Thursday, June 27, 2013

History, Politics and Best Sellers….

History, Politics and Best Sellers….

You know what I regret most? I regret that Valmiki and Ved Vyas did not copyright their works. I wish that the intellectual property laws had been invented back in 2000 BC or thereabouts so we don’t have to suffer the torture inflicted on us- the reading public- by half-baked re-imaginings of timeless classics in the name of re-interpretation. Gods and devils, devas and asuras- none have been spared from being filched and “re-imagined” horrendously. Every other writer nowadays "borrows" of the Puranas and Itihasas and makes a mash of them in the guise of modernity. 

If you are wondering what has riled me so much let me give you the story behind my irritation. I recently got my hands on a book which was purported to be a retelling of God Shiva's story - a book tom-tomed as the fastest selling bestseller on on-line retailers.. If you have not had the misfortune to read that novel please don’t spend your hard earned money and buy it believing the marketing hype. But if you like me had bought it already, then i am sure that we kindred souls can commiserate with each other for wasting time and money on such a pathetic rendition of what a novel should be. 

There are lots of people out there who trash Chetan Bhagat (after secretly reading his novels) as a boring and ungrammatical writer. I for one consider Chetan Bhagat as the best Indian contemporary author. Want to know why? Because he is original and imaginative. He doesn’t simply filch the Ramayana and Mahabharata and just modernize the characters. He has written progressively about college life, call center life, small town life and such other facets of contemporary.

Now compare Chetan Bhagats competition on the bestseller list.  The other bestsellers on the contemporary Indian fiction list are Bankers Ramayana series- not a patch on the previous versions of Valmiki, Tulsidas, Kamban or my favorite, Rajagoplachari's. And then the execrable Shiva series I mentioned earlier written by Amish Tripathi and the Krishna series written by Ashwin Sanghi- an eminently forgettable addition to the list of Indian writers- as forgettable as their books. And somehow marketing hype, catering to the lowest common denominator has brought these books onto the bestseller list too. 

The reason, in my opinion, these books are making the bestseller lists is the rising tide of fanaticism in the country. Our people are getting better educated but are simultaneously growing more parochial. Such people don’t read or trust history, they get all their historical knowledge from reading trashy novels which retell history to reflect their authors mindset. Mores’ the pity for a real historical knowledge is as essential for a good citizen as any professional training. A professional degree gives you the skills for a job; history teaches you your place in society. And that’s the reason why rulers have fought over it traditionally - the right to teach their own version of history.

Throughout human life we can see that history has always been a weapon in the hands of the ruling elite. In India real historical knowledge was first propounded by the ruling British, people like Alexander Cunningham who excavated Monhenjadaro and formulated the Indus Valley civilization theory and the Aryan Dravidian divide. After independence history passed on into the hands of those Marxist parasites who ruled the roost under Nehruvism- people like Romila Thapar- who decided that Marxism was best served by reducing Indian history to a nonentity until the Arab invasion of Sindh. For the Marxist historians Indian history attained its high point and ended with the Mughals. For how else could they justify their accepting handouts from the modern day nawabs who ruled from New Delhi. And this state sponsored glossing over the historical atrocities committed by the Islamic invasion has produced a natural backlash in the rise of hindutva fanatics who have swung the pendulum of history to the other end.

The right wing rise in India has coincided with bestselling novelists who have cleverly played on the sentiments of people who want to believe that theirs was a glorious past which was destroyed by foreign invaders starting from the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols and then the British. For people like Amish Tripathi, the highpoint of Indian history is the Aryan reign in the Indo-Gangetic plain. That is why in the Shiva series he has Aryanised the Indus valley culture by referring it often by the historically inaccurate name of Indo-Saraswatic culture. Every theory of the yet to be deciphered Harappan script refers to the astonishing similarities it shares with Dravidian, more specifically the early Granthan Tamil script known as Vatteluthu. 

 But to these new age authors, people like Ashwin Sanhghi or Amish Tripathi, everything starts with Manu their patron saint and so they appropriate the Dravidian heritage of the Indus valley culture and make it Proto-Aryan - as a degenerated form of the great Aryan civilization as exemplified by Manudharma. Archaeological evidence of a 150 years - right from the original digger Cunningham- is discarded in favor of a fanciful interpretation to suit new age India which demands a hoary past of immense scientific progress and cultural status. 

For these people everyone in ancient India ate gold and shit diamonds and all the knowledge of the world was inside India and the rest were mere barbarians. This exalted view of Indian supremacy must have existed historically too or how else can you explain the fact that at one point of history ancient Indian society specifically excommunicated people who traveled by  sea? Even the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi suffered this fate as late as the 19th century when he went to England to study law and this when there was clear historical evidence from coins/potsherds/books (Indica by Megasthenes?) that other ancient civilizations were bold seafarers who regularly visited India to trade?

This parochial view of the false greatness of Indians alone when compared to the rest of the world is the same view being perpetuated by these bestselling authors to prey on gullible youngsters who skipped their history lessons at school. For example in the Shiva series there is an hilarious explanation of the alcoholic drink somapana as an antioxidant drink comparable to modern day juice boosters but with miraculous effects like the elixir of life. I accept that authors have a license to use their imagination and write fantasy but in this case they are merely playing into the hands of politically motivated fundamentalists who will take these books as literal facts and boast about our "rich" heritage now gone to dogs.

