The Ramayana through new eyes

Deccan Chronicle.  | Reshmi Chakravorty

Lifestyle, Books and Art

Seeing the familiar story from the perspective of marginalised women characters throws new light on the epic tale

Book cover

Would King Dasharatha have got his beloved sons if it hadn’t been for the sacrifice of his daughter Shanta? Was Manthara an evil, conniving handmaid to the Queen, or a loving mother who tried to protect her ward from palace intrigues? How did Meenakshi of the beautiful eyes transform into the embodiment of ugliness and immoral lust? In an epic that revolves around the life of a righteous prince, what role do women play? 

Anand Neelakantan peels back the layers of Valmiki’s timeless saga, and stories of ambition, love, devotion and courage shine through, inviting readers to take a new look at the women who hold the complex Ramayana together. 

Talking about the inspiration for his  book Valmiki's Women: Five tales from the Ramayana, Anand says, “I have always felt that the women characters of our epics haven't got their due, especially the marginal characters. Since I had written from the perspectives of Ravana, Baali and Sita, I thought of seeing the Ramayana from the perspective of the marginalised characters. Hence, this book talks about Shanta, Ram's sister, Soorpanaka, Ravana's sister, Tataka, and others.” 

The stories in this book are about different perspectives - the familiar characters  seen through the eyes of a Tataka or a Manthara. Elaborating, Anand says, “The idea was to write about marginalised characters. How would a maid feel in the highly patriarchal Ayodhya? What would Soorpanakha say if she met Sita when she was being banished? Why is Shanta not mentioned in many versions of the Ramayana? The book is a product of such questions.” 

Admitting that it is not easy for a male author to get into the mind of female characters, Anand however hopes that he has done some justice to the endeavour.

Mythology is Anand’s primary inspiration. Explaining what draws him back to it book after book, he shares, “The richness and depth of the Indian Puranas and the sheer diversity of them is fascinating and timeless. It is enjoyable to draw parallels between the stories told many thousand years ago and our times.” When asked about the concept of gender parity in the modern world, Anand says, “The gender ratio in modern India says a lot about the condition of women in modern times. There wasn't any Putrikameshti – the sacrifice for begetting a daughter. Maybe such traditions have a lot to answer for the gender disparity.”

We ask Anand, who has written screenplays too, what he likes better – writing books or movie scripts. “It is like asking a cricketer whether he likes playing test cricket or twenty-twenty,” he smiles. “Writing books is like playing test cricket, and the screenplay is twenty-twenty. Test cricket needs more stamina, footwork and technique while twenty-twenty is fun. Writing books is satisfying, while screenplays are fun to do.”

Anand likes to read all genres, even non-fiction, as long as it’s entertaining. “If it can entertain, it will enlighten' is what I believe. On the other hand, I can't stand books that have no story or entertainment quotient and are purely written for satisfying the intellectual snobbery of the writer and the reader. Writing is like any other art. It requires tonnes of practice and patience. Budding writers should never forget to sharpen their skills by reading a lot,” he says.

Interestingly, Anand’s novel Vanara: The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara is being made into a multi-lingual film. The Baahubali book trilogy is becoming a Netflix series. “I am writing original content for two OTT platforms. I am working on my next audiobook and am writing the screenplay of a Mahabharata-based Hindi film that will hit theatres in 2023. I have another four books coming out in the next two years,” the bestselling author concludes.