Yes. Everything. “A Story About Everything” is how this professor, Arti Dhand, describes The Mahabharata in her pandemic project, a podcast with 15-20 minute episodes that herds listeners onto the convoluted trail of this ancient story.
For another take on the story, see The Mahabharata: A Child’s View by Samhita Arni, a text that has clarity and candor and a kind of touching freshness. That’s because the writer was 10 years old when she began this project, so as a reader I have to come to this with an openness to that truthful child’s heart.
But I will say, Arti Dhand’s is the treatment I’ve been waiting for all my grownup life. Delivered orally, contextually, and in small bites. What I really like about this podcast is that it treats the Mahabharata as a literary text and not a religious one. So often in my Hindu upbringing, it was no more than the frame story for The Bhagavad Gita.
Why do I find this avowedly secular approach comforting? I think because it absolves me of having to draw moral conclusions every few minutes, or resist the ones the storyteller’s pushing. I was never very good at accepting canned morality, whatever its source.
Finally, I wanted to learn about the art of this epic tale rather than tie myself into internal knots of conscience, because, you know, who needs more of those during a pandemic?
I’ve listened to 20-ish of the 40-something-and-still-ticking episodes. Let’s just say I’m finding Arti’s podcast as irreverent, pragmatic, and wildly imaginative as the story itself. And it’s a lot of fun to hear the resonances between its parts, the repetitions of names and themes, and the casual tossing in of great philosophical questions left deliberately unanswered in a manner that seems familiar and relevant in the 21st century.
Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar is a synthesis of astral melody and desi voices from the Indian American community. “Cupcakes and kulfi” to quote the book’s young narrator, Sheetal. The voices run from strident to loving, a few with distinct, affectionately drawn Gujarati accents. The drumbeat of Hindu mythology is never far. I asked Shveta if she’d talk about how this book came to be.
[Uma] Tell me what brought this particular blend of magical and real together for you.
[Shveta] I have always believed in magic—when I was younger, I could even feel the numinous in the air—and I’ve always carried lush imaginary worlds inside me.
I love a good second-world high fantasy as much as the next reader, but when I came across Holly Black’s Tithein 2002, I knew that was what I wanted to do, too—make magic accessible in our world, something just beyond the corner of your eye, and if you were swift and fortunate enough to catch it, you might be off on an enchanted adventure, too.
Throw in the desi/Hindu aspect, and that’s my heart on the page.
I wanted to ground this particular book (and the one I’m revising right now) in our world, so readers, especially fellow desis, could feel like this might actually happen to them. We all deserve beautiful escapism and hope, especially right now, and to see ourselves and our traditions and mythologies celebrated.
[Uma] It is lovely to read a book with Indian American characters that’s not an immigrant assimilation story. Yet, Sheetal’s experience of being “a half star,” “neither here nor there,” evokes the experiences of children and teens in immigrant families. Can you talk about the power of fantasy to shed light on our own real world?
[Shveta] Thank you! That was deeply important to me and remains so. I yearned for magical tales about people like me, fun stories like white people always got to have, but instead, it seemed like all brown and Black people were allowed was stories about the pain of being marginalized. There’s a place for those books, certainly, but that was never what I wanted to write.
Maybe I’m not half a star (or am I? I’ll never tell), but I’ve always felt caught between—caught between the desi American and other American communities; caught between being the “right” kind of Indian kid (the kind who doesn’t major in German and pick up herbal medicine as a hobby and dress up in faerie wings) and the one I was; caught between the world itself and feeling like I would never, ever belong anywhere or even be loved. (I’m so grateful I hung in there and learned otherwise!) So all that flowed naturally into Sheetal’s story, and I had a feeling it would resonate for other people, too. We’re all trying to find our place in the world, after all!
So while I absolutely believe in magic and long for it, I also understand the power of telling all the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it. Fantasy allows us to play with wonder and whimsy while exploring our own world from a necessary remove, so we can reexamine the things we take for granted. It can work both as adventure and allegory, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to me.
[Uma] Every book teaches a writer something. What did writing this book teach you?
[Shveta] Not to give up; not to listen to naysayers (I was told many times when I started out that no one would ever want to read a book about someone who looked like me)…
[Uma] Yeah, I heard that too. You learn not to listen to some voices, right? What else?
[Shveta] that careful, thoughtful revision is the best gift we can give our work; that a good editor is worth their weight in stardust; and that if you listen to your heart, you will never be steered wrong.
[Uma] So true about revision. And listening to your heart. So–related to that, what should young people tell themselves that will help them find their way in this very complicated world?
[Shveta] There’s room in the world for every single one of us. Don’t ever let anyone silence your voice or tell you you’re not good enough. I’m here to say that you’re the light the world needs exactly the way you are, and you absolutely deserve love and magic. No matter what anyone else might think, you belong; I’m proof of that.
As Sheetal’s sidereal family would say, may you burn bold in the deepest night.
[Uma] Sidereal. There’s a word to carry in the heart. Thank you, Shveta.
Before its publication, I did my best to get my hands on a copy of The Serpent’s Secret. I don’t know why it should be so complicated to get a review copy from New York to a Canadian address! Between mailing issues and the promise of a copy via Scholastic Canada, and the failure of the e-galley to open….let’s just say it’s taken me half a year to open the book and start reading.
I was hooked right from the first words in the dedication:
To immigrant parents and children everywhere–who imagine an idea called home into being through the telling of stories.
I was hooked by the character, twelve-year-old Kiranmala of Parsippany, New Jersey. Ordinary girl, right? Maybe not. Because Kiran’s swiftly sucked into a spiraling story in which everything she knew to be reality is upended. Her parents are gone. There’s a demon, a rakkhosh, eating everything in her kitchen. And who are those guys dressed in funny Halloween costumes? In short order, she’s charged with no less a responsibility than saving the world. Each character is delightfully and lovingly crafted. Narrated in the first person, the book hums with Kiran’s personality, every scene infused with purpose, sly humor, and an unerring sense of the middle grade character on the brink.
And I was hooked, finally, by the underlying worldview in Sayantani’s book. This is a world in which immigrant identity isn’t the issue, and one in which the cultural particulars not only ring utterly true but are regionally specific, going beyond the all too common representation of the entire subcontinent as one monocultural space. And there’s the girl at the center of the story. She’s the one who must be in control, even (maybe especially) when the ground under her feet has just given way! Magic can happen, the book suggests, in your space, wherever that is. We’re all in it together, if we just let ourselves ride into a destiny waiting for us to take charge of it!
Every girl at that puzzling, promising, in-between age of 12 ought to read this first book in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Look for Book 2, The Game of Stars.