Inspired by ideas suggested by Devdutt Pattanaik, 'Aranyaka' looks back on the Vedic Age for lessons in our troubled times
From gender politics to appropriation of forest land, issues that have brought people out on India’s streets in recent times run through its pages
To know if a tale is worth its weight in gold, check if it reveals itself threefold. In your bloodstream. In the town square. In the turning of galaxies," Amruta Patil writes early on in Adi Parva: Churning Of The Ocean (2013), her graphic retelling of the Mahabharata. It is tempting to recall these words as we enter the world of her new work, Aranyaka: Book Of The Forest, in which the story and art are by Patil, based on concepts suggested by best-selling writer and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik.
As the subtitle points out, Aranyaka unfolds in the primal setting of the forest, a remote and dangerous realm in the imagination of most city-dwellers. But contemporary readers will feel the pulse of the story in their bloodstream. From gender politics to man-animal conflict to appropriation of forest land, issues that have brought people out on India’s streets in recent times run through its pages. These themes, while urgent and relevant in 21st century India, also hark back to the Vedic Age (1500-500 BC), forging a link between our historic past and immediate present.
The story is told in Patil’s inimitable style. The lines roll out with a poetic cadence, crisp and, at times, cryptic. There are acute insights into life in the wild (“Creepers bloom with great urgency when they sense a future of scarcity"). Unlike the mixed media and collage that defined her earlier work, Patil uses watercolour and soft pencils in Aranyaka. The effect is gentle on the eye, dark and dreamy.
The singularity of the book is amplified by Pattanaik’s role in it. While his social media personality may seem abrasive and brusque, his ideas are obviously shot through with gold. The man “isn’t the tyrant people assume he is", Patil assured me when we spoke on email, followed by a Skype call, two weeks ago.
It all started a few years ago, when Pattanaik met Patil with a proposal. “He wanted to do a handbook of concepts tentatively called ‘A Vedic Truth’. One illustrated concept per page," says Patil. “To that end, he had a checklist." Akash (sky), agni (fire), bhaya (panic), kama (desire), and so on. An extended version of this list appears in an index to Aranyaka. But rather than a straightforward “concept book", Patil offered to write a parable. She picked her cues from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (nine-six century BC), particularly from the story of Yajnavalkya, the great scholar of Advaita philosophy, and his two wives—the sensual and earthy Katyayani, and the austere and cerebral Maitreyi (in the Mahabharata, Maitreyi appears in a different avatar, as a young, unmarried philosopher). Pattanaik saw the merit in the project, and their affinity set Aranyaka on its way.
Patil and Pattanaik had known and admired each other’s work for some years, before they became friends at a TED conference in Mysuru in 2009. “I approached Amruta (with the idea of what became Aranyaka) because I am a fan of her graphic novel Kari, which made me deeply experience the love and loneliness of Indian urban life," Pattanaik says in a note (co-written by Patil and him) on the making of Aranyaka at the end of the book. “I needed someone who was a seeker but not overwhelmed by tradition."
What began life as abstract ideas laid out in bullet points by Pattanaik on A4 paper in 2016 morphed into something rich and strange three years later. “A handbook of hard concepts turned into a layered, highly subtle graphic novel about food, feeding, fear, exchange and love," as Patil puts it. Slowly, the cast acquired depth and definition. Yajnavalkya became Y, Maitreyi was first shortened to M, then to “the Fig". Only Katyayani remained who she was, a woman with a voluptuous body and insatiable appetite. “I am Katyayani the Large," she says unabashedly at the start of the book. “The warp of my story has always been hunger."
Katyayani reconstructs for the reader an origin story, before life dawned on Earth (“Even the gods came later"). As species populated land and water, an inevitable struggle arose, in which the fittest survived. Thus the law of the wild was established. Over time, the forests taught human beings their rules of civility, the art of hunting and gathering, and the ethos of living and letting live.
Katyayani’s excommunication from her village—for eating food that was offered to the gods—into the heart of aranya schools her in the ways of the land. Left to fend for herself, she learns to forage and sift the edible from the poisonous. Finding sources of water proves an even bigger challenge than securing food. In the course of her wanderings, she gradually becomes aware of the ruthless, unsentimental force that is the forest. “Human laws are meaningless here. Aranya doesn’t mind you alive, it doesn’t mind you dead," she realizes. “In fact, it doesn’t care one way or the other. Here, I wasn’t Katyayani the Large, but predator, prey, ally, rival, mate."
India’s first woman graphic novelist, Patil made her debut with Kari (2008), a book that remains one of its kind. Having grown up in Goa, she studied art there, and later in the US, before working in advertising in Mumbai. Kari, set in that city, follows the fortunes of an androgynous woman working in an advertising agency who is in love with Ruth. Part-flâneuse, part-seeker, Kari is the archetypal misfit. Her love for Ruth is doomed; her friend Angel is dying; Kari cannot reciprocate the affections of Lazarus, who is smitten by her. Instead, Kari wants her breasts to go away, look like Chow Yun-fat, and insists on a “2mm buzz cut" even as the hairdresser warns her, “Madam, face looking boy type."
