Pink Pen Diaries – Episode 2 : Anuja Chandramouli (Part 1)

Pink Pen Diaries - Episode 2 : Anuja Chandramouli (Part 1)

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We began Pink Pen Diaries to assimilate extremely interesting authors for lots of insights on their writing process, their protagonists, especially women, and their perspectives on various aspects of writing. Episode 2 went live on 23rd September with Anuja Chandramouli, bestselling Indian author and TEDx speaker. It was a liberating session, to say the least, with Anuja at her best, answering our questions. Here’s a detailed take on everything we had discussed. Trust me, this will be a very enriching read. 

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1. You speak about your first tryst with Indian mythology in your childhood, tell us about your early understanding of some stories, most memorable ones and have those perspectives changed as you grew up. 

Yes, the stories were definitely one of the highlights of my childhood. My early understanding of these stories totally boggle the mind! As a child, I was a huge fan of war and thought it was truly unfortunate that we were not fighting any major wars!! It was my belief that it was war which offered scope for glory, achievement as well as all things bright and beautiful. Thankfully, I changed my mind over the years when I realized the devastating toll exacted by armed conflict on the victors as well as the vanquished. 

Take the Mahabharata for instance… we were told that the good guys won and the bad guys were annihilated. But the thing is the Pandavas paid a heavy price for their triumph and lost so many of their loved ones it was merely a sense of duty which saw them tackle the demands of statecraft before departing the world for good. It makes you rethink our definition of winning and losing…

As a child, I always wanted to finish first in every race or contest and loathed myself when I failed. I was bitterly envious of those who were more successful or had it better than me. But with time, and thanks to the ancient texts I found myself submerged in, it became obvious that barring very few exceptions all the folks who had the things I was chasing after were too busy chasing after their own somethings and were as angst – ridden, restless and depressed as I was. It was an eye – opener and helped me understand that contentment with our privileged lives is far more important than the perfect happiness we all wish for ourselves. 

2. Would it be fair to say these are historical texts? And then can we expect a progressive narrative while it wasn’t the reality of the time? Wouldn’t it be historically incorrect to have a progressive depiction of characters . For example, if I am writing about the 1960s I might show a pregnant woman drinking wine. Which we now know is bad but she didn’t know better. Do you think human morality evolves as well?

So glad you brought this up… Why do we always assume that we, the current generation alone are the evolved, enlightened architects of a progressive narrative? As far as I am concerned, our ancestors were a lot more liberal at least in certain aspects of life than we are. The Kama Sutra was written in this land and yet, we have somehow managed to paint ourselves into a corner where sex and sexuality is concerned by viewing desire through a puritanical lens of conventionality and morality and doing our utmost to regulate and confine passion which has led to repressed hankering spilling out in dangerous ways. An examination of the shastras from a time before they were twisted to fit in with a jaundiced narrative, reveals that an attempt was made to understand the LGBTQ community and help them fit into and serve society in a manner that suited their needs best. They were certainly not criminalized or prosecuted for being who they were. Which is more than can be said for society as it stands today.

That said, I am reluctant to view the past and present in terms of right and wrong, progressive or regressive etc. Our definitions of these things keep changing. What is considered ethical and sound today will be denigrated as barbaric or criminal tomorrow. People’s attitudes change too and their perspectives are forged on the fire of personal experience not the prevalent or fickle views on what is acceptable or not. 

For instance, while in my early teens, my friends, classmates and I genuinely believed that homosexuality was sinful and wrong. It took time for me to re – think my views on the subject, examine unconscious bias and refrain from judging people for their choices which were at odds with what I have been taught and told to believe. Which is why in my personal view, it is necessary to give people the chance to educate themselves about changing norms without dismissing them outright as biased, bigoted, homophobic etc. At the same time, it is our duty to work hard to eliminate discrimination and intolerance in thought, word, and deed. 

3. You did a series of Mahabharata story telling videos on Youtube. Would you want to tell us an unheard story or any backstory of any character from the Mahabharata which you found most kids have not heard about.

