Monday, May 31, 2010

The Epic and the Avatar: Between Myth, Religion and Fiction – 1

Writing the Chronicles, or to be precise, Book One of the Chronicles, has taken more effort than... well, a PhD thesis, for one. But that is precisely what it has been. A scientific inquiry, at least in method, if not in matter.

So how does one logically begin to investigate the narratives and times, even the events and characters, which underlie a story?

1. The Fundamental Premise

It becomes easier to be scientific and sensitive both, if we begin with a fundamental premise: There’s a larger story here, which will endure, no matter how it’s told. I mean that, not in any religious or spiritual sense, but more in the sense of a faith in humanity, a faith in basic values, of non-judgement and acceptance.

I have neither theological nor philosophical expertise to justify this distinction; but nevertheless, it has been a powerful and useful tool, because it helps parse out moral imperative from moral principle. Moral principles are relatively immutable, whereas moral imperatives are often context and society specific. They also change over time. As a result, for an epic such as the Mahabharata, or any tale for that matter, to retain its lauded status, it must either adapt to the existing imperatives. Or else, there must be some justification for defying them.

And that is why we have variations and interpolations.

2. Interpolations

As symbols of culture, no doubt the interpolations add value to the Epics, and form an integral part of the story. But when it comes to seeking out the small gaps that leave scope for alternative interpretations, it is to the interpolations we must look.

Somewhere in the equation between the social context of the story, and its pre-existing version, the interpolations have made the narrative more relevant, more legitimate, perhaps even more powerful and persuasive. Why was it needed? Who might have wanted the story told this way? What difference does it make? These questions make for interesting answers.

Answers which are not always obvious.

3. Metaphor

At the end of the day, every story-teller tries to be a word-smith; a poet. Not all language is the terse language of fact, at least, not the first time. Quite often, when a metaphor is repeated, perhaps elaborated on in some way, it takes on a literal quality. With retelling, that literal tinge may come to stay, and what was once a colourful way of saying something now seems other-worldly fact; (like the clichéd flying to the rescue...)

In other situations, metaphors may have been intentional. These can sometimes continue to defy conclusive interpretation, and as such, are the writer’s delight. Why these metaphors were used to veil words in the first place – the reasons may range from the playful to the sinister, and are again, food for imagination.

4. Omission and Inclusion

The fourth point is more of a method, one that I too am guilty of – Interpolation and Metaphor help not just in leaving things out, but in bringing things in. Before going any further, I must clarify: This is more than just artistic licence. It’s more than reading between the lines. It’s about reading between the lines in a consistent manner.

Which means, any interpretation, any perspective you take, has to be congruent with the whole narrative, the whole context of the epic; and not just parts. The bad guys cannot suddenly become the good guys, and become bad again just before the climax. There have to be reasons for everything, even what may be contradictory to common perceptions or ‘facts.’ Just because an interpretation is shocking or novel does not excuse it from meeting basic logic.

5. Research... and more research

That brings us to the final element or tool of investigation. Thankfully, in the internet age, it is possible (and much easier) to stand on the shoulders of giants. This post is not the place to launch into what would be a huge list of references and acknowledgements, and so, I shall stick to two stalwarts, whom I mention here to serve my own selfish purposes: K.M. Munshi and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.

While I hope to say more about both these writers in later posts, here’s the crux of it: They are both well-respected, eminent personalities who dared question the conventional perceptions of the Epics, and most importantly; Govinda Shauri himself.

K.M. Munshi had no qualms in taking the view that scripture is but metaphor, and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay began his inquiry with a decidedly agnostic position. Of course, I lay claim to neither their erudition nor their commitment, but bask in the safety of their pioneering work. The point here, however, is that a slew of work is out there – critical, unconventional, even controversial, that revolves around the epics. Many, in regional and vernacular tongues, existing as folklore and tales that have never made it into print. Where would I stand, I must humbly wonder, but for the many giants that have spent their lives in researching these tangled skeins?

That thought, leads me to add what may be a simple, but effective principle; one last tool of inquiry:

6. This is not the first time someone has delved into the mystery of the Epics.

And this won’t be the last.

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