“The protagonist of Kari emerged before the book in its existing form did. She was my significantly-cooler alter ego," Patil says. “Later, in the aftermath of a big love affair collapsing, I fused traits of my ex with Kari’s. The fusional narcissism of young love: together forever in literary posterity, if not in real life!" In pre-Pride, pre-Tinder India, when desires were still policed under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the story was far ahead of its time. “It was at once a howl and a self-deprecating chuckle—a baby book of baby curves," Patil says.
In 2014, Patil moved to France (“I have had an equation with France since 2009," she adds) and, with that, towards a different mode of avant-garde. She wrote a “duology", retelling the story of the Mahabharata through the voices of two sutradhars—the ones that hold the thread of the narrative—who are both outliers. The first volume was narrated by Ganga; the next from the point of view of Ashwatthama. Finishing the duology took long years of solitary labour. And although Aranyaka brought in the excitement of collaboration, it wasn’t all smooth sailing either.
There was, of course, the distance between Patil’s life in Angoulême, France, and Pattanaik’s in Mumbai. But more crucially, there was also the difference in their temperaments. “Devdutt does four books a year, I do one book in four years. He likes 12-noon bright-light type of clarity of communication. I trust allusion, ambivalence, things that do not reveal themselves immediately. He’s urban, effortlessly smooth in professional settings, I am a small-town girl who gets anxious in malls and stricken by imposter syndrome at literary soirees. He’s logical-analytical and pattern-seeking, I am all healthy gut-flora and intuition," Patil says. “We are both about loyalty, though, and about trying to understand the world rather than sit in judgement on it. I joke that he isn’t allowed to release a book called ‘How To Become Rich’ one week before Aranyaka without ensuring some of that stardust rubs off on to long-suffering collaborators!"
The two argued over terms like “surrender" and “gratitude". There was some sulking on Patil’s part, she adds, over sensuous visual details being curbed to make the book “troll-safe", a valid concern given the sensitivities about Hindu culture in contemporary India. “It’s a good time to be ‘taking lore back’—as if it was anyone’s to hijack in the first place—but I would have been doing this regardless of what epoch I was in," Patil says. “The sociopolitical clime became thin-skinned and paranoid, but I had been at my desk for many years already."
WHAT THE FOREST MEANS
In the history of South Asia, forests often exist as idealized spaces of retreat. Scriptures and epics speak of sages retiring to the jungles to meditate and attain enlightenment. Kings and householders went there to spend the third phase of their lives, vanaprastha, far from the temptation of earthly desires. In contrast to this voluntary exile, being banished to the forest is an injunction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In both texts, the forest is filled with monsters and ogres, but also offers vital lessons.
“In epics across the world (be they stories told by the Nordic people, the Celts or Mesopotamians or Greeks or people from the Indian sub-continent), the forest is a limin, a space between things," wrote classical scholar and translator Arshia Sattar, in an essay in The Indian Quarterly last year. “More correctly, it is a space of transition, often a boundary or a threshold."
The ambivalent potential of the forest is a familiar idea in Patil’s Parva duology, especially in Sauptik: Blood And Flowers (2016). In it, Patil shows Dronacharya, the royal preceptor, training the Pandava and Kaurava princes in the art of war, while also passing on to them the secrets of flora and fauna. “After years of being (in the forest), if a fool still dies eating a poisonous berry, I’d say he deserves his fate," he tells his pupils, teaching them “poultices, tinctures, the minds and hearts of herbs". The forests in the epics were not merely terrains filled with hazards and overrun with savages. They also embodied a form of civilization in themselves.
“This awareness of forests is essential to appreciate Hindu philosophy but is conspicuous by its absence in all Upanishadic commentaries we read since the 19th century. It’s because (around that time) we are responding to colonial powers and Christian mythology, where nature is again conspicuous by its absence," Pattanaik says. “Christianity is essentially an urban religion—it sees the village as the site of the ‘pagan’. Thus we find a general disdain for the forest: It is chaos to be controlled. And that has shaped the development agenda."
Modern, industrialized societies owe their existence to the taming of wilderness. From the days of the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas burnt down the Khandava Vana to establish their capital Indraprastha, to the cutting of over 2,000 trees in Mumbai’s Aarey forest for a Metro car depot in 21st century India, there is an unbroken tradition of wiping out forest land for the sake of “progress". But nature extracts its revenge. This year alone, California has seen over 160,000 acres of land burn down in wildfires caused by natural and man-made forces.
If aranya heaves with unconcealed wrath, it also dazzles with its beauty. So irresistible is the call of the wild that even after Katyayani settles down in domesticity with Y, she finds herself a grove, where, away from the comforts of home, she begins to notice trees and stars, bugs and beetles again. All day long she tills the land and tends to her kitchen, but in the evenings she retreats into this secret garden.
