In Her own Words: Re-Telling an Indian Epic

Tim Hardaker travels to Sivakasi and engages in a delightful conversation with young debutante author Anuja Chandamouli , whose book Arjuna, is a passionate retelling of the Mahabharata, woven around Arjuna, the iconic Pandava warrior prince as the central character

The town of Sivakasi, located 80 kms south-west of Madurai, is perhaps best known for producing 70 percent of India’s fireworks. It’s not necessarily where you’d expect to find a young author proudly espousing the literary genius of Veda Vyasa’s culturally defining epic, the Mahabharata. Then again, Anuja Chandramouli is not your average 28-year-old mother of two.

When arriving at her home – which she shares with her two young daughters Veda and Varna, her husband Chandramouli Vidyasagar, his mother Savithri Vidyasagar and his paternal grandmother Rajalakshmi – Anuja greets us warmly, although she definitely seems somewhat bemused.

“This is the first interview I’ve ever done,” she informs us in a slightly self-deprecating tone. Understandably, she seems a little nervous about sitting down to talk about her entry into the world as a published author, but beneath the surface lies a clearly confident individual. After all, it takes a great deal of courage to undertake a retelling of India’s most important story, arguably even more so when it’s your debut novel.

Within minutes of settling in Anuja’s sitting room it becomes apparent that she’s a seasoned reader, simply by seeing how her eyes light up when asked to list some of her literary inspirations.

“Agatha Christie is someone I adore. What I love about her is that she’s created a body of work and it’s all excellent. There are some writers who come out with something brilliant, and then they just fizzle out. But Agatha Christie is my inspiration because the quality of her work was never compromised.” However, she’s not restricted only to the celebrated English crime novelist, as she’s also deeply passionate about the fantasy genre, specifically Terry Brooks, and George RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones series of novels.“ I just love books, and if I find someone who is willing to discuss books with me, I’m a happy person.”

Discovering her passion
The seed for Anuja’s debut novel Arjuna was planted long before she ever positioned herself in front of a laptop to begin writing. In fact, you can trace it all the way back to her childhood, when she first discovered she had a knack for the written word. “I was what you’d call a jack-of-all-trades. I was good at everything but I wasn’t great at anything,” she explains with a laugh. “In a race I’d probably make it past the heats, but I wouldn’t finish on the podium. So I was thinking, ‘why am I not great at anything?’ I realised I enjoyed reading a lot and I’d write a little bit; then around 7th or 8th standard I discovered that I liked writing.”

Unlike her schoolmates, she quickly found herself relishing the oft-punishing homework task of essay writing.” All the girls in class would be groaning but I’d be thinking, ‘That sounds like fun!’ I would have been 12 or 13 years old then, and I had a teacher who read out my essay to the seniors.” Clearly encouraged by the positive feedback that her first public audience provided, this is where it dawned on Anuja that writing was something she wanted to pursue in the future. “I wanted to be a journalist, to see the world and put all my experiences down onto paper.”

Fast-forward 15 years, and even though Anuja’s life has taken a slightly different path, it’s not something she bears any ill-feelings over. She’s happily married and the mother of two young girls – aged five years and three years – which has given her life a purpose that she previously couldn’t have imagined. “It’s hard to explain how motherhood influences your perspective on life, because I used to wonder why women made such a big fat deal out of it,” Anuja explains with a wicked laugh, not at all worried about how her words could be misconstrued by those unable to see the humour in her perspective. “I used to get impatient with them and I’d be thinking, ‘people have been doing this for donkey’s years!’ But when you go through it… its like when you touch fire – you know it’s going to burn, but nothing can prepare you for being burnt.”

For some, balancing the blood, sweat and tears of having a young family alongside the creative endeavor of setting out to write a novel might have seemed an overwhelming task. This was not the case for Anuja, as she was able to use the seemingly-opposed worlds of writing and motherhood as foils whenever either priority in her life became too much to bear. “You need to be mentally fit and emotionally fit to be a parent, so it was nice that I had writing,” she muses. “It was something to take my mind off being a mother. The pressures that I had when writing – I was frightened and nervous – the kids took my mind off that, so in a way it was a very complementary thing. I was very grateful to my kids for that.”

Prior to kick-starting her career as a novelist, Anuja had contributed to several magazines, newspapers and publications, including Women’s Era, The Hindu and travel bible Lonely Planet. With a slowly growing number of published pieces under her belt, she also found herself facing her fair share of knock-backs, and it was while she was pregnant with her second daughter that she had the idea to pour all of her creative energy into a book. “I was feeling a little discouraged… that my great dream to be a writer was not taking off. I was a little depressed,” she explains, relating her state of mind at the time. “I thought I should just start writing. I was supposed to finish the book before the baby was born, but it didn’t turn out that way! Everyone says you should write about what you know, so I thought about what I know and really love, and that was the Mahabharata.”

