A collection of retellings from Indian mythology and Western fairy tales

A school recently asked me to start a reading club for their students, and I had my first session on Saturday. While a club celebrating books sounded right up my alley, I decided to cast the net wider by looking at stories in all formats including but not limited to films, TV shows, cartoons, podcasts, Youtube videos, video games, music, photography, comic books, Facebook, Twitter, and possibly, in a future session, stories told entirely through emojis.

I didn’t want to throw them off the deep end on the very first session, though, so I started off simple. The session focused on retellings.

A poet and scholar called A. K. Ramanujan said, “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.”

This is true of Indian mythology and it’s also true of fairy tales the world over. These stories are so old, that they never go out of fashion. Everyone knows them, or knows of them.

But my favourite versions of these tales are retellings, a new way to tell an old story. If a book promises to be an imaginative version of ancient mythology, or if it features fractured fairy tales, I’ll instantly add it to my to-read list. I love it when familiar plot lines are turned upside down, or everyone acts out of character, or even when they’re all transported to another time/world.

I think retellings are so popular partly because we know these old stories so thoroughly that they become exciting and fun when they don new avatars. But I think the problematic aspects of these old narratives also plays a role in us seeking new versions – the casual sexism, the one-dimensional characters, the insistence on being either wholly good or wholly evil without any in-between, the blatant fear of anything or anyone who is different.

To be fair, we live in a different world from when these stories were first told. We have different values, our sense of morality has shifted. I love retellings precisely because we’re free to do absolutely anything with the original stories. The characters and plots are such an intrinsic part of our cultural consciousness, that we can make them more interesting by playing around with them. We know the rules well enough so that bending them doesn’t pose too much of a problem.

Which brings me to the list the title promised.

RETELLINGS OF INDIAN MYTHOLOGY


sita's ramayanaSita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni

This is an utterly gorgeous book, which features the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective – a point of view not many people seem to be familiar with. Only a handful of the students (between grades 5 and 8) were aware of Sita’s circumstances after the war. The book breaks down the narrative and relays the story simply, without any dramatic flourishes but with a great deal of compassion. If you’d like to take a look at the making of the book, you can read this.

Suggested age: 12+

palaceThe Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s an approach similar to Sita’s Ramayana, in that it’s the Mahabarata from Draupadi’s (or Panchaali, as she’s known here) point of view. But it widens the scope and is richer in details since it has much more room to play around with. What I found quite strange was that while the narrative seemed perfectly normal to me, apparently it had created a stir in some other quarters for being too feminist!

Suggested age: Not too many teens might find this appealing since Indian mythology isn’t considered cool, but for those who are interested, I’d say 12+

breaking the bowBreaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana by Various Authors

Where else are you going to find an anthology with a time-travelling Sita, aliens in the Ramayana or Surpanakha as a reality TV show contestant?

Suggested age: Tough to peg an age limit for this one, but I’d say an advanced reader who isn’t afraid to experiment. And of course, any adults with a taste for the strange.

asuraAsura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan

I haven’t read this book, but the premise sounds intriguing. You never hear about the Ramayana from Ravan’s perspective. This book’s definitely on my list.

Suggested age: Your guess is as good as mine.

ash mistryAsh Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

This is a book trying to ride the Percy Jackson-induced mythology wave (OH for Rick Riordan to have a free rein to work on an Indian mythology-centric series). But it’s not half bad. Technically, it doesn’t count as a retelling, I suppose, but it’s still great fun. Our country’s ancient tales have so much retelling potential that I’d love to see this trend continue.

Suggested age: 9+

the wordkeepersThe Wordkeepers by Jash Sen

This is a fairly unconventional take on mythology. Like Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, it isn’t exactly a retelling – more like ancient mythology meets the modern world. The book features peripheral characters from the Mahabharata and has a fascinating blend of new characters, old myths and plenty of twists.

Suggested age: 12+

BONUS:

Also, watch the film Sita Sings the Blues (available for free here), an excellent version of the Ramayana.

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS


revolting rhymesRevolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl

This is my favourite Dahl book. It’s his interpretation of six fairy tales, told in his inimitable style with dollops of wicked rhymes, clever schemes and surprise endings.

Suggested age: 10+

girls to the rescueGirls to the Rescue by Sowmya Rajendran

I love complaining about the princesses in fairy tales for being generally useless and spectacularly boring (I watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time a few weeks ago. What even was that?). Which is exactly why I love this book where the princesses do exactly what I’ve been wanting them to do. They take control of their own lives and manage to be interesting people I could actually imagine being friends with.

Suggested age: 10+

hero's guideA Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom by Christopher Healy

This book is the first in The League of Princes series. The fairy tale princes are tired of being ignored and are determined to make a name for themselves. They set out to be heroes but they are astonishingly bad at the job. The book brings together characters from four different fairy tales – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella – and is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. If there’s just one book from the list you’ll read, make it this one. I can’t wait to read the other books in this series!

Suggested age: 9+ (If they’re reading Percy Jackson, they can handle this)

ali babaAli Baba and the Forty Thieves: Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal

I picked up this comic book from my library specifically for the club session. It transports the Arabian Nights tale to present day Mumbai where Ali Baba is an autorickshaw driver and the forty thieves are the Russian mafia. I thought the change in setting was pretty cool, but I expected the book to take more liberties with the plot. But it followed the same story as the original with a change in period.  I’d recommend it for people who aren’t too familiar with the original, or who don’t mind reading the same story in a different setting.

