How often do you pick up a book on the basis of its title? I do that sometimes, often to be disappointed. But Puranic Tales for Cynical People (Indialog, 2005), written by Parashuram and translated from the original Bangla by Pradip Bhattacharya and Shekhar Sen, was an exception. I purchased this book in 2005, read it from start to finish, and loved it so much that I was all set to read it a second time. That never happened, and after a while it got shelved with my other books, hidden but not fully forgotten.
Until recently, that is. My brother unearthed it recently during a raid on my bookshelves in search of some reading material. Thanks to him, I was able to once again delight in the book’s sometimes light, sometimes acerbic, and sometimes irreverent humour.
Parashuram was the pen name of Rajsekhar Bose (or Basu, if you please) (1880-1960). Under this nom de plume, he wrote a 100 short stories, which were published in 9 collections. Twenty of these stories have been put together in this collection of Puranic Tales for Cynical People by the translators.
The basic premise of most of these stories revolves around the intriguing possibility of placing “well-known characters from the Puranas in situations that might have been”. In other words, they cater to the question of what happened next or a behind the scene narration of a famous story or incident. For example: what happened to Surpanakha after the Ramayana? Did the celibate Hanuman ever consider matrimony? Did Vishwamitra and Menaka always have a lovey-dovey relationship? Do apsaras always stay young?
In the process, Parashuram pokes fun at everybody—from the Creators (Hindu, Christian and Muslim) themselves, to venerable sages and other characters that any reader who is even reasonably acquainted with Hindu mythology will be able to identify and relate to.
Some of the lesser known characters that Parashuram breathes life into are Yayati (‘Yayati’s Senility’), Revati (‘Revati Gets a Husband’) and Maharishi Jabali (‘Jabali’). Two of the stories actually make caricatures of two of the crankiest, hot-tempered and feared sages—Durvasa (‘Bharat’s Rattle’), and Vishwamitra (‘The Clay Girdle’).
Two stories explore the possibility of what happens when (i) the creators of the world’s 3 main religions meet (‘Three Creators’); and (ii) the 7 immortal men from the Puranas meet—Ashwatthama, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripacharya, Parashuram (the sage that is, not the author), and the Daitya king, Bali—at ‘The Gandhamadan Conclave’. Both these stories are absolutely delightful. While the former hits out at the claim of comparative superiority of one religion over others, the latter story emphasises the fact that all wars are essentially unfair.
There are stories that mock at man’s obsession with external beauty (‘Striptease’); his desire for an education sans common sense (‘Dambaru Pandit’); dissatisfaction with whatever he has (‘Dashakaran’s Renunciation’); ego (‘The Agastya Pass’); and confusion over sexuality (‘Vice Versa’).
Bheema, the second (and my favourite) Pandava is the protagonist in two of the stories—’Reunion’ and ‘Bheem Gita’. The first story is about Bheema meeting his son Ghatotkacha for the first time. And the latter, as the title suggests, is a discourse between Bheema and Krishna on mastering one’s senses. Here, Bheema makes a case for using anger constructively, instead of reining it in or managing it or overcoming it.
Two stories (‘Surpanakha’s Reminiscences’ and ‘Hanuman’s Dream’) explore the delicious imaginary world of what happened next. In the first story, Surpanakha—who has specially designed wooden ears and nose after the originals were cut off—tries to recreate her love for Rama to Pushkala, her niece and Vibhishana’s daughter. Or at least tries to 😉 In the second story, Hanuman is going through severe angst after the Ramayana war over his unmarried state and no progeny.
The remaining stories cannot really be grouped together, except for the fact that they are all humourous. ‘The Third Dice Game’ is from the Mahabharata and deals with the idea of countering dishonesty with dishonesty. The story tries to indicate that if Yudhistra had common sense—instead of an over inflated sense of dharma—the course of the Mahabharata may well have been different. Though the translators have posited ‘The Rule of Ram’ as an example of how power corrupts, to me it was also a stinging example of casteism. ‘Panchali, Beloved of the Pandavs’, is a delightful story that illustrates the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” adage. It takes the intervention of Krishna, as always, to sort things out. ‘The Origin of Balkhilyas’, which is supposed to be directed at the younger generation, is full of rebellion and anti-establishment sentiment. It is also the only story in the collection, which I couldn’t really comprehend.
Being used to reading puranic tales where Shiva or Vishnu (or his avatars) take centre stage, it was a surprise to see Brahma starring in many stories for a change. In this collection, Shiva does not make an appearance at all while Rama, Parashuram and Krishna (all Vishnu’s avatars) do. Reading Puranic Tales for Cynical People made me wish that I knew Bangla. Translation is never easy, and in my opinion, translating humour is the most difficult of them all. Bhattacharya and Sen have done a good job of the translation—whether tongue in cheek or sarcastic, the humour comes through. Sample these:
From ‘Panchali, Beloved of Pandavs’, after Panchali and the Pandavs have made up after a huge sulking session on the former’s part:
Bheem said, ” You, Krishna! Come here! I suppose Panchali would not trouble us again, eh? What do you think?
Krishna said, “Of course, she will. her vocal cords are not affected in the least.
From ‘The Gandhamadan Conclave’, Parashuram (the avatar of Vishnu, not the author) says,
… I am off to Vishnu. I’ll tell him, ‘Why delay further? Incarnate as Kalki, save the earth, uproot the sinners and also destroy the lazy, worthless and weak; only then will the earth be at peace. And should you have no time, tell me, I’d be happy to incarnate once more and have another go at it.’
From ‘The Clay Girdle’, an exchange between Vishwamitra and Menaka,
Vishwamitra…said, “Menaka, remove yourself from my vicinity. I can’t stand the smell of your oily hair.”
Menaka…said, “You can’t stand that smell now, is that it? Only a few days back you used to lie with your face buried in my hair. Do you have any idea what I apply to my hair? Dhanwantari has prepared this hair oil for me by mixing fifty different fragrances grown in Malygiri in coconut oil. Even gods, demons, Gandharvas, and men are bewitched by it, and you cannot stand it!…
Vishwamitra said, “You are a stupid apsara; you have no idea about the properties of matter. The best of fragrant hair oils gets spoilt when it comes in contact with humid air. Women may not have any feeling in their nose but others do.”
From ‘Jabali’, an extract where Indra, the king of Devas and Matali, his charioteer discuss as to which apsara should be sent to break Maharishi Jabali’s meditation.
Worried, the king of gods ordered, “Call Urvashi!”
Matali, … submitted, “O king of gods. Urvashi does not wish to descend to earth anymore.”
Indra said, “Hmm… she has become too spirited! … Despatch some other apsara for Jabali.”
Matali said, “Menaka has gone to visit her daughter. The Ashminikumars will not let Tillotamma venture out for another three months. Alambusha has sprained her foot and will not be able to dance. The sage, Ashtavakra, annoyed with the gods, has become intractable and Rambha has gone to mollify him. Nagdutta, Hema, Soma and three hundred other apsaras have been abducted by the king of Lanka, Ravan. Only Mishrakeshi and Ghritachi are left.
Annoyed, Indra said, “Without my knowledge, why are apsaras sent here and there?…”
The book is full of such gems and every page brings forth at least one chuckle or a smile. The only thing that detracts from fully enjoying the book are proof-reading errors of the irritating kind. For example, the header for ‘Revati get a husband’ reads as “Revati gets and husband”. There are a few more like this.
But don’t let these distract you too much as the book is a must read, not just for cynical people but for anyone who likes a humourous read, particularly of the subtle, mocking type. If you like such humour, and are more than a little acquainted with Hindu mythology, this book is for you. You’ll love it 🙂