Saturday, July 21, 2018

Book Review: Shyam by Devdutt Pattanaik

Disclaimer: I read a free review copy of this book, but the review is honest. :)

My first introduction to mythology was in Malayalam. Long before I started reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, my mother had introduced me to Mali Bhagavatham and Mali Ramayanam. Mali was a great children's writer, who made mythology readily accessible to children in Malayalam.

Devdutt Pattanaik appears to be doing the same for adults in an era where people don't have the time or the focus required to read accurate translations of mythological texts. Pattanaik helps them out by doing the "hard" reading for them, and distilling the essence down to accessible text.

Shyam is the latest in a long series of such books, though it's the first one I've read. If you know your Sanskrit, you would know that Shyam means dark, and Shyam is another name for Sreekrishna, that most enigmatic of the avatars of Vishnu. Born to royals Devaki and Vasudeva, but raised by cowherd Nanda and his wife Yashoda (because his uncle Kamsa wants to kill him), Shyam grows up in a village but spends most of his adult life advising kings and (almost) ruling his own city.

The book is divided into sixteen chapters, each containing stories from the various roles Krishna played in his life. Starting with Avatar (which tells us the reason Vishnu had to take the Krishna avatar), the book goes all the way to Elder, moving through roles such as Infant, Cowherd (during his adolescence), Lover (of the gopikas), Husband (to his sixteen thousand wives), and Charioteer (to Arjuna during the Kaurava-Pandava war).

Shyam follows what I've read is the typical formula for Pattanaik's books - brief stories, followed by even briefer boxes of text explaining the significance of the story, its evolution over the years in different ancient texts, and how the story has been adapted in different parts of India. Most of the stories are also accompanied by simple line illustrations. (Somehow, the illustrations manage to be cheerful even when showing the most horrific violence. See below.)

The book is clearly based on a lot of research, presumably cross-referencing a variety ancient manuscripts, and also learning about the cultural significance of each story in different parts of India. Pattanaik doesn't shy away from talking about aspects of Krishna that modern day macho Hindus would rather hide - his comfort with his feminine side and cross-dressing, for example, or the fact that his skin is actually coal-black and not the Ujala-blue depicted in comics.

But in trying to make the book accessible to the lay reader, the author has had to sacrifice a lot, too. Mythological stories contain a lot of nuance and drama that don't translate well into Pattanaik's workman-like blocks of text. Stories that could have been truly horrific in the hands of a decent writer are laid out for the reader sans emotion (and sometimes even sans context, it feels like). I also wish the stories had been strung together better, showing the chain of causality so that we can understand WHY people behaved the way they did.

A lot of people read Devdutt Pattanaik's books for spiritual understanding, but I have to admit that the spiritual lessons were underwhelming for me, especially near the end, where Krishna advises Arjuna (the base for the Bhagavat Gita). But then I'm not particularly spiritual, so that may just be me.

Overall, it was an interesting introduction to a genre of Indian writing I've happily ignored so far (even when friends and colleagues raved about it). But will I be picking up another Pattanaik book based on this one? Probably not.
• • •