An epic undertaking
To anyone not familiar with the Mahabharata – don’t worry, I was right there with you prior to my recent arrival at the Madurai Messenger when I dived headlong into research for this story – without overstating things, it is the defining literary work of India’s rich history and expansive culture. It is also a story that’s clearly had a huge impact on Anuja’s development as a writer.

“I love the Mahabharata, it’s the great love of my life,” she states emphatically. “Even when I was a small girl in school I used to tell my friends stories from the Mahabharata. I was known as the storyteller! I used to draw the battle formations on the ground, in the mud. It made sense that this would be the first story I’d ever write, because I love it so much.”

Not that you need the reminder considering her novel’s subject matter, but Anuja’s deep passion for the Mahabharata is so clearly evident that even the book’s dedication is in honour of the story’s original author, Veda Vyasa. “I don’t have to say it, but if anyone ever asks me who is the greatest storyteller ever, I will say it’s him,” Anuja implores, demonstrating her lifelong respect for the revered Hindu literary icon. “I think what he’s written is very complicated; the story within a story within a story. I love the amount of detail that’s there in the Mahabharata, and I think you can never be ‘done’ with it. You read it [again] and you find something new or different, you get a fresh insight.”

Initially giving herself a three-month window to complete the book, Anuja quickly discovered that it was a far more time-consuming undertaking, and it quickly ballooned into a project that spanned three years. “The gestational period was pretty lengthy,” she confirms. “I was very scared, I think that’s what slowed down the process immensely. I didn’t know how people would receive it. I was petrified as I felt discouraged that my writing career was going nowhere. At that time my baby was very small, so I would write at night and some days I was really tired, so it took a lot of discipline to sit in front of the laptop and write a few pages every day.”

Anuja’s dedication to her story, even when her attention was diverted by the trials and tribulations of motherhood, also helps to illustrate her hardened work ethic. “Anything you want to do, you have to make time for it,” she explains. “With writing, I would say that if you don’t do it when there’s no time to write, there’s no guarantee you’ll write when you do have time.” Clearly a naturally motivated individual, it’s interesting to have Anuja explain one of her driving forces when writing the book. “I worried that in my obituary there will be nothing interesting to write about! I want my kids to have something to say about their mother, something they can be proud of.”

“The magic is alive for me, and I really believe the characters lived and died and left their legacy for us”

Continuing a tradition
The Mahabharata is a topic that’s been discussed, dissected and deciphered at length. There’s no shortage of re-tellings and reinterpretations; however, from the outset, Anuja always had a very clear vision for how she would approach her story. “I had no intention of messing with what Veda Vyasa had created.” And, instead of crumbling under the weight of the story’s importance and cultural significance to generations of readers, she relished the opportunity to contribute to its ongoing existence. “What I find magical about the Mahabharata is that it’s so ancient and yet people still love to talk about it, and I wanted to be a part of that tradition.”

In an ironic twist, considering Anuja’s book is itself a re-telling, when the topic is raised of other authors who have contributed their own interpretations of the Mahabharata she’s very firm in her belief that the original is not something to be tampered with. To the extent, one has to ponder, if she were faced with her own book on the shelf in a store would she buy it? “I’m a purist when it comes to Mahabharata. I wouldn’t pick up a book if it was somebody else’s take on it, because I’m a rabid fan.” Of course she’s familiar with the authors who have contributed to the canon of work influenced by Vyasa, listing off celebrated titles by C.Rajagopalachari, Ramesh Menon, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meera Uberoi. It’s just that she’s not interested in having their interpretations influence her long-held vision. “You have a certain relationship with the author and the characters they’ve created,” she outlines. “You imagine them in your head… When I become a fan, I’m a little bit of an extremist.”

It was always Arjuna
Clearly focused from the outset that her novel would concern the Mahabharata, it’s interesting to note that Anuja was equally sure what aspect of the expansive story she would distil into her re-telling. Considering the story clocks in at around 1.8 million words, spread over 200,000 lines (Mahabharata is ten times the length of Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey combined!), this is no mean feat. “Arjuna is my favourite character,” she relates, deadpan. “Usually people support the underdogs… I don’t! I go for the winning team.”

“At that time my baby was very small, so I would write at night and some days I was really tired, so it took a lot of discipline to sit in front of the laptop and write a few pages every day”

Arjuna is widely celebrated as the finest warrior of the Mahabharata. Son of Pandu and Kunti, and the middle of five brothers, he was a prince and – in Anuja’s own words – “he was the talented one.” In fact, Anuja’s admiration for her chosen protagonist runs so deep, at times it felt like we were talking about a real person, and not the character in a book that dates back to the 8th century BC. “Over the years it became a more emotional bond,” she explains. “With Arjuna it has been a very constant bond, so I wanted to tell his story.”

