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August 14, 2014

Q & A With Devdutt Pattanaik

Text by Simone Louis.

Devdutt Pattanaik tells us more about his book ‘Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You’, and his dogmata in an exclusive Q&A with Verve

  • Devdutt Pattanaik
    Devdutt Pattanaik
  • Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You

SHIKHANDI AND OTHER TALES THEY DON’T TELL YOU
DEVDUTT PATTANAIK
PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA
Esteemed mythologist and bestselling author, Devdutt Pattanaik, takes a closer look at and puts forward a new perspective on queerness — building on astute ideas that our ancestors revealed. Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You is a collection of about 30 stories about gender and sexual identity, featuring unconventional tales that have been stewing in the substratum of patriarchal society.

The book reveals stories that are not simply from writings like the Mahabharata and the Puranas, but from folk tales, oral traditions and temple legends that exist all over India, and Pattanaik presents his thoroughly-researched material in a language that anyone can understand. What truly enhances it all, however, is the imagery. I learned that Devdutt Pattanaik is also a gifted and accomplished artist and, undoubtedly, his drawings made the already enjoyable reading experience all the more remarkable.

Tell us a bit about Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, and the ideas that the book is built on.

It presents queer stories from Hindu lore and presents how the Indic view of queerness is unique — different from western views, which are shaped by Greek and biblical mythologies.

What were your inspirations in the creation of this book? What do you hope to achieve through it?
I really want general readers to be able to see what is restricted to academics. I’d also like to help provoke thought and expand the mind to be more inclusive.

In many instances today, the word myth often comes to mean ‘lie’ or ‘untrue’… What is your view on this?
According to me, this is an old colonial definition that assumes western truth is objective — and hence it is taken as the truth.  In the post-modern post-colonial era, western truth is also subjective and so, myth is just one of many truths. To reject myth is to reject subjectivity, diversity and humanity.

Can you briefly describe how the arc of your life has brought you to the awareness you have today?
Over the years, I have realised that people argue because they feel their truth is the only real truth, leading them to reject other people’s truth. I see it in relationships, in business, in academics… everywhere. We have ‘subjectivity shame’.

You speak of queerness in your book. What would you like to tell young, impressionable people about it?
Don’t be conditioned by anyone to be rigid and hateful of other people’s choices. Don’t be conditioned to feel righteous when you exclude those who are different and those who do not fit into your definition of normal.

What more would you like to tell us that I haven’t asked about yet?
To be honest, the stories in Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, or at least fragments of them, are known to many people in pockets across India. I have collated them and amplified the underlying discourse which focuses on queerness. It is amazing how we assume that queer ideas have a Western origin, while here, in India, we have a vast body of stories which challenge established notions of what constitutes sexuality.

God can be male, female, neither and both. Very few cultures think in this way. I want to bring this to people’s attention. They evoke diversity, inclusiveness and affection, and that is an essential part of Indian traditions.

I wanted the book to have a global perspective – to show how queerness was seen in other cultures, hence other mythologies, like Greek or Persian or Mesopotamian or Egyptian. That demanded a lot of reading and hours on internet search engines. Also, I wanted the book on queerness to go beyond sex and explore ideas related to platonic love between members of the same sex and of the love of God that manifests through gender-bending exploits.

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