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Vamsee Juluri

Vamsee Juluri

Posted: October 7, 2010 05:15 PM

In an age when the word "reality" has become synonymous with nasty behaviors on TV shows and "truth" seems impossibly divided between political cults, perhaps we could find a better sense of both in what we lightly call "myth." The tales of the gods and goddesses that we have told ourselves since humanity's first light may seem irrelevant in today's world except as bed-time stories, but they can still prove to be a living resource for understanding the present, as a number of recent books by Indian writers show.

My interest in mythology as a way of thinking about present-day problems sparked to life strangely enough not in the myth-drenched landscape of India but in the shadow of the sculpture of a Greek legend in Florence. Medusa, I realized, was the most apt mythic metaphor for the media age -- one look at her glowing eyes and you turn to stone, much like TV gazers on their couches everywhere. That single idea grew in time into my novel, The Mythologist. At first, my goal had been to write out a precise 'demonology' of television using elements from Greek mythology as a teaching tool for my Media Violence class that could be developed into a workbook of sorts. My ambitions, fortunately for my writing career, were given a helpful reality check by a kind literary agent who told me to just write a straightforward novel instead, and a straightforward reality-based novel, rather than a generic fantasy at that.

Many rewrites later, The Mythologist turned into a story about a young man who suffers from a perennial reality crisis because of his movie family background (he is the grandson of an Indian movie pioneer who used to make mythological films with coded Gandhian messages to fight British colonial rule). Ruined by his inability to fulfill his childhood dream of starring in a movie about Lord Krishna, the protagonist stumbles through life and three decades of Indian history from one bout of 'reality abuse' to another, finding betrayal and sometimes solace in the myths and legends the world seems to throw at him in various guises. He survives the myth-making (and simply lying) characters of the Indian film industry and Indian politics. But he faces his biggest crisis when he finds that his identity has been stolen by a mysterious woman on the eve of 9/11 and he has nothing in his suburban isolation to show him the truth -- except his half-baked memories of his grandfather's tales and a Hollywood movie he adored as a child called Clash of the Titans.

With references to Clash of the Titans, Indian mythological films from the mid twentieth century, and grandiose movie stars turned politicians, it was perhaps inevitable that some readers initially expected my novel to be a satire about an exceptionally kitschy aspect of pop culture, Western and Indian (it's not, for the record). However, as I discovered in the course of meeting some wonderful book lovers during readings in India, myth is still seen as far more than kitsch; it is a thriving cultural resource that people are actively re-engaging with in new ways that are meaningful to them.

This level of engagement is not surprising given that India is perhaps one of the few places left in the world with a living mythology -- the old tales of the gods have not been formally relegated to folklore in the popular imagination and replaced by newer faiths, neither have these tales remained static, for new variations, episodes, characters and relationships are frequently added on to old stories. While much of the reinvention of mythology in modern Indian popular culture has taken place in film and television, it has also come into its own as a subject of serious attention from some of India's best writers in English. In the last year alone, a number of critically acclaimed and commercially successful books published in India dealt with mythology in some form or another.

Jaya, a retelling of the Mahabharatha by India's leading mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik, weaves wisdom and enchantment together in stories, commentary, and art. Gurcharan Das's The Difficulty of Being Good revisits important elements of the Mahabharatha story in order to discuss contemporary ethical problems. Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale's In Search of Sita presents a collection of essays on the implications of one of Hinduism's most idealized goddesses, rescuing her from overwhelmingly patriarchal readings. Nanditha Krishna's Sacred Animals of India serves as a much needed cultural resource on how ancient Indian religious culture traditionally conceived of the numerous animals of the subcontinent, from the well known elephant god Ganesha to less well known animal figures in the epics as well as in Jain and Buddhist legends. In fiction, first-time novelist Amish Tripathi's The Immortals of Meluha, the first volume in a trilogy about Shiva has proved an unlikely (from the literary world's perspective at least) bestseller.

The resurgence of myth in Indian writing indicates something more than a mere cashing in by publishers and writers on a rapidly globalizing "neo-religiosity," as some critics might call it. By turning to myth as neither idolaters nor idol-breakers, by neither claiming immutable religious sanction nor entirely irreverent license, a new generation of writers and readers is finding in them credible insights about unarguably non-mythical and universal problems like violence, injustice, and inequality. I believe that one reason mythology has proved appealing on such a point is simply because there are few other ways of overcoming the crisis of reality we face in the world today. After all, there seem to be only two options left for us in terms of how we believe something to be true about the world: one is the dangerous certainty of the fundamentalist, the other is the jaded cynicism of the non-believer (I don't mean religion alone). Mythology too can fall into these extremes, but when it is done right, it can prove surprisingly resilient and escape the traps of time and place. Maybe the reason myths have survived the centuries is simply because we have agreed at some level to treat them as something outside the borders of ordinary communication. Without the burden of force that comes with other claims to truth, myths are free as we are, or at least as we dream of being.