We’re in that sweet spot of time. Most of us are trying to find out more about our origins, the stories we’ve learnt and the norms which bind us that we want to break.
While some of us are looking at doing gene tests to find our ancestral heritage, those of us who like to cuddle up with a book and a cup of coffee are reinterpreting known tales and re-reading popular myths.
Here are 7 reasons Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shyam should be on your norm-breaking reading list.
A Modern Bhagavata
Both popular and not so popular in Indian Mythology, The Bhagavata is the story of Krishna, known as Shyam to those who find beauty, wisdom and love in his dark complexion. A brand new book seamlessly weaves the story from Krishna’s birth to his death, from his descent to the butter-smeared world of happy women to his ascent from the the blood-soaked world of angry men.
A Thousand Shyams and More
A charming blend of fact and myth, Shyam features a detailed summary of Krishna’s genealogy and family tree, as well as the curse cast on his Yadava bloodline that prevented him from ever being a king in his own right. The book itself almost exclusively refers to Krishna himself as Shyam and is rife with depictions and examples of how different parts of India differ in their artistic and literary representations of Krishna.
The book, written by Devdutt Pattanaik, has an elegant portrayal of Krishna from adorable, endearing infant to a curious, innocent toddler to a mischievous prankster to an intelligent, able cowherd and so on. One of the highlight in the book for me was the relationship between Krishna and his elder brother Balarama, one of both loyalty and conflict. Krishna draws parallels between their relationship and that of Rama and Lakshmana.
Through the Chants and Hymns of Poets
The Bhagavata is one of the greatest epics in Hindu Mythology. However, this particular narration was composed in fragments over thousands of years, recorded first, as the passionate songs of poet-sages in various regional languages.
Pattanaik, in this wonderfully woven collection of popular stories, bits of historical text and wapt illustration portrays Krishna as a heroic romantic and later as a romantic hero, winning over the milkmaids of Vrindavana with romance and seduction but winning his wives through acts of valour.
As Belonging to His Women
The author also gives some much needed agency to the women characters of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana and the other scriptures adapted in his book. Rukmini, one of Krishna’s first queens, is portrayed as a woman who engineered her own escape with both strategy and devotion rather than merely being abducted by Krishna. Balarama’s daughter Vatsala runs away with Abhimanyu when her father breaks their engagement after the Pandavas lose everything in their infamous game of dice. Duryodhana’s daughter Lakshmani eloped with Krishna’s son Samba, much to her father’s fury.
Draupadi is described as a tigress who would not easily be tamed. Draupadi’s existence to Krishna is not one of beloved, wife, sister or even the haughty princess of Panchala, but as a dear friend from the day she tore a section of her own garment and gave it to him by a river. Krishna’s platonic relationship with Draupadi is perhaps one of my favourite relationship in Shyam.
But it is Radha’s devotion to Krishna that is one of the most meaningful – she’s not portrayed simply as his pretty, fair lover. She is willing to risk the wrath of the gods to cure him from illness, refuses to throw away her clothes in favour of expensive silks brought to her by Krishna’s queens, and her skin is sunburnt and weathered from her time herding cows. She is portrayed as a teacher to the gopis Krishna leaves behind once he sends a message that he will not be returning to Vrindavana – saying that he will reside in their hearts forever, they can yearn to reunite with him, but never take him away from his responsibilities.
Guru to His Kingdoms and People
Several of the major sections of the book are dedicated to Krishna and the Pandavas, of whom he is an ally, teacher, conscience, and sometimes master manipulator. Although he doesn’t fight in the Mahabharata War between the Pandavas and the Kauravas (he is charioteer for Arjuna and his army fights for the opposite side), he’s the one that levels the playing field.
When the Pandavas have to sacrifice Iravan to Kali for the war, Iravan agrees on the condition that he dies a married man. As no woman agrees to marry him, Krishna turns himself into a woman, Mohini, and they wed and spend the night together. The next day, when Iravan is beheaded, Mohini wails for him, which reduces all around her to tears.
Upholder of Dharma
During the war, Drona and Bhisma both fall by Krishna’s machinations. The way he takes down Bhisma is probably the most symbolic – he puts Shikhandi, a woman who was turned into a man by a yaksha between him and Bhisma. On the tenth day of the war, Bhisma falls because he refuses to acknowledge the change from male to female or raise a weapon against Shikhandi, leaving him open to Arjuna’s arrows.
Perhaps one of the features of the book that lends the most legitimacy to it is the very extensive bibliography, the author does no shy away from referencing material from all over India, north or south, east or west. Differing texts could refer to him as a simple cowherd or an able wrestler, but Pattanaik has found a way to reconcile several different stories into one tale.
And favourite of the Multiverse- Heaven, Hell and Between
The sheer number of characters and places, however, would get exhausting for someone who hasn’t read the Mahabharata (abridged or not) or the Asterix comics. Shyam is an interesting read but the book (and, indeed, the reader!) would have benefited from an index more extensive than the bibliography.
Either way, the illustrations are bizarrely entertaining in their semi-traditional style, and the book itself is worth a read, if only to debunk some of the more misogynistic and homophobic preconceptions about Indian mythology.
Find Shyam at a bookstore near you.