What connects a travel book with a family drama of Victorian proportions? Empires of the Indus, a 2007 river travelogue, is driven by the same engine that propels the sprawling, intriguing Leela’s Book, a novel about gods, humans and family skeletons.
Alice Albinia, who found India’s myths a route into the subcontinent’s ongoing story, began thinking about both books almost simultaneously when she lived in Delhi in the 2000s. The Rigveda became an inspiration for her to travel up the Indus river, mouth to source. And as she read the Mahabharat, the voice of Ganesh, the deity said to have written down Ved Vyasa’s epic, sparked an answering creative instinct in her.
That instinct, three years after the publication of her first book, becomes a playful modern iteration of the story surrounding the Mahabharat: of Vyasa, the women who were to become the originators of the epic’s principal dynasties, and a snarky elephant-headed god who demanded some stage time of his own.
Myth-maker: Alice Albinia connects past and present stories. Sanjit Kundu/Mint
Albinia spoke to Lounge about Leela’s Book, its inspirations and processes. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How did India’s classical literature begin to interest you?
I read English at Cambridge and had a memory of the Mahabharat, because Peter Brook’s version was on TV in the 1980s when I was growing up in England. Brook’s version is very pared down, consciously literary, and very long. I had a copy of his script, and by chance in Clare College my neighbour was this quite homesick Indian chemist, who saw it on my shelves, and began to talk about it.
I was having my own literary revelation as I studied Greek tragedy. It gives you this great depth of culture—you realize how much of your own culture is drawn from these ancient myths. Perhaps it was natural to look at India in the same way.
How did ‘Leela’s Book’ grow out of that?
I started writing the Ganesh narration when I was an editor at Biblio—I learned to write in India—and his situation appealed to me; I sympathized with him. And then he gave me some characters (laughs). Leela just arrived in my barsati in Nizamuddin. A lot of the plot was drawn from the reading of the Mahabharat.
Tell us about some versions you read.
At the Sahitya Akademi, I found Victorian translations to English, and in London I bought the Chicago translation (J.A.B. van Buitenen’s incomplete project). Then I went to Calcutta and met (professor, translator and publisher) P. Lal, who for 30 years had been holding Sunday afternoon sessions from his Mahabharat “transcreation”, as he called it.
But having written this Ganesh narration for my novel, I found myself looking for him. In some versions he was there, others not at all. Clearly, he’s a late interpolation. He’s in the popular imagination, the films, the stories; P. Lal’s version has him—but not in the scholarly translations.
Leela’s Book: Random House, 422 pages,Rs 499.
So I began to ask, why does a text have to have an author, to be written down on paper, instead of being recited? And this fit in well with what I’d already written about Ganesh, complaining about Vyasa not giving him due recognition.
You’ve written a novel full of beautiful, strong women. How did feminism and the Mahabharat interact for you?
In things which were written a very long time ago, you sometimes detect a recognizable glimmer of yourself. In Delhi, I was a woman in a different culture from my own, and I thought there was a very powerful discourse about womanhood. There was a type of woman I’d meet at work, living life on her own terms; others who followed a much more circumscribed life.
And I was curious about all the women I met; about who you are and what you become, almost by mistake.
And Delhi—the Indraprastha of the epic—inspired this book too.
It was an inspiration as I began to discover Delhi and India. I had a real character in Delhi. And I kind of had a second education. My job, the friends I met; the fact that at the time, maybe because the BJP was in power, there was a lot to defend, when they were trying to change textbooks, attacking (historian) Romila Thapar, inventing histories—and people I knew were defending what was under attack.
Would you say that Hindu fundamentalism was more of a topic when you were writing than now?
I think what I felt at the time was that the fundamentalists legitimised a certain way of talking about Hindus in India that made it perfectly acceptable to say outrageous things. The discourse wasn’t invented in the 1990s; hopefully it peaked during the BJP’s time in power. But once you’ve let it out, what happens? You have to think about these things in the long view.
And the Mahabharat is more resistant to fundamentalism than other epics, isn’t it?
Because it’s so big and diverse, full of strange things. A strange book.