One of the few things people connect with India besides Slumdog Millionaire and hub of cheap Third World labour are the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat — which are of course, anglicised to Ramayana and Mahabharata. Almost always, these epics are seen as the narrativisation of ‘the great oral tradition of storytelling’, basing this tradition in the past, which not only increases the net worth of such a text but also binds the epic with ‘history’; it’s seen as a ‘pre-colonial’ Indian¹utopia and as the ‘pure’ culture, while neatly obliterating the existence of more than a few hundred narrativisations of these epics — which are subjective to the caste and class of the community they come from — and they’re seen synonymously with Hinduism and our religions — meanwhile western epics like the Iliad and Odyssey are seen as Great Literature and not the representative of a population. Thanks to this pact with ‘history’, these texts are seen as — forcibly — situated texts that describe how Things Were Back Then and almost always read when mirrored with Christianity or the western gaze. So when the text turns out to have any contemporary beliefs or depict any ‘modern’ behaviour, it is hailed as a new ‘discovery’, when in reality these ‘discoveries’ have always existed in the texts. Insert quip about colonisation here.
Lately, there is a new surge of reading ‘religious’ texts through a queer perspective, which perplexes me to no end — for these particular texts, Mahabharat especially, have always been queer texts. I grew up with stories from the Mahabharat and have known tales of Krishna and Radha role-playing and switching genders, Arjun living as a woman for a year with a man’s mind, Draupadi as the daughter born of a man’s body — and these are a few instances I can remember without even looking at the texts my grandmum used to read. Agreeably, in most re-tellings of this epic, even these gender transgressions are somehow inserted into patriarchy — Krishna becomes a ‘womaniser’ who doesn’t mind ‘playing around’, Arjun is written and seen as a character who ‘just dresses as a woman’ while retaining his identity and physical form, Draupadi’s birth is naturalised — however what these studies do is anthropologically ‘carve out’ queer instances and characters, instead of just rescuing the regional-dialectical re-telling from the mainstream one. Not to mention, even these queer characters are seen through the Western lens and then we have debates and papers arguing just why Arjun isn’t a trans* character, without taking into account that being trans* across different cultures or that even ‘queer’ manifests in different forms here. Because of such ritual and continuous exotification, books like Devdutt Pattaniak’s ‘The Pregnant King‘ are a cause for wonder and amazement in the Western world — more like a mild case of, “I used to be Brown but now I Think!”.
The Pregnant King is a text that narrativises and fictionalises the tale of a childless king who was a contemporary of the Pandavs, thus we know the setting is around the Kuru-kshtera war, but it moves on to its obscure characters — some of the most fascinating are Somvat a Brahmin boy who transforms to a woman to be with his lover, a queen who cannot rule because she is a woman, a woman who is raised and eventually identifies as a man and the protagonist who drinks a magical potion that makes him father a child and is then uncertain about his identity — written in English to either get a wider (Western) audience or to cache it under the genre of ‘fantasy’ considering the author is on risky ground for ‘questioning the sanctity of the epics!’. It goes without saying, writing such a novel does take courage, keeping in mind the religious-state-sanctioned communal identity most of the politicians thrive on, how most people view these texts as religious dictats and not just tales, how most of the Hindu-cultural identity is coded into these texts and the fact that the author takes great pains to illustrate gender and caste biases wherever possible. So on some cognitive level, I can appreciate the efforts of the author, but there are too many silences and silenced voices in this text to go un-noticed. As the text is written in English, names are anglicised², alienating me in the process — every time I said the anglicised names out loud, they’d seem foreign and harsh as they don’t roll off like the Sanskrit names do — but I’m used to such translations. What really unsettled me is how culture is diluted and broken down into actions — for instance the puja is described as an “appeasement of Gods with flowers, food and waving of lamps” — is if to make sure the Omnipresent Western Reader would understand every ‘exotic’ word used. Much like footnotes used by the British to ‘comprehend the Hindoo animal’ this text too explains each cultural practice. An apsara is called a ‘nymph’, a bhrama-rakshas is called a ‘demon-spirit’, a yaksh is called a ‘goblin’, each time reminding me that the culture I grew up in is legitimate only when tied to a western-marker. I can already see people protesting, “What is your problem if a text is made relevant? This way more people can read and appreciate it” — this is only half-true. More people will read it because it’s a ‘queer’ perspective to a ‘sacred’ text, an aura of taboo mixes with the erotic thus making it more consumable and irresistible. We don’t always need these western-markers to ‘understand’ a text — I grew up reading words, terms, cultural practices like “Chaise”, “Halloween” etc without anyone explaining what they exactly meant, read Wordsworth’s infamous poems on Nature and Daffodils without ever smelling the flower for instance – and turned out quite okay. Reading Dickens was a nightmare — besides his countless race and genderfails — because of so many cultural practices he’d mention that I’d never heard of, so it was Dickens Plus Dictionary in my household. Somehow, just somehow I ‘understood’ it all — no one had to tell me ‘English tea’ was nothing like the chai women in my house would drink in the afternoon — I knew our cultures were different and this difference was used to map supposed inferiority in our skins and authority in theirs.
In addition to dilution of culture and specific practices, the climax of the novel is the fact that most gods are male, female, both, neither all at once and then Yuvanashv comes to terms with his identity that presents as a male and yet he gives birth to his son — by the time I got to this bit, reading had become a chore. Anyone familiar with Hindu mythology knows that Gods are not separate from their feminine forms — Shiv is Parvati is Kali is Krishna is Radha is Indra and so on — but because we read these texts as one does Christian (Western) ‘religious texts’ which are more or less gendered, these characters are also confined to the gender binary. Then of course, liberal universities and humanities departments host fests that ‘uncover’ the ‘queer’ elements in the texts — once again re-enforcing a half-swallowed truth: We Don’t Exist, Till They Say We Do. Growing up too, I learnt that to ‘gain’ relevance I must be ‘understood’ — and if you ‘understand’ the Other, you can possess and chart the Other — and this ‘understanding’ comes when I erase myself, a culture I was raised in, markers that tie me to my current geopolitical location, become a tabula rasa and wait for the Nice Imperial Person to write over me, for only then I am given existence. And people still don’t believe that colonisation exists, or that we live such fissured lives because of our colonial past.
1. This is factually incorrect considering the fact one of the first colonisers were the Iranians, dating back to 1800 BCE and invaded the land of the Dravidians — which is why most of us today aren’t entirely neither Aryan nor Dravidian in complexion.
2. It’s not about what ‘sounds’ better entirely — Sanskrit names are derived from that of one’s father to chart a character’s lineage — by anglicising them, these names and tradition are distorted.