(image source: google images)
A particular book can either aim for scholarly appreciation (like most academic books try to achieve) or popular acclaim. But there are some authors who can tread on both paths effortlessly, achieving bit of both. Their works become even more significant if they are able to place scholarly ideas, innovative content and intellectual discourses into layman’s door, make them accessible and applause worthy for a wider audience without challenging their existing knowledge sphere. Devdutt Patnaik is one of those writers who achieved fame through his informative and interesting take on Indian mythology. I remember getting introduced to Patnaik during my graduation years, when i first read his book “Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Indian Mythology” which was a brilliant analysis of Puranic mythology. Being a mythology enthusiast myself, i loved the flow of his writing and the interesting analysis of the stories we all knew from our childhood but which we never pondered upon. His book “Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata” had a lasting impact on me, and which is still considered his best book of the 30 books he has authored so far. The kind of admiration i had for him encouraged me to follow his articles and blogs etc. but somehow his articles seem to be a pale shadow of his books. But still he was different from many of the authors we are obliged to read for academic purposes. His works were a mix of everything- a narrative, bit of history, mythology, religion etc.
But reading some of his recent works like “My Gita” and “Devlok with Devdutt Patnaik” led me to a rethinking. “Devlok…” is based on the TV show he appears in. i followed that show religiously for the 1st season at least, and for the first time i saw him struggling to answer certain questions. I realized his limitations to historically contextualize mythology that he did very admirably in his book “Indian mythology” or “Jaya…”. I saw him using guesswork sometimes, generalizing certain ideas, ignoring some other crucial points many a times. Though i am a mythology enthusiast, i am also a history student. To explain mythology in purely philosophical or metaphysical terms is to de-historicize it. I was missing that Devdutt a bit, who used to delve into the cultural-social-religious milieu of mythology, rather than working just with speculative philosophy.
But this was only the beginning. His new book “my Gita” published last year left me in a state of disappointment. No new knowledge, no analysis, no history, not even mythology. I don’t abhor philosophy, but even abstract philosophy can be contextualized. Even philosophical reflections are determined by the socio-cultural milieu of the period. To study Gita as a metaphysical esoteric text is not what i expected from a mythologist. The book was trying to impress, it seems. Over use of diagrams and illustrations which otherwise would have enhanced the beauty and comprehension of the text came across as unnecessary deviation from the main text. All in all, “my Gita” succeeded neither in reaching to the masses as his interpretation of Gita was way too simplistic; nor it could arouse any scholarly interest. All in all, his “my Gita” was way below his earlier works even by his own standard.
But my disappointment changed to colossal feeling of regret for spending 100 bucks and 2 valuable hours reading a book that was not worth either the price or the time. The book was “Devlok with Devdutt patnaik”. This book as i mentioned earlier, is based on the popular TV show of the same name which is telecast on EPIC channel (it is literally an epic channel!!). When the advertisement for this book came on TV, i thought of ordering the book as soon as possible on Amazon (fortunately or unfortunately i didn’t). So today i bought the book finally from a street side book seller. I was expecting some added details, elaborate explanations, illustrations; some knowledge that i may have forgot and need to be refreshed. But instead what i got was a word to word literal transcript of the TV show. Same language, same information, word by word same. i saw him struggling to put up an adequate explanation for the questions discussed in the TV show, there were wild guesses, there were factual errors and all that factual errors got translated into the text. I was aghast to see, that such a reputed publishing house like penguin random house didn’t even care to review and edit their content before publishing it. I don’t know who is to be blamed for this- the author, the channel who provided the material or the publishers, or this was their collective misgiving but one who suffered from this “collective effort” was the reader. Granted he may have resorted to some wild speculations, committed some factual errors but even more problematic was his casual attitude towards his faithful readers. not only the content of the book very ordinary and weak (i always felt like asking way more complex questions than the one discussed in the show and the book), the retention of the coffee table discussion type approach to the book, makes one ask this question- is this “Devlok” really reaching its zenith, or rather, entangling itself in the web of show-business where packaging matters more than content. Chetan Bhagat degraded himself to pitiable levels, and unfortunately i am seeing another prominent writer who has actually great potential to bring something new to the table, something that can bring consciousness among people regarding their own religion, their own text. Such an author is losing his distinctive voice as his publications are filling more and more shelves.
I hope i am wrong, i hope i will be proved wrong. And i am still hoping…..
- Santosh Kumar