Author Utkarsh Patel talks to Farida Khan on his new book, Shakuntala – The Woman Wronged, his sources of inspiration and his suggestions for young writers. The book talks about one of the first woman heroes in the Mahabharata.
Q. Do you now have a sense of satisfaction after having completed the book?
A. Yes, definitely. A sense of satisfaction that you have achieved what you set out to achieve. I wanted to tell a story, the way I thought it ought to be told, and at the end of it, when it was published, it was a sense of achievement.
Q. A lot of our readers want you to share some tips for young and aspiring writers.
A. Well, it’s my first book, but I keep writing on my blog. The first rule of writing, is to suspend all judgment and write. Write what you desire to write. Second, once you have written something, be open to feedback, and pay more attention to those who say ill about your writing, for that is where learning is. Criticism of the thought behind your writing can be countered, but the comments which criticize your writing need to be paid attention to. And finally, don’t stop reading. Make sure you have read widely, read different genres, read both ‘good’ and the ‘not-so-good’ writers, and then write the way you want to. Read the classics as well as modern literature and find your balance.
Once you are done writing, don’t rush to get it published. Sleep over it. Go through your own writing and find faults. Read and re-read and make sure you are looking for mistakes. Be your worst critic and see your writing improve. Give yourself time and don’t lose heart.
Q. Could you suggest any “great” books for readers?
A. Some must-read classical authors are Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Emile Bronteand Alexander Dumas, to begin with. If these are not your genres, then you can read some good modern writers like Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry etc.
Q. When did you start writing? What made you write this book?
A. I started writing about six years back. I started writing for my blog. It started off as simple writing which was mostly read by my friends and relatives. This book was more of a need to tell a story which was untold for centuries, and a need to tell it at a time when it is both necessary as well as relevant. Also, I think people are willing to read such stories and there is a greater acceptance of the genre of mythology, which is what I write about mainly.
Q. Any other Indian writer you read?
A. I do read many of the authors mentioned above, besides the likes of Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya, Dr. S. A. Dange, A. K. Ramanujan, Alf Hiltebietel and Paula Richman, most of who are academic writers.
Q. What was your research methodology? Were you looking for some trends, some common grounds in Indian Writing in English (IWE)? What did you find?
A. I teach Comparative Mythology at the Mumbai University and have access to many books or articles written by researchers. I did use the Internet as one of the mediums of research, as many books which are rare today, have been digitized by libraries and portals. Some can be downloaded and some can be used with references. These are great sources for my kind of work, where it is not possible to lay your hands on such books. However, a word of caution: not everything on the Internet is true, so be weary of the source of information. Besides, I have access to libraries and have a good collection of books myself.
Q. Do you think there is a need to study popular literature? Today, in the age of market economy and market society, the commercial success of a work of fiction is more important than its literary value (there are exceptions though, books which are literary and yet sell in good numbers). We are living in the age of a globalised ‘market literature’. Do you agree?
A. I have a mixed response to that. Yes, it is important to know what is popular, but what is popular need not always be good or suitable to your style of writing. In today’s times, popularity is more due to marketing than literary worth. If that is the space one wants to be in, then that’s an individual’s call.
I have read a few books constituting “popular” literature and have learnt what and how not to write! Will that bring my book any success, I don’t know, but yes it has given me immense satisfaction that I have done what pleased me. Besides, this is the kind of book I would recommend to my child and my friend’s children and my students.
So do I not care for popularity? Of course I do, but not at the cost of literary merit.
Q. What made you write “Shakuntala – The Woman Wronged”?
A. Shakuntala was made famous by Mahakavi Kalidasa in his Sanskrit play Abhijnanashakuntala. However, what is less known is that Shakuntala is one of the first female characters to appear in the epic Mahabharata written by Maharishi Ved Vyasa. Shakuntala’s story is told in the Sambhava Parva part of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata. The story is recited by Vaishampayana to Janamejeya. This tale from the Mahabharata was taken by Kalidasa and recreated in his own way into one of the most romantic plays of all times, just like many of his other plays which too were also based on mythology, like Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsham, Meghaduta, etc.
However, there is a big difference in the original characterization of Shakuntala by Vyasa and the dramatic representation by Kalidasa.
Vyasa’s Shakuntala is the precursor of many of his later heroines in the Mahabharata—strong, decisive and fiery. She had a mind of her own and could stand her ground against the mighty king of Hastinapur, King Dushyant. Also, Dushyant is a king of little character and displays rather loose morals in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, instead of someone who suffers from temporary amnesia as represented by Kalidasa in his version. The major difference, however, is the character of Sage Durvasa.
Sage Durvasa is an invention of Kalidasa, whose curse brings on the dramatic forgetfulness, leading to all the troubles in the life of Shakuntala. It also gives Dushyant the much-needed excuse to reject his wife, which, in the original version of Vyasa, is a breach of morality and a sign of his lusty escapade with Shakuntala.
Vyasa’s Shakuntala knew the background of her birth and understood its repercussions. She stood her moral ground when the king refused to recognize her and ensured that she won justice by the sheer ability of her reasoning and straightforwardness. Vyasa’s Shakuntala is not a damsel in distress shedding copious tears; she fights for her right and gets her way, and does not succumb to the man, irrespective of his position and stature. She was amongst the first women in the Mahabharata to fight for her rights in a man’s world and get her due.
Shakuntala – The Woman Wronged has been written to introduce to the readers the original Shakuntala as envisioned by Ved Vyasa. Mythology, like water, has the unique ability to take the form of its container. Kalidasa had his way of interpreting the tale and making it famous, while I am only trying to recreate the character as conceived by the original creator of Shakuntala. While Kalidasa’s Shakuntala made for a beautiful, lovelorn heroine inviting sympathy, Vyasa’s Shakuntala is more heroic and much closer to the modern-day woman. This work seeks to reiterate that image of a woman envisioned many centuries ago by Vyasa, who has given us some of the most powerful female characters in our epics.
Q. Tell us more about your book on Shakuntala.
A. This book is about strong female heroes. In our culture, there is a paucity of female heroes. Male heroes abound and some strong female characters have been seen around the central character, either as a mother or a wife – seldom coming out of this archetype and standing on her own. Draupadi does stand at times on her own, but still seeks protection from males around her, be it her husbands or Krishna. There aren’t many women of substance who, as individuals, do not need the male as a crutch. Shakuntala is one such character, who has been glossed over by literature.