Reclaiming the Indian story

Stories are more important than most people realise. The kind of story one tells says a lot about him. The kind of stories one likes speaks volumes about him as well. There is a tendency among many to think of stories as small little things that float around in the periphery of human affairs — inconsequential little bits of nothing that don’t amount to much more than simple entertainment and mere exercises for the imagination.

But in truth, stories form the very the bedrock of all human civilisation. All religion, all knowledge, and all human values are transmitted (and in some cases, even sourced) from stories. This is why stories are vital to the working of civilisation on the individual level as well as a societal level.

I was recently asked by a friend why a new wave of Indian fantasy novels and comic books seem to have taken over the markets in recent times. For the first time ever in decades, mainstream media mentions of popular literature has started to include names of Indian authors and Indian titles. Desi fantasy franchises have always been around, but it is for the first time that they stand a chance against an onslaught of comics and paperbacks from the West and elsewhere in the world.

Indian stories seem to have become cool again, and the reason behind this appears very simple to me.

The stories of yesterday were written by reductionist academics for an audience that was non-Indian (in every sense of the word). They read India’s stories — the Ramayana for example — and translated them into narratives consisting of little more than racism, gender bias, and slavery. These narratives were peddled to a Western audience — ever eager for the latest dose of an ancient and exotic India — as being scholarly works that reveal the ‘real’ face of this vast and complicated country. These very same narratives found their way into pop culture and by extension, into the stories that were told about India.

This twisted and disingenuous story of India thus became THE story of India. It was told the world over, and when a new generation of Indians learnt of their country’s place in the world through a Western education, it is this story that they too were told.

And herein lay a conflict. When this generation of Indians closed their books and looked around them, the India they saw looked nothing like what their story said it was. To most Indians, the epic stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata aren’t stories about racism, violence, and slavery. When they talk, the stories that Indians tell each other about themselves, are starkly different from the stories that the world has been telling about them and their country for a long time.

And thus was born the new Indian story — the one which, in its many forms, is storming the markets right now. No longer is the story being told to people who don’t belong in it. Indians are reclaiming their own story and they are telling it to each other.

The new wave of Indian fantasy — stories involving our gods and heroes, characters we love and worship — consists of stories being written by Indians for Indians. The new Indian story resonates with Indians and is quite unlike the high-brow garbage that was peddled to us in the name of scholarly insight and academic research.

The new Indian story is magical and fantastic. It is about what Indians want India to be. It is where our gods find respect and devotion (as opposed to being dissected by ill-intentioned scholars to make fodder for a bored Western audience). It is turning out quite well, and we seem to be enjoying it quite a bit.

(Originally published on Niti Central on October 7, 2012)

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