Although enamored with Arjuna’s character, Anuja is under no illusion that he’s without flaws. “The general opinion of Arjuna is that he was an arrogant fellow,” she recalls. “But I liked those little glimpses into his character that show him as a vulnerable person. Someone who could fall madly in love, someone who could get angry.” In fact, Anuja sees many of these elements running parallel to her own personality. “Maybe it’s because I can see the same in myself? I would describe myself as a nice person, but I have my flaws. All of this brought Arjuna a little closer to me.”

A central aspect of Arjuna’s story is his relationship with Krishna, and this was an element Anuja relished being able to write. “Krishna is such a complicated and beautiful person. Whether I’m at a place in my life where I’m religious or agnostic, at no point did I not love Krishna himself.” She recounts the humiliation of Draupadi – wife of the Pandavas brothers – at the hands of Dushasana as a clear indication of Krishna’s importance as a character. “It used to make me so angry, that men could get away with doing something like that to a woman. These were the greatest warriors of their age and they let something like that happen to their wife! It’s something I cannot accept, even now it makes me so angry.”

“It’s still so relevant today in India, and anywhere else in the world. To be a woman and to know that because you’re not as [physically] strong as a man you’re at their mercy, that you can go outside without your dupatta and a guy makes a snap decision, “She’s a whore, I can treat her like one.” Of all the men who were there – the great, learned and wise – not one of them lifted a finger to help Draupadi. Krishna was the only one, he wasn’t even there and he still came to her rescue. That says everything there is to say about him, he loved women and respected them, and that’s what makes him both a man and a god as far as I’m concerned.”

A graduate of the Women’s Christian College in Chennai, Anuja has a Master’s degree in English and Bachelor’s in Psychology. The former, not surprisingly, comes in handy when she sits down to write, but it’s the latter that she finds influencing her work in a unique way. “I tend to psychoanalyse, and that seeps into my actions with other people and my writing. I’m forever trying to get under the skin of the character. I’ll be thinking ‘what motivates them.’” This manifests itself throughout Arjuna, as she strives to delve deeper into the epic’s central characters. “I never just accept it if someone says, ‘he was a bad man and he threw a baby into the sea.’ I’ll be thinking, ‘why would he do that? Was he a violent person or was it something else?’ I tend to analyse all the time and try to understand what motivates them.”

One story, many meanings
The purpose of the Mahabharata is frequently debated, with many having pondered over whether it should be considered a work of historical, literary, mythological or religious significance. It’s often compared to the Bible and Quran, as well as Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey, and in some cases even Shakespeare. Anuja is measured in her perspective, and explains that she has continued to find new ways to apply it to her everyday existence. “As a child, I was a very religious kid. My grandmother used to tell me a lot of stories from Hindu mythology, so for me it was something that actually happened, it was very real.” Over time, however, this changed. “As I grew older – my dad is an agnostic, and I have a lot of my dad in me – I guess I became a little cynical along the way, and so it turned instead into a great literary piece. The greatest work of fiction ever created.”

Incubating an idea
Interestingly, after immersing herself in the story of the Mahabharata and Arjuna’s exploits for the preceding three years, she’s again found a new and updated perspective on how it should be considered. “I wasn’t a believer for a long time in my life, yet as soon as the book was finished, I visited the Ganesha temple in Sivakasi. I felt a kinship because he was the great scribe. At this point I would say that I believe it all happened, and that there’s no proof that it didn’t. The magic is alive for me, and I really believe that they all lived and died and left their legacy for us.”

“The gestational period was pretty lengthy,” she confirms. “I was very scared, I think that’s what slowed down the process immensely. I didn’t know how people would receive it. I was petrified as I felt discouraged that my writing career was going nowhere”

As our time together draws to a close, our discussion broaches the topic of ‘what comes next?’ Anuja is tight-lipped about the subject of her second book, which she has already started working on, but it’s a habit she formed while writing Arjuna. “Call it a quirk of mine, but nobody, other than my husband knew I was working on Arjuna.” She eventually showed it to her father when it was nearing completion, but to everyone else in her life, it remained a mystery until a publisher had accepted her manuscript. “A lot of people, my close friends, my sister – they were very offended that I hadn’t seen fit to tell them I was working on Arjuna. When I start something, there’s no guarantee that I have faith in myself to see it through to the end, so the way I saw it, there was nothing to talk about until it was actually completed.”

Upon receiving her first finished copy of Arjuna, Anuja was understandably delighted – and not just because she was holding her very own published book. “It made me very happy, to know that now I was part of it all and not just a reader, I was helping to keep the story [of Mahabharata] alive through the ages.”

It was a lofty ambition, to join the ranks of helping to tell one of India’s timeless epics, but for Anuja the effort was more than worth it. “As the Mahabharata was something I loved so much, it was in safe hands with me. I trusted myself with it, I knew I’d take care of it.” Perhaps it was her motherly instincts that helped her along the way – after all, she’s proved herself to be fiercely proud of the Mahabharata and she nurtured the story lovingly and with care. Aren’t these the characteristics universally expected of good parents?