And so we come back to my original premise, about my regret on not allowing the Ramayana and Mahabharata to remain as they are without these frequent re-telling. I wouldn’t bother if any of these translations were halfway interesting purely from a writing (or plot) point of view. But the truth is they are not. They are neither enjoyable nor truthful. And they are not even like chetan bhagats books which at least address today’s issues instead of raking up old and historical feuds and prejudices.

And what’s more scary, these books are being used as part of a larger agenda to increase contempt for our contemporary scientific society (which is far more egalitarian than any in historical India) based on a fanciful image of ancient India and its omniscient greatness. Is this accidental on the part of those authors? Or are they being used or co-opted against their knowledge? Or is it all a part of the growing radicalization of society to the Right of the polity as a backlash to being force fed fifty years of Marxist (leftist/Communist) history by the JNU Jolawalla types? 

I leave you to decide for yourselves and ask you to share your opinions with me in the comments section. I have a final plea to you, please read history for history sake. Read it neither as a leftist nor as rightist but as a seeker of knowledge and you can see the truth minus all fanciful lies and politics. And finally a novel is just a novel, it is not history and ancient India did not have streets paved with gold- that was El Dorado. Enough said?


  1. Ganesh,

    There are certain ancient Indian tales that have been told and retold down the past three and a half millenia with many additions - take the Krishna of the original Mahabharata and of the Bhagavata Purana and there are many additions in the retelling. Come later to Mirabai and there are even more additions. There is the basic greatness of a story that is told and retold over and over again taking contemporary contexts into consideration in a fascinating repetition and enhancement. The thing is that we understand our own situation through the plot of an ancient tale and retell the story accordingly - this is the reason why even modern atheists like Narla and Kancha Illiah and Communists like Mahasweta Devi use the structure of old myths to talk about issues in our day. It has been done before them, and it will continue to be done as long as there are Indians, or, for that matter, even non Indians, as there is much that is universal in human emotion and this echoes with other cultures as well. The Star Wars series, for example, was entirely based on the Krishna - Kamsa tale in the Bhagavata Purana, and George Lucas has admitted this in interviews. For a whole western world that knows nothing about Hinduism or even of India, this was appealing enough to make the series the most successful film series and franchise - ever. This is not to condone rewriting history as "faction," but to point out that it might be unavoidable to ignore history or historical myths in the telling of stories in any age.

    1. i agree that the stories have an universal appeal but to hash them unrecognizable in the name of re-interpretation is what gets my goat. these authors i mention above are both weak in structure and plot and their only saving grace is that the original stories themselves are powerful in conception. do read these people if you have the time Mehul and you will see what i am talking about

  2. I am only glad that I haven't read any of these books that you have mentioned.

    Quite a solid post, this was and I not having read any of the afore-mentioned books cannot comment on the rehash.

    Joy always,

    1. then you are more fortunate then me....unfortunately i spent money and bought these books based on their publicity and recommendations from fellow bloggers (anyone see sowmya recently? i am searching for her with a big stick in hand)

  3. Interesting post... I like your views! I am not a 'fiction' person, so no, I haven't read any of those books.
    This is exactly what many felt with Dan Brown novels, except that the country and religion he was dealing was different. Leave it Ganesh. Take a chill pill. Those writers are creators and they imagine a lot. As long as they don't hurt anyone's sentiments, its ok. Just that the upcoming generation (sadly, many in our generation too) must be given the sensitivity to realize what's fact and what's fiction and must be taught to read the story as a story but know the facts too!!!
    P.S.1: Vattezhuthu and Grantham are different!
    P.S.2: Only 'Brahman' men who crossed sea were so-called excommunicated! 'Kshatriyas' were not. Infact Ashoka crossed the sea and went to Srilanka to spread Buddhism. Ofcourse Rama went to Lanka (which is debatable!).

    1. hi..thanks for the comment..and oh yeah..i do have gaps in my education on archeology and linguistics ( i am strictly an amateur enthusiast)....and yeah..i will chill and probably not waste my money on such trash anymore

  4. Ganesh

    I think you bought all three parts of the Shiva trilogy.. :-), I borrowed 1,2 and bought 3rd just to see how the story ends.

    One good thing in these remakes-of-epics is more people had started reading Indian mythological books and at least they can know few what is what in Hinduism. But problem is when they don't realize it as a fiction and label it as history.

    Most say " World History is a big lie ". So it is hard to separate fiction which is there in our textbook history.

    I am thinking of buying "Breaking India" by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravind Nelakandan. Can you through some light on the book if you have any info.

    1. hmmm..if its a light/racy but contemporary read on indian history you are looking -for why dont you try ramachandra guha Ravi? his india after gandhi covers the entire post-independence period...and i agree with the point you long as people treat it as fiction..hey thats fine..but if they start believing it as gospel truth- there starts the problem

    2. Thanx Ganesh- Will try Guha, read only his articles earlier he was a regular in The Hindu.