Columnist, former journalist, and RIL New Media Director Gautam Chikermane’s latest book, ‘Tunnel of Varanavat’ is forthcoming in July 2016. Based on a reimagining of one of the scenes from the Mahabharat, it features some kick-ass women warriors.
The book cover boasts an endorsement from Amish Tripathi, no less, who knows a thing or two about spinning mythological tales into best-sellers in modern-day India.
Chikermane tells SheThePeople.TV where his inspiration has come from, the stories he wants to tell, and more about those strong women characters — including how we shouldn’t base all our assumptions on the belief of how women were treated on the one text, The Manusmriti.
1) What led you to write this book — tell us a little bit about your inspirations and your own interest in the Mahabharat?
Like with every Indian, the Mahabharat is a narrative that runs in my blood, sits in my bones. Right from the first time I heard the story from my grandfather when I was three, it has been a saga that has walked with me. As I grew older and began to read, I found every interpretation of this great work intriguing.
I had been wanting to write it for a long time. But I didn’t want it to be yet another rewrite of the story, mostly based on Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s work, the first major translation in the 19th century (between 1883 and 1896).
Concurrently, I was exposed to and engaged with contemporary themes through journalism, mostly around money, power, marginalisation, inequalities. And I found reflections of these themes in the mirror of the Mahabharat. The only missing link was characters.
And so, my reimagining of the Mahabharat is around the subaltern. Enough has been written from the points of view of kings and queens. I wanted to look at the time through the eyes of common women and men. Journalism helped me identify issues and viewpoints from ground up. The result is the first of my series, Tunnel of Varanavat.
To put this in perspective, if I were writing the Mahabharat describing today’s times, my protagonists would not be Narendra Modi or Barack Obama but that soldier on the border who took bullets in his chest, that salesman who came to Mumbai and became a singer, that single mother who fought society to bring up her child, that teacher who created several leaders, that woman who became India’s first fighter-pilot, that woman who wanted to be a nurse but was raped and killed brutally. I would tell these stories. I would tell our stories.
If I were writing the Mahabharat describing today’s times, my protagonists would not be Narendra Modi or Barack Obama but that soldier on the border who took bullets in his chest, that salesman who came to Mumbai and became a singer, that single mother who fought society to bring up her child…
2) What do you think explains the resonance of some of these stories even today?
Never was the Mahabharat as relevant as yesterday. Never has the Mahabharat been more relevant than today. Never will it be more relevant across several tomorrows. That’s because there is an element of permanence, an eternity, a universality residing in this text. From adventure and romance to dharm and spirituality, Ved Vyas’s greatest work has a relevance that goes beyond time as well as space — a 5,000-year-old story of India holds a mirror to a 20th century India as much as for the rest of the world.
The kingdoms of yesterday have become political parties of today. Who knows what the organisations of tomorrow will look like. But do you think conflict around their ownership and control will ever end? It will need a spiritual transformation for that to happen.
Further, the spirituality of India, from the Veds to the Upanishads, has been captured and elegantly placed in a small chapter of 700 verses — the Bhagwad Gita. It was relevant five millenniums ago. But if you look at how spirituality — not religion but spirituality — is increasingly moving mainstream across the world, you will see that the epicenter of this upsurge, the fundamental principles that drive this force, the root of all this flowering is the Bhagwad Gita.
3) Did you consciously want to write about strong women characters — it’s not how the epics have traditionally been told! Tell us a bit about that!
I am surrounded by strong women. My mother, my mother-in-law, my wife, my daughter in particular, but equally several other women I’ve met, worked with and learnt from. So, I am unable to accept the filmy stereotype of a wailing woman, I just can’t. I believe women are stronger than men. The body alone doesn’t make a being. There are other parts of us — the mind, the vital, the psychic. And in the overall scheme of things, men are spoilt beings, living in an illusion that they rule the world. But finally, it is women who give them strength — I certainly derive my strength from them. Women have the strength of compassion, they have a greater endurance, staying power, resilience than men. It is shameful to see gender inequality across the world. This must end — and it will.
It is incorrect to say that our epics portray women as weak. In the Mahabharat alone, we have the fiery Draupadi, the enduring Gandhari, the resilient Kunti, and of course, Savitri who fought with the Lord of Death, Yam, and brought her husband Satyavan back from the dead. You may agree or disagree with them but they remain women of strength.
In the Mahabharat alone, we have the fiery Draupadi, the enduring Gandhari, the resilient Kunti, and of course, Savitri who fought with the Lord of Death, Yam, and brought her husband Satyavan back from the dead. You may agree or disagree with them but they remain women of strength.
But it’s not only the main women protagonists that carry strength. There is a beautiful story of a housewife whose tapasya was simply doing her duty. She engages with an arrogant Brahmin and teaches him a lesson in dharm. Or take Vidula, a mother who inspires her son to fight the good fight in one of the most inspiring poems: “Kshatriyas on this world were loosed for battle by their Maker high, / Sunjoy, for the strife and victory, and they conquer or they die.”
Or take Lopamudra, who taught Rishi Agastya a lesson in sexual duties of a householder and also contributed to the Rig Ved. The weeping-wailing women we see on TV or films are a creation of contemporary times and entitled men.
To say India did not treat its women with respect or that their status was low simply based on one book, the Manusmriti, is missing the context of ancient India altogether. Don’t blame our epics — and certainly not the Mahabharat — for this abomination.
It is disheartening to see this cloud of dark consciousness that has created divisions of inequality between man and woman. Spiritually, both are interdependent — Purush and Prakriti. Perhaps, a resurgent India, picking up the discarded fragments of its ancient knowledge and attitudes, may help excavate and nurture a more equal future for the world. I am hopeful.