Krishna Udayasankar The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 1: Govinda
Hachette India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 350. pp. 458
Early in August I met Krishna Udayasankar in Delhi. She was here for the launch of her debut novel, Govinda. Krishna is a lawyer and based in Singapore, living with her husband and two huskies. She writes although she has a day job as a lecturer at Nanyang Business School. She has a PhD in Business (Strategic Management). According to her, “I write whenever I can – i.e. any available moment. My typical ‘work’ day starts around noon (unless I have classes or meetings in the morning) after a round at the gym, and it goes on past midnight. Of this day, whatever time is not spent on teaching, prep and other university-related duties I try to write, or do research and other things book-related. But lest I sound too hard-working, let me confess that I spend a lot of this time online on FB or mail, passing it off as ‘work’, I do however try to write every day, even for just a few minutes, as a matter of discipline.”
Govinda is the first in the Aryavarta Chronicles, a new version of the Mahabharata. The difference being that in her story, Krishna’s characters come across as ordinary mortals who have to face extraordinary challenges. Plus the women characters are far more strongly etched than ever before. She admits that there are “no passive characters” in her book. (No surprises there, especially a) the canon of contemporary literature that relies heavily upon the epics like Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s The Palace of Illusions did set a trend and b) meeting Krishna, who is a feisty and strong personality herself.) In her introduction the author is quick to affirm that these chronicles “are neither reinterpretation or retelling”. She would prefer to term her book as mytho-history. This is an excerpt from an email exchange where we discussed the terminology:
The most oft-quoted definitions of mytho-history trace back to Prof. Mohammed Arkoun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Arkoun ), who is credited with having developed a theory of mytho-history and mytho-ideology. Of course, while the processes that we define as mytho-history are age-old ones, in modern times Prof. Arkoun is credited with giving it theoretical definition, as well as practical application.
It is a more sociological or anthropological sense to describe the process or body of myths that have become part of the collective history of a people and their culture — particularly origin-stories or tales that explain why or how the world around them is the way it is — prevailing norms and cultures. For example, in India, many people believe — irrespective of historical evidence or otherwise — that the characters of the Mahabharata did exist, though with powers and abilities that would today be considered super-normal, such as extended lifespans. By rationalizing what may be abnormal (it was another Yuga, evil has since diminished humanity, etc.) there is an attempt to preserve a logical engagement, which becomes less necessary when we talk of ‘pure myth’.
What I try to capture when I use the word is not just the phenomenon, the attempt at logic that distinguished the narrative from pure myth, but also the rationale. I do so by asking why are the certain stories that become mytho-histories while others remain pure myth. Again, to illustrate by example, we do we never quite ‘believe’ that some of the events described in the Vedas happened the way they did, choosing instead to interpret them as spiritual verse or even mystical metaphor?; possibly because the parts of the Vedas are not historical accounts, but a collection of scientific Arcanum, carefully disguised as metaphor in a bid to protect knowledge (or the keepers thereof). The Mahabharata, on the other, contains the categorical assertion as part of its text that it is history – or was history contemporaneous to its composition.
So, what I mean by myth-history, though perhaps an anthropologist may take exception: Mytho-history is that body of narrative that may well have had enough historical evidence in support of it in the past, to find an enduring place in culture, but today lacks sufficient evidence to be presented as historical fact – even though its half-sister, mythology, is able to recollect the finer details.
Govinda is an example of commercial fiction with a decent print run. Based upon the initial reports from the market, it seems that Krishna’s fast paced story is selling well (and deservedly so!). I met a bookseller two days ago who had displayed the book prominently at his shop and was hoping the sequel would arrive soon. If that is the case, then the author has achieved her intention of getting the reader to engage with the novel even if it is to disagree.
28 August 2012