September 7, 2021 12:00:57 pm
Anand Neelakantan’s version of the magnum opus Ramayana — Asura: Tale of the Vanquished (2012) — also his debut mythological fiction, written from Ravana’s perspective, had drawn the readers’ attention. And now, nine years later, the best-selling author’s version of the Ramayana is being presented as ‘Many Ramayanas and Many Lessons’, an audiobook on Audible in both Hindi and English languages.
But this time, each of the 29 episodes feature different characters like Sage Valmiki, the Lord Rama, Sage Vishwamitra, Sita, Bharata individually, thus taking “detours to introduce the various versions of this story that exist across Asia”.
“The Ramayana is one of India’s greatest epics and forms an integral part of our tradition of storytelling. Across Asia, there are close to 300 forms of the Ramayana that are known to exist including the popular version by Valmiki. Through Many Ramayanas & Many Lessons , I have attempted to create an immersive storytelling experience with different versions of the Ramayana to familiarize audiences with alternative theories and approaches that exist in various other cultures,” said Neelakantan.
Neelakantan, 47, who is working on multiple projects including two big budget Bollywood films, one of which is based on his book Vanara, and a Netflix series based on his Bahubali trilogy, shared why mythological fiction holds interest, his biggest fear, and why audio stories are relevant today more than ever.
What inspired you to become an author?
I always loved stories and storytellers. My father, L Neelakantan, was a storyteller par excellence. The insatiable urge to tell stories drives me. There are stories all around.
Why Ramayana, considering there are so many versions of it already?
Why not Ramayana? That there are so many versions makes it fascinating to find different interpretations and points of view. Ramayana is deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche and forms the basis of our culture. It has transcended time, language, religion, caste and geography.
What does the young audience need to know about Ramayana?
Our epics are not mono-texts; there is so much diversity in Ramayana tradition that what is usually shown on television is just one among countless versions of it. For every telling, there is a counter telling, and Indian traditions are all about the rejection of dogmas. Through debate, criticisms and questioning that Indian traditions have encouraged the pursuit of one’s truth, not through commandments and imposition of ideas.
What do you think of the mythological fiction space garnering so much attention?
It is not a new phenomenon. Any Indian language, in its nascent stage of development, went through this phase of retelling Puranic stories to suit the times, geography and culture of that language. The Indian film industry in all Indian languages did that in its beginning stage, so did Indian Television. Indian English is evolving as an Independent language, perhaps as the second most spoken language after Hindi in India. So it is natural that it also draws inspiration from Puranic stories. These stories are for eternity, provided we don’t reduce them to dogmas and allow their natural progression. What is dead doesn’t evolve; what is alive would thrive, adapting to the times.
Considering that attention span is limited these days, how does an audiobook version of your works help?
From time immemorial, stories had been told. However, writing down stories is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the novels and non-fiction narratives are barely a few centuries old. That is why the oral storytelling tradition is so dynamic. Something dies when one tries to trap a story in the written words. Audiobook platforms like how Audible bring back the oral tradition. One can hear the stories narrated while driving or walking and audiobooks helps you to find more time for reading. Fifty per cent of my reading is now through audiobooks.
People romanticise reading books. But no book is greater than the story it contains. Stories can be told through poetry, puppet shows, pictures, stage plays, street plays, films, television, radio, podcasts, etc. The printed book is just another medium of transmitting the story. Audiobooks are the closest to the original method of storytelling, the oral form. Aided with some background music and a narrator who could bring out the emotions through their voice, audiobooks bring a very immersive experience. Many of us can understand other Indian languages but can’t read them. For example, I can understand Kannada, Tamil and Urdu well, but my reading proficiency is sketchy in these languages. An audiobook transcends this disadvantage. Likewise, my children are slow at reading Malayalam or Tamil but are now exposed to these languages’ rich literature and culture through audiobooks. Also, audiobooks allow you to enjoy stories even while you’re cooking, gardening, or doing any other daily chores!
How pertinent is it to show perspectives of antagonists?
There are no antagonists in Indian Puranas. There are only flawed people. Indians never understood binaries for a long time. We have always celebrated the nuances of perspective. That is why Ravana is the most accomplished of all characters in a tale of Rama, and Duryodhana is hailed as the ablest ruler in Mahabharata. Recent devotional retellings have reduced the great epics to a story of hero and villain from a never-ending debate on what is Dharma and the emphasis on one’s Karma and Karmaphala.
As a writer, what’s your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is one day, I would wake up and find that I have no stories worth telling. So I counter the fear by keeping a story bank, by noting down ideas as soon as they strike me.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Writer’s block affects me every day. That is why I work on multiple projects at the same time. That helps my mind work in the background and come back with a solution to tide over the block. I never stop thinking about stories, and many ideas have come as dreams. It may sound crazy, but many a time, the stories play in my dream like a feature film, with background scores and dialogues.
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