Journalist and author Renuka Narayanan quite simply attributes the idea for her new book on Shiva, to her editor Vaishali Mathur, at Penguin-Random House who asked her to write a book on the Supreme God. “I was thrilled because I love Shiv,” she says.

And so Mahadev came to be, where at the start of the novel a little girl asks who Shiva is and his story is unveiled. Narayanan adapted the Harikatha style of traditional storytelling for this book, a genre she admits she is addicted to and has spent hours listening to in Hindi and Tamil.

“It is the very old art of storytelling from the three big books – the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavatam. It’s based on those, and on sacred geography, music and literature. Hugely popular in many Indian languages, it goes on all year round wherever there are listeners.

While Vishnu’s stories are neatly formatted across India in those three big books and delivered in the mother tongues, Shiva’s stories are scattered all over the place. North-East and North India and South India rarely know each other’s Shiva stories beyond the common Puranic pool. I yearned to tell some of these ‘Shiv Lilas’ or Shiva stories from different regions in one story frame, in the vivid, intimate Harikatha style, in English. This book gave me the golden chance.”

While Vishnu’s stories are neatly formatted across India and delivered in the mother tongues, Shiva’s stories are scattered all over the place.

Narayanan feels that Shiva’s universal story keeps being reinterpreted and retold across generations because he is kind, loyal, unselfconscious, charismatic and unpredictable, with a special tenderness for the frightened, the damaged, the lonely and the ones left out. She adds, “He’s an enigma but also one of humanity’s most sincere, loving and giving concepts. We long to be close to him but never seem to know him entirely, so the fascination has gone on and on.”

The author who has worked with organisations like The Indian Express and The Hindustan Times informs that she never expected to be Religion Editor for two big newspapers, on a subject as sensitive in a country as explosive, and write steadily week after week for nearly 18 years on all religions. But since she had to, she did. According to her, God clearly had a sense of humour, choosing someone from a very westernised and mostly atheist family.

“Growing up, I was openly, if unfashionably, devout because I didn’t see why I had to be a closet believer. ‘God’ was not a big noise I made, in fact I didn’t do pujas; I did parties. However, when I began to write for the papers with affection about ‘God’, which naturally included ‘the gods’, I was teased and regarded with suspicion by some as Right Wing. “You’re embarrassing”, said a family friend. But tra-la, God, whether in a temple, gurdwara, church or dargah, was too interesting and beautiful to deny.”

If literature connects positively with modern people it could possibly help bridge the many cross-cultural gaps.

Narayanan is inspired by the likes of Valmiki, Vyasa, Somadeva, Vishnu Sharman, Narayana Sharman, Vetal Bhat and their gifted translators across India, Asia and the West. Does she think religion has been overtly politicized by our leaders in the present day, used only to divide people as opposed to the other way round? Can literature can bridge this gap in anyway?

“Yes, it has, all over the world. Alas, God, our universal refuge and the biggest building block of art and culture, is then spurned for man’s misdeeds. If literature connects positively with modern people it could possibly help bridge the many cross-cultural gaps. I hope this book goes out in many Indian languages and also in Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French, German and more – go all over the world like the Ramayana, Panchatantra and Hitopadesa once did. We read everybody’s old stories with great interest. They may like to read ours told in a modern voice.”

For instance, this book has stories-within-a-story in the old Indian format. But it is set in the milieu of a modern, urban North Indian mainstream family which embodies change in the small-but-big things it does, and talks about a number of issues from within the faith. They spell out ‘Shiva tattva’ or Shaiva principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ for themselves with their enlightened family guru while he tells them ancient Shiv Lilas from across the land.”

The author says that she has more storybooks that are currently underway, “I like to laugh that I’m ‘godded out’ but it’s great to be able to express myself freely to the general reader on a subject I love.”

Image Credit: Hemant Khendliwal/Penguin-Random House

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