Gods among men

Krishna Udayasankar dives into the origin story of Govinda in ‘The Cowherd Prince’, a prequel to ‘The Aryavarta Chronicles’ trilogy

‘I am no one’s master. No one is mine’, Govinda Shauri declares in The Cowherd Prince (Penguin publication). He is plucked out of his comfort zone, where he lived amid rolling hills and farms, tending to cattle. The book is a prequel to The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy, in which Krishna Udayasankar re-imagined the Mahabharata and its epic battle between good and evil. In this book, she traces the origin story of Govinda, the reluctant prince who is up against the forces of Kans in Mathura.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

This book is a prequel to The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy… were the backstories of the characters already in place?

Yes, in fact, I had thought of writing The Cowherd Prince soon after I finished Kurukshetra, the third book of The Aryavarta Chronicles. There is a story that the Vyasas — Dwaipayana and Sukadeva — were both saddened after the Mahabharata had been set down in all its violent glory, they wanted to write something else, and thus began work on the Harivamsa. My inspiration was along similar lines, though to less excellence for sure. I felt for all the efforts I had put in, I was still left wondering about Govinda Shauri, about what made him the way he was, and what his journey was. But I was also afraid of revisiting the character, particularly since I was not sure I could do justice to him.

This is your eighth book. When you revisited Govinda’s origin story, how much had your thought process changed?

My thought process certainly had changed, both as a writer and as a person. But my character’s views are very much their own, and I try not to use them to voice my views. But I think the topics and context of my books do reflect certain basic values and worldviews — equality, democracy, the fight against oppression… I don’t think I can hide those.

The book addresses concerns such as migration to the capital city and depletion of resources, and in that sense, mirrors the contemporary situation…

Broad social issues and human concerns are fairly universal, though the context in which they arise change. Issues like migration were not something I brought in because they were contemporary or topical — the book has been in the making for seven years. I asked myself what the social and economic situation would have been in the context of the story taking into various factors, including the character’s motivations to act, and then built the details in. If we find these issues contemporary, it’s because we still find them relevant — just as we find the struggle against ‘evil’ — inequality and oppression — relevant.

To what extent did mythological texts influence the characterisation of Govinda and Balabhadra?

They were instrumental in making me ask what sort of people they were, their motivations, their actions. I have always wondered how a man like Govinda, who orchestrated such a terrible war, was considered divine. Or how a wine-loving Balabadra (he is described in the Harivamsa as having eyes perpetually reddened by his love for wine) was considered a competent administrator, and divine in his own right. What I have tried to hold on to and show, through their characters, is that these heroes are exceptional people because of their choices and actions, not simply because of their divine origin.

Most of the primary characters are men. Was it emotionally draining as you navigated the politics of Mathura?

Aah yes! Actually, that has been a conscious decision, one that reflects my learning (or not) as a writer. In earlier drafts, I tried very hard to bring in more women characters. In later versions, though, I realised that it was tokenism. The women characters were not adding to the plot. Which actually is an important fact, because it shows how the world of the story is a man’s world, in fact, a rich, upper-caste, man’s world. Which is pretty much how our world, our reality is. I felt it was more important to preserve the integrity of the plot and call out things for what they were, than introduce women into the story for sheer representation purposes. Emotionally draining — for my characters, possibly. For me, not in the least.

Three of your books have been optioned for films/web series. Did that influence your writing style and make it more visual?

Not really. Of course, working with people from the visual media field, even writing things for them has taught me a lot — especially about pacing and dramatic technique. But the visual style has more to do with how I read — I ‘play’ the book I’m reading in my head like a movie, I hear and (beyond movies), smell and feel, particularly if it’s a book I’m really enjoying. I suppose I just write in the style I like reading, that’s all.

During the lockdown, art kept many of us going. Looking back, were you able to write more or did the anxiety/stress associated with the pandemic get the better of you?

The lockdown was a strange time for me. I had recently relocated back to India with my family after spending nearly two decades living overseas. I’d been told to expect much culture shock. But the pandemic brought to the fore so many bigger issues for a host of people, that it seemed super-indulgent to feel stressed about smaller things. The lockdown made me understand my priorities.

In the initial months, I could not write at all — partly due to anxiety, I suppose, but also because it seemed so frivolous to be writing fiction when the entire world was struggling. Only in the last couple of months, I have been able to get back to writing.


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