Suggested age: 10+

fairy tale twistsThe Fairy Tale Twists series by Katie Dale

This is an early chapter book series where the stories are told in rhyme and has really inventive twists to familiar tales. My favourite moment was in Prince Charming’s Princess Quest where the prince stumbles upon a seemingly dead Snow White who can only be brought back by true love’s kiss. His reaction? “I don’t even know her. How can I be her true love!” So one of the dwarfs, who does know Snow quite well, steps up to the job and kisses her instead. He turns out to be her true love and they live happily ever after!

cinderThe Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I haven’t read this series, but it sounds fascinating. It’s essentially fairy tales in space, with some of the characters as robots. Each book entails a new take on an old fairy tale, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White. The story takes place in a futuristic world where humans, cyborgs, and anrdroids all coexist.

Suggested age: From what I can make out, 13+

three little pigsThe True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

I’ve been looking out for this picture book for a couple of years now. It dismisses The Three Little Pigs as mere propaganda and tells you the other side of the story. What really happened when Alexander T. Wolf met the three pigs?

Suggested age: 6+

dorothy must die

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

As soon as I read the title, I knew I wanted to read the book (I haven’t managed to find a copy yet). It speaks of an Oz where the Good Witches are up to no good, the Wicked Witches may be the good guys, and Dorothy has gone on a power trip and taken over the kingdom.

Suggested age: 12+

alice in deadlandAlice in Deadland by Mainak Dhar

Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books. While I’m ambivalent about zombies, I love the idea of mixing the undead with Lewis Carroll’s crazy world. It’s the first book in the Alice in Deadland series.

Suggested age: 13+

BONUS:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen. Yes. You’re welcome.

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2015 Reading Challenge – February Update

2015 is the year of reading challenges. You can have a look at my bookish goals for the year here.  

As Goodreads kindly informs me, I’m 3 books behind schedule in my goal of reading 150 books this year. I’m not too (just a very tiny bit!) cut up over that, to be honest, because it’s a slightly ridiculous goal. But I’ve fallen way behind on my 2015 Reading Challenge mostly because I just haven’t been paying attention.

1) One children’s book by an Indian author every month:

Raja Raja and the Swapped Sacks by Natasha Sharma

Being Boys by Various Authors

6) A Young Adult book:

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

18) 10 books from my Goodreads To-Read list:

Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Here’s hoping March has some better numbers!

Top Ten Bookish Problems I Have

This is the second time I’m participating in Top Ten Tuesday, a weekly blog meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

top ten tuesday

Now I don’t need to relearn the days of the week to realise that it is definitely not Tuesday. I thought this week’s theme sounded fun, but I had no time to write a post on the actual day the meme encouraged. Then I thought I’d post it on Thursday, which would still maintain the pleasant alliterative ring. But I sort of forgot, so here we are, writing a Top Ten Tuesday post on a Sunday. (I’m usually such a rule-follower that I felt I needed to offer a long explanation about this deliberate flouting of rules)

Without further ado, the top ten book-related problems I have are:

1) I’m incapable of having any sort of serious, focused conversation in a bookstore. Or a library. Or even a cafe with a decent bookshelf. I just tend to nod and mutter vaguely and make a sudden grab for any interesting-looking book I spot, completely alarming the person who thought I was listening to them.  A concentration of books renders me hopelessly distracted, instantly transforming me into a terrible conversational companion.

2) When I travel to a new place (or even an old one, really), I research the bookstores I can visit, and drop by all of them. While I love doing this and don’t intend to stop, this habit is fraught with dangers for my wallet and backpack-carrying shoulders. Every time I enter a bookstore on a vacation, I feel like I can’t leave it empty-handed. What better souvenir than a book, right?

3) I actually love lending books to people. I always want to thrust my favourites (or books I think they’ll like) in their hands and demand they enjoy it as much as I did. But I feel terribly awkward asking for the books to be returned. So now I’m constantly caught between the desire to pass my books around and the paranoia of ever letting them out of my sight. Maybe I should channel my inner librarian and make a list of the books I’ve lent, the people they’re with, and the approximate date  I should expect them back.

4) I want to read EVERYTHING. While I know this is technically impossible, it doesn’t stop me from trying. Thanks to which I get immensely stressed out by the amount of things I have yet to read and the ones I’m never going to be able to.

5) Thanks to my inability to comprehend the simple fact that it is impossible to read everything, I read voraciously in order to finish everything I can. But sometimes I start to feel that I’m reading too much, too fast. This habit coupled with my notoriously poor memory means that I don’t know how much I’ve actually retained from all that I’ve read.

6) Since I’m known as a reader among friends, people always ask me for recommendations or for a list of my favourites. I love matching books with people, but thanks to my aforementioned terrible memory, I can only remember a minuscule list of authors and books I want to talk about, even though I’ve loved many more. Fortunately, Goodreads comes to my rescue. I never kept a track of my books and reading habits before that, so I have no idea how I managed.

7) Mealtimes at home are always accompanied by a book in hand. This means that food crumbs and stains always make their way to the pages, no matter how much I try to save the book. I’ve learned that I’m a messy eater and that I’m not allowed to bring borrowed books anywhere near food.

8) In recent weeks, I’ve begun feeling uncomfortable about my ignorance and (previous) lack of interest in the Indian book scene. I’m caught up on the American book culture thanks to all the newsletters I’ve subscribed to, but my mind’s a complete blank when it comes to books coming out of India. I’m trying my best to remedy this and seek information, but the absence of access to an organised Indian book scene makes it incredibly frustrating.

9) I love my self-proclaimed bookworm cred and would love to wear it (literally wear it) with pride. But hunt as I might, it’s difficult to get bookish merchandise like tees, tote bags and mugs celebrating books and reading in India. Of course, I can order from websites based outside the country, but they’re expensive and I’m poor.

10) Because I’m largely steeped in fictional worlds, their characters have given me unrealistic expectations about interactions and relationships with real people. Does that ever go away?