like, oh, you know, like, I've never like thought of like, my father would describe a woman like this to me, and that was quite refreshing. So I wanted to ask, what are the other ways in which you have seen male characters in the epics stay away from the typical male gaze? Okay, so that's an interesting example because actually that act



In the original epic, the way I read it, it was very classic male, his, basically his father's telling him, you know, oh, you know, this girl came to me also, and she wanted to sit on my lap and you know, seduce me. So I said, Oh, whoa, hang on, hang on. Don't sit on my left thigh, because that is the result for what you call it for the girlfriend. But you can sit on my right thigh, which is reserved for daughters and grandchildren.



So he stopped her there. Yes, that is literally how it is described in the Mahabharat. And I have to say one thing Vyasa is a lot better. And he doesn't indulge in that much male gaze, you know, as for example, to give you two examples Valmiki and combine both. They spent so much of time describing women's breasts and hips. So God, I just did not truck with any of that in my drama and retelling. Trust me, I did No, I just said To hell with it. I'm not going to do all that. But it goes on like four lines and lines and lines. It is not just male gaze, it is like embarrassing. It's embarrassing to say like, Guys, you're embarrassing yourself. Just stop right there, you know.






we are size a lot better in that sense. He just tells you what happened. And yeah, if you know, the father actually said that. He says reporting it. He's not saying it in a doodle lecherous kind of way. In fact, the father is actually being very nice and Uncle like saying that no, no, no, I'm told, this is not going to work out you sit properly, don't try to seduce me that way. So it's quite refreshing even in the original. And I have to say it's unusual and interesting how the Mahabharata is better at dealing with this than the Ramayana is, which normally you think it's the other way around the Mahabharata to be the most sexual and everything.



There is Rama and is very erotic, if you read it in the original, or even in the, you know, the command retelling. And that's a shock. Actually, when you actually get down to it. It's shocking to see how the Ramayana is so erotic. It is very Kama Sutra in many ways.



I never knew that. Yeah, that there was such a stark difference. That's interesting.



And the last question before the rapid fire round is, I just wanted to know, Are you ever scared that your retellings might offend readers, especially in this political climate? Well, you know, I've, I've always followed the principle that I have to be true to the source. At the same time I have to be aware of when I'm writing and why I'm writing. And I always believe that if I'm writing, with honest intentions, things will be fine. And my intention has been very simple. There is a core story, which is a beautiful story. Like I said, I see them How about it is an epic about love, not about war. So I'm not looking to offend. I'm not looking to create controversy, I'm not at the same time, I'm not going to let



you know them get away with things like like I mentioned, you know, erotic descriptions of women's breasts. I'm not going to do that. So I said, No, no, forget about all that. And at the same time, I'm not going to push a certain party line or religious line. And on the other hand, I'm not going to be reactionary against it also. So the first thing, you know that the thing that you have to realize that you're reading versions of these ancient epics, which is written by a person who comes myself, I'm not a Hindu, I don't come from a Hindu background. I don't come from a Hindu upbringing, I did not grow up with these stories. I studied the sources, by come to it as an honest as a writer from a writer's point of view, looking at the storytelling, so I don't have either a pro agenda or an anti agenda. And I think that comes through. And in that sense, because of that, it is truly a secular retelling. It is truly an Indian retelling. And that's why I don't think I've ever had any controversy Touchwood hope I never do because I don't set out to either challenge or to further the, you know, the whole traditional line. Yes, absolutely. No, like they say they will be defense only when there is offense, so there is none. It won't be okay, so we come to our rapid fire round, which is one of the most exciting rounds. So what you have to do is you can reply in one word or one line, okay, okay. All right. So Roz, are they was a surahs. Okay.



One trope you see in mythology that's overdone.



Okay, men, men or women.






Okay. There are many symbols of love in mythology, like the lotus, which is your favorite water.



I like that. Yeah. Which is why you responded so well to my Ganga descriptions of her as a river. i Yeah, yeah.



actually do this I actually looked through and I look for the references to water. Don't forget that they didn't have water on tap back in those days. So drinking water was literally precious. And they valued it and the descriptions of water bodies. When I say water bodies, I mean like lakes and rivers and everything, and even people interacting with the water, the filling a pot, or whether swimming in it, or everything is so beautiful and so recurrent, that it's a very prominent motif of these epics and I love that because I love nature and I love water in nature. Also. I'm gonna look out for more water references in your work now that I know that that's that's really interesting. Yeah. Two retellings that are not your own, that you absolutely love. Okay. This is a tough one, but I'm going to give you answers that may not be very expected. One is a retelling of a story from the Bible, the story of Joseph, you know, in Egypt, called Joseph and his many color code, origin story, but the version I'm talking about is Joseph and his brothers by Thomas Mann. That was the actual retelling of a classic biblical story which is similar in in context to our, you know, ancient epics in that sense. But, you know, in the modern era, when Thomas Mann wrote it, which actually inspired me and triggered my instinct to go for a retelling of the Ramayana, people assume that it's because I had read Harry Potter, which actually wasn't published when I started writing or even the Lord of the Rings. But that was not my inspiration. My inspiration was Joseph and his brothers by Thomas Mann. So that is actually the only one that I can mention, because that's the only one that stood out to me. Wonderful. Oh, yeah, I wouldn't have expected that. What is the one crucial difference between Indian mythology and as compared to its western counterparts? Okay, this is a tough one. Because there are so many similarities and overlaps. And in some ways, we see some stories, arguably, being retold in different cultures, like the tale of Rahman can, is very, very similar in so many coincidental ways to the tale of Helen of Troy, you know, and, you know, the prince coming to reclaim his, his wife, and so on. That is a lot of symbiosis between the mythologies of the world cultures. But what I see is not just India, but a kinship between Indian and Asian mythologies. If you look at the Chinese, famous Chinese epics, the great epics, in fact, which may, in some ways predate even our Ramayana, and Mahabharata, it's really, and they are fantastic stories. So those we share very similar kinship to the extent that Journey to the West, which is a very famous Chinese epic, is actually about Hanuman guiding



this, this group of pilgrims to come to meet the Bhutan, India, so it's all a one family. Whereas when you look at Greek Roman nos, mythologies, and each of them have such different characteristics, and, you know, natures, that it's it's very, very simply put, it's like the difference between India and America, or Bombay, and Mumbai and New York. That's the simplest way I could say. Yes. And this is the last one, Greek or Roman mythology, which would you like to return next? Oh, I wouldn't, I wouldn't be interested. I'm no longer failing. By the way. I'm no longer Toby mythological stories for quite a few years, actually.



Yeah, no, we have a lot of your other books as well. Yes.



Thank you so much. This was like, I think we need to have another session with you. Because I intuitively could have like, I have so many questions I could have gone on you. Were really insightful. So thank you. Thank you so much for this. Really, you're most welcome. It's been a joy and a pleasure. Thank you for being wonderful, you know, conversationalist on this conversation. And I'd love to do another one with you. Maybe I don't know if maybe we should pick another book of mine then.



Yeah, we good? Yeah, definitely. Would love to. Yes, yes.



So here we are, where the end of yet another journey into the many worlds of Books and Beyond with bound. I'm Tara can do while. I'm Michelle D'costa. And this podcast is created by bout a company that helps you grow through stories. Find us at sound India are all social media platforms. So tune in every Wednesday if you live, eat and breathe books, and join us as we discover more revolutionary books, and a peek into the lives and minds of some truly brilliant authors from India and South Asia. And don't forget to keep your love for stories alive.



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