Author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan Tells Us Why Mahabharata Is A Modern Day Mafia Clan
- IWB Post
- August 24, 2019
With ‘The One Who Swam With The Fishes,’ author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan takes her own spin on the famous female characters in Mahabharata, the most retold epic in India. We took this opportunity to talk to Meenakshi and find out what moved her to write about the women of mythical India.
Let’s begin talking about your childhood memories.
Ah, where to begin? The most important “David Copperfield-y” stuff I guess is that I was born in Hyderabad, and moved to Delhi when I was three weeks old, in the dead of winter, which I’ve always thought made me more of a Delhiite than people born there who had time to get used to it. My parents are both writers, and I grew up surrounded by books, with reading more a fact of life than anything else. Sometimes, I’d get that reading wasn’t something everyone else did when people commented on it on a train or at family holidays—I remember my cousins going, “Don’t read all the time, play with us!” and I’d make up stories to entertain them.
That might scare some of them away.
Not really. Although, I was an only child (now an adult without siblings), the friendships I had were intense and intimate. I still have friends in my life I’ve known since I was two or four, and we continue to be extremely close. I chose my family, I think that’s lucky, but it was also somewhat lonely to be the only one going home alone after you finished playing in the park in the evenings. Sometimes I wonder if my life would have been that much different if I had had a brother or a sister, but I firmly believe I wouldn’t have been a writer if I hadn’t spent so many hours by myself.
Do you have memories of watching BR Chopra’s Mahabharata on Sundays?
Actually, no! I think I caught bits of it at friends’ homes, but here’s a dirty secret: since my parents are from different parts of India, we spoke English all the time at home. As a result, my Hindi skills are not great, and I can barely speak any other Indian language. Full on Hindi dialogues have always been a bit hard for me to follow—the little Hindi I know, I do because I grew up in Delhi. Long story short, it’s why I never watched the show. To make up for it, I read everything I could get my hands on about the epic and listened to stories whenever I could. I don’t remember much of the show, but I think Duryodhana had a particularly spectacular mustache?
Oh, yes! He had a florishing bushy mustache that was itself a staff of epic.
(Both giggle) I also remember the golden maces glinting in the light.
Talk about the books you enjoyed reading back then.
I read a lot of folktales as a child, especially Amar Chitra Katha, so much so that I thanked them in my acknowledgments. That’s what sparked off any thoughts of the Mahabharata. I remember being attracted to myths about trees and birds. Stories about Krishna too, I loved, I think the way all Indian kids do—he’s human and flawed while also being a cool dude, right? Besides myths and legends, I liked the usual: kids classics, a few years of Sweet Valley High and The Babysitter’s Club mixed in with Judy Blume and The Catcher In The Rye and Gone With The Wind. Always books about animals, particularly heroic or human-like dogs, or beasts that could talk.
What do you think a modern-day Mahabharata would look like?
Sort of mafioso, with all that in-family fighting and sexy women and taciturn men.
That’s kind of epic. What do you think is the most inspiring fact about Satyavati?
It’s hard to say “fact” when whatever we know about her is most likely legend, but two things about her story stood out to me. One that she was probably one of the first products of artificial insemination mentioned in an epic and two, that she used the tools she had on hand to rise from being a foster daughter of a fisherman to being a founder of a large dynasty. (Plus, since her legitimate sons didn’t live long enough to impregnate their wives, the whole Kuru line is descended from Satyavati’s illegitimate son, which means they’re not even slightly related to Shantanu or Bheeshma.)
You said you read Ramesh Menon and Irawati Karwe’s versions before penning down your script. According to you, are these books easy to understand by amateur readers?
Yes, I think so. It takes a bit of working knowledge to read Yuganta, but Ramesh Menon’s version is the one I recommend to everyone starting out.
How easy is the retelling of an already-famous story?
Tougher than you think! You’ve probably heard of that old saying: there are only nine original plots. Now with retelling something everyone already knows, you have to not only come up with a reason for doing it, I.e an exciting, unique take on it but also use that within the canon version of the story. In some ways, it’s useful to already have a narrative, in others, it’s slightly confining, but also a terrific challenge.
Name the other girls from Mahabharata who inspire you, and why?
I think they’re all pretty ahead of their time. Like Amba, for example, has a great story. She was kidnapped by Bheeshma so that she could marry one of his brothers. She made him let her go because she was already in love with someone, but the other guy didn’t want her anymore, because she had been kidnapped and was “impure.” (Insert eye roll.)
We sense the revenge in making.
Yes, Amba decides to take revenge on Bheeshma so she fasts to death and prays that she’ll be reborn as a man so that she can kill him. There’s more, the whole second life she lives, but I love her initial very Princess-to-Kill-Bill story.
How flexible were you while writing the story and adding a fictional angle to Satyavati’s story? Also, how much content did you draw from the original text?
As I said, I stuck to the structure, but the lucky thing about choosing to write about the women of the epic is that not very much is known about their back stories, before they were wives or mothers, so I got to take quite a few liberties with what was going on with her. I gave her more family, added some new courtesan friends, made up a whole magic island where she lives—the island exists in the original tale, but just as a temporary sex stop, I made it into her home for a bit.
Do you prefer stories told or stories read aloud?
As a writer and a reader, I like to read. I tried audiobooks, but they went too slowly, I read very fast, and I usually tune out when I’m at a very long book reading. But, sometimes it’s fun, like the time my partner and I went to Thailand and took turns reading aloud The Beach to each other.