The flaw in the crystal

Hindu mythologies and epic characters have become cultural metaphors in India. Many speak with ease of a lakshman rekha that constrains the behaviour of a woman, call scheming older men shakunis, identify sati savitris in women we see around us. No wonder then, that mythological themes, characters and events are found widely recurring in the country's popular cultures and literatures. To speak of Hindu mythologies permeating contemporary literature in India, therefore, is to state a truism – but a compelling truism, nonetheless. In one sense, there is nothing more traditional than repeating the stories from the past: throughout the region we have been doing so for centuries, each retelling becoming another layer in the vibrant, living palimpsest of the myths and epics. So it is unsurprising when we find contemporary writers doing what writers from the Subcontinent have been doing for what seems like forever – using themes, characters, events and emotions from a literary past to add nuance to their work.

For these reasons (and perhaps others as well), there is almost never a single version of any Hindu myth. We commonly know Hanuman to be the son of Vayu, but the Siva Purana tells us that this extraordinary monkey was the son of Siva (via a complex impregnation process that involved shed semen and hawks and leaves and open-mouthed women). By telling ancient stories in our own way, we are asserting a claim to these stories, making them our own, just as the story of Hanuman's birth passed through many hands and minds and mouths and became a Saivite myth. Similarly, we, any and all of us, are invited by the Hindu tradition itself to tell stories again and again. By doing so, our contemporary tellings and variations and interpretations enthusiastically add to the inherent diversity and dynamism of our reservoir of tales.

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Himal Southasian