What is your new book about?
I am experimenting with a new narrative structure. It’s similar to Rashomon (by Akira Kurosawa) where you have multi-linear narratives and the back stories of characters. This is the story of Sita. It’s not the Ramayana from her perspective; it is her story, she is the hero. The book is called Sita: Warrior of Mithila.
Modern, urban Indians know Sita via a 1980s TV serial, which had interpretations based largely on the Ramcharitamanas, the 16th-century modernisation of the original Valmiki Ramayana. In the original, Sita is a far stronger character. The first Ramayana, Adbhut Ramayana, is also credited to Valmiki. In that version, Sita kills Ravan. She’s a warrior. I am celebrating that original version of Sita.
Critics feel you’re encouraging Hindutva.
What is wrong in celebrating our ancient past? I don’t see why we should feel defensive about it. It is unfortunate that our elites and liberals don’t realise our ancient culture is actually their biggest ally. Regrettably, many have not read our ancient texts; they form their opinions based on Amar Chitra Katha comics and TV serials. Our ancient texts engender liberalism and modernity. The Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads respect women. These oppose the birth-based caste system. In the Gita, Lord Krishna says, the varna system is created on guna and karma — attributes and deeds. The birth-based caste system is against our ancient culture. We should celebrate this. Our ancient culture is a natural ally to liberalism.
Is “our” culture only Hindu?
Hinduism is a big part — but no one is left out. I celebrate Ghalib’s poetry too. Can the liberal elite even pronounce Ghalib correctly? Such elites know of Ghalib only because of a TV serial. Do they know of any other Urdu poet? They have very little knowledge of traditional Indian culture, but they have lots of biases.
Is there a liberal reluctance about engaging with Indian tradition?
Yes. Perhaps, it’s the result of the colonial experience. We haven’t really changed our education system after that. What do most educated Indians learn about our culture, philosophies, literature, science and math? They know nothing of it. They still believe what the British told us — that our texts are dens of superstition. I’ve got nothing against Shakespeare, but some of his texts are regressive about women. Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays are not. The Rig Veda has hymns written by rishikas — powerful female sages. That was the status of women in ancient India.
But women weren’t allowed to read the holy texts.
That’s a modern corruption — the idiots who say women shouldn’t read the holy texts. Women wrote the holy texts 5,000 years ago. We should know this, but most modern Indians don’t even know the names of the four Vedas.
What about claims of nuclear weapons, plastic surgery, being invented in our ancient past?
Well, if you don’t do serious study, fantasy will grow. Nuclear weapons, there’s no proof of; plastic surgery, there is. The first rhinoplasty surgery was done on a soldier in the Maratha army, by an Indian barber, around 300 years ago. This was recorded in the British magazine, The Gentleman. That procedure was exactly as described in Sushruta’s text, which is 2,000 years old. Isn’t this worth celebrating?
How do you respond to Nobel Laureate Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan who recently said Baroda’s Saiyaji Rao University shouldn’t feature sadhus as inventors?
I see no harm in celebrating modern scientists like CV Raman. Having said that, this obsession many Westernised Indians have with wiping out any trace of ancient Indian science is very strange — it’s like Westerners getting upset if Plato is mentioned somewhere. Can you imagine them saying, remove Socrates, remove Hippocrates, remove Pythagoras?
There’s a strange obsession amongst Westernised Indians to somehow prove that before the British came, we were a bunch of barbarians. The British came and saved us.
What about the Hindu right censoring AK Ramanujan’s essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas?
Any kind of censorship is against traditional Indian culture. In the Natya Shastra, a play was performed which insulted some divine beings. They tried to stop the play. Lord Brahma then said, what is within the boundaries of the stage is sacred — you cannot stop it. The obsession with appearing elite or saffron has stopped us from learning about our own heritage. There are left-wing extremists and right-wing extremists: one doesn’t want any knowledge of ancient India to emerge. The other wants to pursue only fantasy. Truly, Ram banaye jodi.