India’s literary scene has been having something of a mythological moment lately—and there’s always room for fresh voices. Vogue chats with Mumbai-based writer Aditya Iyengar about his first novel, The Thirteenth Day, the most misunderstood character in the Mahabharata and why there is a Yudhishthira in each of us.
Why did you choose to reinterprete the Mahabharata over the Ramayana?
The Mahabharata has a quote that (roughly translated) reads as, ‘What is here will be found anywhere in the world. What is not here will not be found anywhere in the world.’
What sets the Mahabharata apart from any other story is the sheer range of experiences and emotions it conveys. Like all great stories, it has limitless elasticity. It can be distilled into a few lines, a two hour movie, or even a hundred episodes of a television serial. It can be told in a modern setting or find a voice on an alien planet.
An eighteen-day war. A thirteen-year-long exile. An attempted rape. An abandoned child. Murder, arson, subterfuge, humiliation, revenge, and the great human truth—nothing is permanent, everyone’s time will come. The Ramayana is a great story, but I’ve never felt the kind of resonance with it as I did with the Mahabharata.
Your book unfolds through the voice of three narrators—Yudhishthira, Radheya, (popularly known as Karna), and Abhimanyu. Personally, which character do you think is the most misunderstood or underrated?
Yudhishthira, without a doubt. The glory in the stories is almost exclusively reserved for Arjuna and Bhima, and Karna. Most modern renditions of the Mahabharata in my opinion have reduced Yudhishthira to a single character trait—telling the truth. I feel there is great complexity in the idea of Yudhishthira as the eldest brother and therefore the decision-maker for the five Pandavas, and I wanted to explore how he felt about the same. As the eldest, he can’t be irresponsible and succumb to the same whimsical anger of his younger brothers. He consistently has to repress his feelings for the greater good. But did he want this responsibility in the first place?
This book, in a way, is a bit of a tribute to the Yudhishthiras among us. The man or woman who has to set an example for everyone else, whether at the work place or at home, uncomplainingly and unquestioningly.
While reimagining the narrative, what long-held beliefs about the epic did you have to let go of?
I was very clear at the outset that I did not want to do a regular retelling. That said, the Mahabharata surprises you at every step. I read from the original English translation by KM Ganguli, who was the first person to translate the epic. I’ve even read other versions of the Mahabharata including those by Irawati Karve, CR Rajagopalachari, Kamala Subramaniam and Maggi Lidchi-Grassi, and have found myself leafing through a graphic novel by Grant Morrison at one point. If there’s one thing these books have taught me, it is that no one has the same way of looking at the same characters. That set me free, it made me feel that I too could probably look at these characters differently.
The most fascinating thing about The Thirteenth Day is the logic you have brought to the superpowers that we have long believed to be true. Can you share some more about this logic behind understanding flying demons, asuras, nuclear potential astras and divine intervention?
Personally, I believe that the use of these elements was just excellent storytelling. The bards and storytellers down the ages (who were the mass media of their time) employed hyperbole, allegory and exaggeration to make situations sound interesting. I find it particularly apt in today’s context, since we’re desperately trying to find scientific explanations for flying vimanas and potential nuclear astras. It seems we would rather have a past filled with great scientists than just great artists and writers who could dream up these wonderful and awe-inspiring creations. In my opinion, we should celebrate the quality of storytelling in these epics rather than just looking for hidden technologies in them.
The book has an undercurrent of characters constantly striving for perfection—and today, not much has changed. Can you throw light on this parallel you have drawn?
Yes, that’s a good question. I wanted to write about how we all react to conflict. That’s something that’s never changed in the history of humanity. Nor has the constant strive for success and glory. I wanted to depict that in a historical context to make the characters more relatable to us.
With Shiva trilogy, Sita’s Ramayana, Scion of Ikshvaku and other books inspired by Indian mythology, do you think this is the next big trend in the publishing industry?
Mythology has always been popular in India. It’s just being marketed more aggressively these days. It is an evergreen trend and will be wildly popular till the time humanity stops telling its stories. Non-fiction is the current big trend in India. My belief is that we’ve started appreciating it more because we’ve realized that real life is often more outrageous and unbelievable than fiction. The kind of guilty pleasures that were once found reading mystery novels and swashbuckling novels are now slowly being directed towards reading non-fiction which is also looked upon more favorably socially than fiction.
Aditya Iyengar’s The Thirteenth Day is available for purchase here.
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