Krishna Udayasankar spoke to Emma Harrison Clark at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival about her retelling of the great epics.
Krishna Udayasankar, poet, editor and fantasy fiction writer, is best known for her mytho-historical series, The Aryavarta Chronicles (Hachette 2012, 2013). The Chronicles are peopled with once divine characters who have problems like the rest of us. Krishna, a graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, has layered their world with political and social nuance.
By using great epics from the past, Krishna has been able to make more sense of the present, shedding light on how those myths have shaped Indian cultural and moral society. She also wanted to recover kernels of fact that are often cast aside as stories are filtered and retold through history.
‘I wanted to explore the scriptures and the epics as tales of humanity, not divinity; as something that could have been history and not some improbable fantasy-tale that defied all logic and science,’ she said.
To do this she gave some of the previously one-dimensional characters new and current perspectives.
In one instance she retells the most infamous act of violence against women in Indo-Asian myth, and by doing so, takes a step towards reclaiming history.
‘There was no way I could dismiss the character (Panchali)’s kindness, her intelligence and her sense of justice and humanity to reduce her to the single dimension of honour outraged, which is how more canonical versions of the myth go,’ she said. ‘To say that a great war was fought to avenge a queen is a disservice to these times, and equally to people of ages past.”
Krishna, like all good writers, seeks to understand the human condition.
‘Looking at these characters from a human perspective requires a degree of pseudo-philosophy,’ she said. ‘In that sense, I guess all writers share a certain religion – we all are trying to make sense of the world through our writing.’
When we met at this year’s Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, Krishna was expressive and graceful. She featured in a session called ‘Myths of our Making’ as part of the festival’s main programme. She also ran a children’s writing workshop at Bali’s incredible cat shelter, Villa Kitty.
She credits her ‘fur kids’—two Siberian Huskies—for changing the way she writes and looks at the world.
‘Whatever kindness, courage or other epic qualities the characters in my books show, they get not from me, but from my fur-kids and their kin,’ she said.
‘It would have been impossible for me to write my novels the way I have without the dogs. I used to be a very cynical person, but then I discovered hope. After all, if these gorgeous creatures can love us flawed human beings, despite all the cruelties we inflict on them, there must be hope—for us… for the world. That hope is what the characters in epic stories often fight for.’
Krishna’s training as a lawyer, coupled with her experience in strategic management at Nanyang Business School in Singapore, helped her plan and structure social and political complexities to portray the stories in contemporary times. But she says her training did not sway the decisions she made about which character voices told the story.
‘I think the story, any story, has a life of its own,’ she said. ‘It can’t be moulded to suit an author’s background or inclination.’
Another aspect of her writing has bloomed in recent years with her first book of poetry, Objects of Affection, published by Math Paper press in 2013. This is a series of poems written from the perspective of inanimate objects. She found her own poetry pretentious and self-righteous until she discovered the freedom of changing the narrator’s point of view.
‘When I took on the role of observer rather than participant, it brought to the fore many nuances and details that I know I’d have missed otherwise,’ she said.
Krishna is working now on a ‘mytho-historical’ manuscript about Singapore’s origin. She has also just finished book three of the chronicles, Kurukshetra, which will be in stores this year. Fans of the epic series can be assured that The Aryavarta Chronicles live on as she recently inked the deal on book four in the series.
‘The thought of potentially saying goodbye to my beloved characters was heartbreaking,’ she said.