The Battle within

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 4 May 2019

We chat up Krishna Udayasankar, who was in the city to launch her latest book, Beast

In recent times, leopards have been seen in our habitat. So when three drug smugglers are killed on the outskirts of a forest, naturally the blame falls on the wild cat. But, it is not the wild cat that has gone for the kill. It’s a lion or a werelionness. A teenaged girl, Chandana, metamorphoses or transforms into a lioness. Her tribe is called therianthropes or Saimha — human beings who have the ability to transform into a lion.

In the case of Chandana and others like her, there is a well-known mythological story that has been their guide to existence. It’s the story of King Hiranyakashipu and Vishnu, who dons the Narsimha avatar to kill him. But that’s the only connection Beast, penned by Krishna Udayasankar has with mythology. 

Udayasankar, who is known for The Aryavarta Chronicles based on mythology, was pretty clear that her new book would not be a retelling of mythology stories. The author, who was in the city to launch Beast, tells us more about it.

We start by asking the Singapore-based author about her connection with mythology. Udayasankar, who comes from a traditional old family, remembers being told mythological stories by her grandma. “But my problem would be that her stories would stem from a conservative perspective. Her stories would always end with an instruction — ‘Girls should be like this’, ‘Girls shouldn’t do this’ and so on. I was the only girl in the family and after a point, I thought, ‘I can’t handle this. If this is my culture, history, then it can’t be used to make me behave in a certain way. It can’t be justified to oppress someone. I decided to understand and reinterpret the myths in my own way. I hoped to look back and say, ‘I am happy with this story’. I was not happy with the stories that were told to me. So I decided to write my own stories,” says Udayasankar. 

The writer, who is presently working as a lecturer at Nanyang Business School, Singapore, says, “Beast is a completely new story. It takes inspiration in some degree from the myths, but makes it more relevant to our Indian context,” she adds. However, Beast took a long time in shaping up as a novel. Udayasankar, who got a two book deal from Penguin Random House, wasn’t supposed to write this novel. “I was going to write something else. But I didn’t find that interesting enough. In fact, I couldn’t write for two years and that filled me with apprehension. I wondered if I had run out of ideas, if my creative juices had dried up,” she says.

“I did begin writing on two novels, wrote some 30,000 words and then chucked it. I started writing Beast because of two reasons. One was my WhatsApp group with writer friends. We kept encouraging each other, setting targets. My first draft was ready within a month. Of course the first draft was radically different from the final one. Somewhere along the line, I also got into an argument with someone who was teasing me. I was having a bad day, unable to write. And that person told me, ‘What’s your problem? You have written on Ramayan, Mahabharat. Ab Dashavtar par likh do.’ I started arguing with the person and somewhere the idea of Beast triggered,” she adds. 

There are many authors who have a complete graph of the story, the plot points and the growth of characters mapped out. Udayasankar doesn’t belong to this group. Says she, “I have a crazy relationship with my characters. They tell me what to do. I don’t tell them, they don’t listen to me. My characters and the story drive themselves. There is word building that goes on in my head. Then, if necessary, I do background research to check if the idea has any merit. A lot of details, however, are researched while I am writing. There are days when my entire writing would be of one sentence. That’s because to write that one sentence, I spent the entire day researching.” 

Beast begins with the police arriving on the murder scene and there are quite a few details about the working of the police rank and file. This part was researched by Udayasankar. “I had no idea about the police procedure, the crime branch structure. I also had to research on animal behaviour, on lions. I started reading about them. I looked up information. I had seen lions in Africa when I was a kid. But I didn’t want to rely on those old memories. My main problem was that I wasn’t able to pinpoint how these creatures behave. I ended up watching my three dog children (Siberian huskies). The two girls fight a lot. I used to watch them fight. All the fight sequences, the growls of lions in the book came from there,” she adds. 

That revelation came as a surprise to us. But Udayasankar is quite nonchalant. “I don’t agree with this theory that human beings are most intelligent. The more I have seen my dogs, the more I see any animals, the more I realise that there is an innocence that animals have which humans don’t. Human beings are a little chalu. Our brains are always working and they don’t always work for good. We keep talking of animal instinct as if it’s not a good thing. But actually animal instinct is very honest, pure. There is a sentence in Beast — Anger, jealousy are human emotions, don’t blame them on your beast. It captures the spirit of the book. I wanted to highlight here that it’s not a case of animal corrupting human, but it’s the human corrupting animal,” she insists.  

Beast explores the good and evil sides inherent in us, and the struggle and conflict that we go through in keeping the latter under control. It becomes all the more tougher for the Saimha, the half man, half animal beings in our midst. Rahul and Prithvi, protagonists-antagonists typify the struggle, especially because the Saimhas are expected to curb their lion instinct and live amongst human beings as humans. “Their love is homosexual and I have no qualms in saying that,” points out Udayasankar. 

Also, there are references in the book to genetic coding and database of Saimhas, which is quite familiar to the discussion on Aadhar, access to information and who controls it. When asked about it, the author says, “When you are writing a book, it has to be relevant to its time and place. I wanted to question this whole idea of hierarchy, caste. These are issues that matter to me. We have to understand that the views will not be same for every group. That’s what I tried conveying across.”

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