Oh yes! The Mahabharata series on YouTube was one of the most fulfilling experiences ever and I am overwhelmed by the wonderful response from viewers. 

One of the lesser known stories which horrified and amazed me in equal measure was about Yayati’s (an ancestor of the Pandavas and son of Nahusha) daughter, Madhavi. It was prophesized that she would bear only sons who would grow up to be emperors and that her virginity would be restored after every delivery. Naturally, her market value went through the roof in a world were an ability to deliver sons and posses an unbroken hymen were highly prized. 

Madhavi’s path was destined to cross with Sage Galava who was required to procure 800 shyama karni horses (snow white horses with a single black ear) for his Guru, Vishwamitra as a gurudakshina. The penniless Galava was in a state of despair and finally went to Yayati who had a reputation for generosity. Deciding that his reputation took precedence over his daughter, he handed Madhavi unceremoniously to Galava. The Sage promptly offered her as a broodmare to mighty kings desperate to perpetuate their lineage. He managed to acquire 600 horses after Madhavi had sired three sons for three Kings and handed over his booty as well as Madhavi to Vishwamitra who cleared his debt and fathered a son of his own on Madhavi. 

Finally, Madhavi was returned to Yayati who arranged a swayamvara for her. But Madhavi declined the offer of marriage from the most eminent personages of the day and chose to spend her remaining years in the forests where she had been born, content with the simple joys offered by mother nature. Traditionally, she is painted as a role model for obedience and acquiescence but in her own way, she managed to strike a blow against patriarchy and the iron bonds of duty and dharma that had dictated her existence by walking away from the expectations men had for women when the opportunity presented itself. In her own quiet way, Madhavi makes it obvious that she had given generously of herself and comported herself with grace under extremely trying circumstances, before turning her back on those who had used her without bearing any of them ill – will or nursing hatred and bitterness. Such a class act! 

4. I remember you mentioning that if you feel there was a wrong done in the narrative there was an unfair projection, a point of view that is unjust, a story plot that is unfair you are not just going to retell as is but you are going to reinterpret and contextualize it in today’s time. Why is it important for you to retell and make it right.

It is important to remember that for the longest time, knowledge was hoarded by a select few who denied education not just to women but other deserving people on account of caste, class, and the like. Which means the narrative was doctored to suit the needs and mirror the beliefs and biases of this group. It explains why so many voices belonging to women and other minority groups have not been allowed to be heard let alone shine. It is high time, we reclaimed these forgotten voices and listen to their POV as well as the truths they have chosen to share. 

Personally, if I feel something is unfair, reeks of caste/class bias or simply doesn’t make sense, I don’t hesitate to re – interpret and re – write it. Even if it is considered sacrosanct by those who typically equate conventionality with morality. 

For example, I can’t stand the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ theme that is such a constant in mythology. So when I wrote Ganga: The Constant Goddess, believe me, Shiva certainly doesn’t entrap her in his matted locks to keep her imprisoned for all of eternity. I put a different admittedly outré spin on it…Believe me, it works a lot better IMO.  

5. Tell us about the gendered depiction of feminine beauty in our texts – I have read about your personal note on this. 

Not just our texts! It always gets my goat that women are expected to devote their lives to primping, preening and starving themselves to meet some impossible standard of beauty set by men or the charming folks running those mighty MNCs committed to getting us to spend beaucoup bucks on goop and gunk to enhance our looks and restore the self – esteem that was shredded in the first place by this lot and their definition of beauty. It sucks that only those who conform to these standards are rewarded richly while the contribution of women who don’t have the time to doll up because they are working too hard for their families or on their jobs is routinely ignored. 

Which is why my protagonists refuse to be defined by what they look like on the outside. They are a lot of things and messy as can be, but ultimately, they are real. Even an Enchantress like Mohini. It is galling that despite being in the collective consciousness forever, she has always been viewed as nothing more than a seductive beauty who uses her feminine wiles and perfectly proportioned breasts to trick the males into doing what she wants them to. My depiction of this character is as far removed as this cardboard cut-out as it is possible to be!

(To be continued…) 

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