The forest, for Katyayani, is as much of a refuge as it was for Shakuntala, who was born and reared there in a hermitage. King Dushyanta meets Shakuntala while on a hunt with his entourage. As historian Romila Thapar points out in Śakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories (2002), “A series of contrasting settings frames the scenes: the ferocity of the hunt, the gentle calm of the hermitage, each presenting a different face of nature, of the forest, the aranya." This “onslaught on nature" by Dushyanta, Thapar says, presages his violent rejection of Shakuntala, who is the daughter of nature, when she goes to the city to claim his love.
A similar fate also befalls Sita in the Ramayana. If the forest around Chitrakoot, where she spends 13 years with Rama and Lakshmana, brings her joy, it’s also where she is abducted. In Ashoka Vana in Ravana’s Lanka, the forest becomes a place of darkness and despair for her. Finally, sent by Rama for no fault of hers to live in Valmiki’s forest, she feels loved and protected again.
Retold through the ages, the fascination with Sita’ story endures: Sita’s Ramayana (2012) by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Pattanaik’s The Girl Who Chose: A New Way Of Narrating The Ramayana (2016), Amit Majmudar’s Sitayana, Aditya Iyengar’s Bhumika: A Story Of Sita (2019)—examples abound. But the most compelling among the recent retellings is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest Of Enchantments (2019).
As the title indicates, the novel focuses on Sita’s life in the jungle—first with Rama and Lakshmana and, later, under Ravana’s watch in Ashok Vana in Lanka. “The forest is a crucial space of change, discovery and growth for Sita," Divakaruni says. “This seems right to me, given that she is Bhumija, or daughter of the earth. In many ways, the forest, representing the unknown and raw power of nature, is opposed, or complementary, to the city, with its human civilization and laws." The forest, in a sense, is not only a physical space of conflict but also a psychological battleground, forcing individuals to make hard choices that often lead to woe and misfortune. This truth plays out in the Ramayana as Sita, bewitched by Maricha disguised as a golden deer, convinces Rama to go in its pursuit.
Mind and matter
The key conflict in Aranyaka is also between the blindly instinctive body and the rational logic of the mind. Katyayani discovers Y during her peregrinations through the forest in an anthill. An ascetic who left his guru to seek his own path following the almighty sun as his guide, Y is pulled out of his abstinence by Katyayani. Her voracious appetite for food, and for sex, softens his hard edges. Y begins to the enjoy physical play over mental exertions , but also resents the distractions. He upbraids Katyayani periodically for her lack of interest in the intellect and utter immersion in the pleasures of the body.
“There are Ys around us everywhere, otherwise remarkable people who think that the only way to sagesse is by ‘going beyond’ the body, by privileging the mind over the stomach, by renouncing rather than embracing the corporeal," says Patil. As Katyayani shows Y, as well as the pupils who come to him, the mind is but a feeble vessel if the body isn’t sustained by nourishment. “Recently, I read the story of Sri Aurobindo’s long-forgotten wife, Mrinalini, who had ‘nothing uncommon about her’ (like Katyayani)," Patil adds. “Mercifully, Aurobindo, whom no one can accuse of being ‘anti-intellectual’, recognized that those who use only their minds to grasp the nature of reality, have a far less intimate, immediate understanding of it." Patil’s own world view too is not based on the principle of either-or choosing one path over another.
Be it in the #MeToo movement or anything else, she is naturally suspicious of mass consensus, she tells me on Skype, preferring to reach her conclusions on a case-by-case basis, “without being bullied". Her faith in her own judgement has led to some unconventional choices. “I didn’t need Draupadi to be my sutradhaar (in Sauptik) to prove my feminist cred," she says. “People missed the point, but I thought it was far more interesting and subversive to talk about heroic or toxic masculinity via a broken, bleeding man like Ashwatthama."
Karthika V.K., who has edited and published all of Patil’s books—the first three while she was at HarperCollins India, and now Aranyaka at Westland—affirms her author’s deep and quiet certitudes. “Editing Amruta’s work is a bit like editing film," she says. “You have to closely attend to continuity of colour, background, the outward appearances of characters." It also involves asking many questions. “More than I might ordinarily ask of other texts," says Karthika, “because I want to ensure the reader will understand what she’s trying to say—though I also know that she’s probably thought about, and resolved, most of my concerns already."
The plot of Aranyaka, for instance, with its roots in realism, may seem clear as the light of day to readers, but like the forest, it is deceptive. From the interstices of its elegant frames and punchy lines, a thicket of meanings and metaphors begin to cast a web, making the book essential reading for our times, when opinions are increasingly etched in black and white, and shouted out to drown dissenting voices.
Patil isn’t worried about adverse reactions to her work. Having spent most of the last decade in France, she is ready to return to India for some time now. “India is the heart hotly pumping blood into my system. France was cool hibernation, hermitage. I needed them both for the work that happened so far," she says. “I think it’s time for me to be in India more now."