How is it that Devdutt Pattanaik has over 25 books to his credit and the first time I ever heard of him was less than a month ago? And mind you, if ‘Shikhandi: And other tales they don’t tell you’ is anything to go by, they are good books. Devdutt Pattanaik is primarily a mythologist and this book is a compilation of the lesser known Indian legends; more specifically, myths that celebrate queerness and includes LGBTQ+ community, so kudos for that. These stories skirt the line between different types of genders and sexualities, inadvertently erasing the same line in my mind.
With this book, Pattanaik seeks to make a singular point very clear- Queerness, questioning gender, sexuality, gender norms, cross dressing and everything along these lines is not a western, modern concept. Queerness is inherent among the Indian myths, a significant part of its history.
As the title suggests, these short stories are often covered up, hidden away like the proverbial skeletons in the closet. This book shows that the place from where hatred and wrongful judgement stems can also be the origins of acceptance. It tells you like it is - the myths that have been hidden, the legends that have been revised and their original versions and all their queer glory, and that these stories are not all that different from the ones that we know and hear off.
These stories span over a wide field range, across different castes, religions and regions allowing most Indians to sit up straight, take interest and feel included. It skims various topics like injustice faced by women (Chudala, who became a man to enlighten her husband), the problem (or lack thereof) that occurs when one has gay parents (Vishnu, who became a woman to enchant gods, demons and a hermit), the love of two women and the desire to stay by each other (Ratnavali, who became the companion of her female friend), a love that surpasses even death (Kopperumcholan, the king who wanted a man in the adjacent tomb) and negative effects of pretending all gender is male or female (Ram, who included all in his kingdom) among many other.
The book itself is divided into two parts, the first part containing further two segments – ‘Appreciating Queerness’ followed by ‘Invention or Origin of queerness’ where the author points out that themes of queerness were prominent not only among Indian mythology but also among many others including but not limited to Greek mythology, Ancient Egypt, Viking legends etc. This section is frankly, boring to read. It is insightful and extremely detailed yes, but also factual but hey! If you’re into that, go ahead full speed. The second part contains the actual stories followed by a bulletin of Mr. Pattanaik's personal comments which are delightful. The writing style is easy to follow; in fact it is so simple it borders on becoming monotonous.
If you are someone who enjoys myths, doesn't have enough time to invest in long novels and wants a fresh perspective of queerness, this is the book for you.