July 21, 2014

Growing up in the Sea of Stories, that is India

When Craig Chalquist asked me to write a few words about myth and story in India to share with his students at CIIS taking the Archetypal Mythology course, I wrote this in January, not knowing that in just over two weeks, Penguin will withdraw Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History, and we will once again find ourselves at the perplexity of a present bullied by cultural vigilantism or the threat of it in the name of purity of the past.   

The sweetness of my childhood was contained in tales told, retold, unraveled, re-dressed in books. In lieu of grandparents, I had storybooks, and magazines—Nandan, Champak, Parag, Chandamama, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, and Bal Hans, to name only a few. Through them, I encountered myths, folktales, fables, legends, and history—with them, I lived in a continuum of realities and temporal structures. Imagine a world where the moment that is cohabits with the moment that has always been, or never was. Imagine when a moment, swallowed, reappears in another story, even as that story spits out other, stranger moments. 
In the imaginal world of my childhood, differences, though not equal, were possible: a polymorphism bid by the range of linguistic, regional, religious, caste-based, gender-based traditions of mythology that had, over time, evolved in India. Further, tales from other parts of the world (especially, at the time, from Britain and Russia) were never far from the emotional, intellectual, and fantastical matrix of this postcolonial, ever-swirling navel of the world. 
It was jarring, then, to find myself growing up in a modern India where fundamentalist forces demanded a single unified Hinduism tethered to a monolithic mythology. Myth, I learnt, can be the terrain of cultural wars. To stake your claim over culture, your cultural practice, you have to tell your stories. Ultimately, mythology is about place and belonging. 
Those living at the brink of the mainstream Indian imagination, those interested in bringing social/narrative justice into mainstream Indian imagination, are today trying to give voice to indigenous, dalit, women’s, non-brahminical, nontextual, local storytelling traditions though publications, performances, film, and other media. Storytelling in India also always raises the question, “In which language?” With cultural globalization, the diversity of worlds and worldviews signified/created in each language has shrunk, but the intricate streams of mythologies that flow into and are the “sea of stories” that is India may be both too old, and ever-renewing, to disappear.

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