Few things give Anand Neelakantan more joy than encouraging readers to view Indian legends and epics from interestingly new perspectives. Exploring new dimensions after researching and perusing different versions – there are at least 300 versions of the Ramayana itself, he says – and gently nudging readers to review the Indian epics in the light of fresh interpretations are what the Mumbai-based author has been doing since his debut work Asura: Tale of the Vanquished hit the bookshelves in 2012.
Based on the Indian epic Ramayana and told from the perspective of Ravana, the mythological king of Lanka (in contrast to the more popular versions told from the point of view of Rama, the hero of the epic), the 504-page book raced up the bestseller charts and was nominated for Crossword’s Popular Award.
Tasting success, Anand followed it up relooking at another Indian epic, Mahabharata, this time upending the popular version to tell the tale from the perspective of the Kauravas. Soon followed Vanara, another tale from the Ramayana told from the point of view of a valorous king Bali who was killed by Rama.
Now the popular storyteller digs into the Ramayana once again to tell the stories of five women from the Indian epic. While some of them are lesser discussed in the popular versions of the epic, all are without doubt intriguing and interesting characters in their own right.
Titled Valmiki’s Women, Anand portrays the lives of Bhoomija, Meenakshi, Shanta, Manthara and Tataka – characters whose actions have major repercussions in the venerated epic.
"I enjoy writing about the puranas and exploring ways to connect it with modern life," says the author, in a video call from his home in Mumbai. "In this book, I wanted to view some of the characters of the famed epic from a feminist perspective but not just for the sake of it. I wanted to shine a light on characters such as Tataka and Mandara who are not explored much in many versions of the Ramayana."
Viewing the epic from the perspective of marginalised characters such as Rama’s sister, Shanta, and Ravana’s sister Soorpanakha aka Meenakshi, among others, opened up new realms for the author leading him to pose intriguing questions to readers. Was Mandara really a conniving handmaid of the queen as she is portrayed in some versions or is she in reality a loving mother who tried to protect her ward from palace intrigues? he asks.
He poses more questions: Would King Dasharatha have realised his dream of having sons if it had not been for the sacrifice made by his daughter Shanta? What could have led the pretty Meenakshi to get transformed into an abhorrent being?
"The book is really a product of such questions," says Anand. It is also the product of several years that he spent distilling the emotions and thoughts that were churning around in his mind.
Digging deep into Valmiki’s Ramayana, Anand, who admits that this 226-page book was more "like a hobby project than a commissioned one", wrote it with no fixed deadline looming before him. "It took me close to four years to complete," says the man who usually pens a 400-page book in around five months. "Compared to my other books, Valmiki’s Women is more meditative in nature. I went deep into myself to draw out the emotions of the characters. So there is a lot more soul in this book."
He chose the short story format to tell the tales of the women after he realised that the characters would not lend themselves to separate whole-length novels "because there is not much material available and I did not want to add anything outside of what is available in any of the versions of the epic".
How did you choose these five women characters? I ask.
"I’d say the characters chose themselves," says the author of 12 books and who has scripted several hugely popular television serials, including Siya ke Raam and Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat.
"I wanted the characters to be potent, but who were not talked about much in the epic," he says. Tara, Queen of Kishkindha and wife of Bali, was one such character he began working on initially. "But that soon expanded to become Vanara," he says. (Vanara, incidentally, is being made into a multi-lingual film.)
From the five characters he has portrayed, the one that left the greatest impact on him, he admits, is Meenakshi. "Her story touched me deeply. Tadaka’s, too."
Anand has also released an audio book, Many Ramayanas, Many Lessons (available on Audible). The 11+ hour work has been receiving rave reviews and earned a 4.7 (out of 5) star rating.
"In this audible version, I’m trying to introduce the epic to the younger generation," says Anand. He offers his interpretation of the Ramayana based on reading not one or two versions but hundreds of versions of the epic.
"I take an incident that happens in Valimiki’s Ramayana and then compare it with how the incident is described in say, the Thai Ramayana, and attempt to explain the incident in simple terms," says the award-winning writer.
"Instead of using a devotional perspective, I narrate the incident from a very rational viewpoint and try to make it relevant to the new generation."
Warming up to the topic, the underlying principle of the epic, he says, is never about good versus evil because the concept of absolute good or absolute bad never existed in the Hindu philosophy. Good or bad was always relative and based on perspectives of people.
"Life is nothing but the choices you make, the actions you take on those choices and the fruits of those actions. This philosophy is what I attempt to explain in the audible story," says the author.
Anand makes it clear that his work is not a scholarly one but more "like a casual evening conversation between friends". And conversations are clearly what the writer enjoys. "I suppose it comes from the oral tradition that I am so fond of," he says, with a laugh.
In the oral tradition, the story changes with each retelling because the teller tweaks the story depending on the audience he is narrating it to. "That is why there are so many versions of our epics and puranas."
Even as Anand is getting busy on a slew of books including one on a clutch of lesser known women characters from Mahabharata, he is also co-writing the screenplay for a mythological drama, Karna, with Bollywood director Rakeysh Om Prakash. "Shaheed Kapoor will be starring in this film," he says, adding that he cannot share more details as yet.
Any tips for budding writers?
"Writing, like any other art form, requires immense practice," he says. "The best way to sharpen your skill is by writing – and reading a lot."