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The Relevance of Myth


Like good manners, mythology, in all cultures, is an inadvertent, yet obvious ingredient in a child's rearing. This in itself, is something of an aberration, given that mythical incidents and characters are hardly ever the epitome of ideal or good behaviour. The ultimate outcome is all that matters. Mostly it pertains to the good-over-evil card, or absolute faith or sheer strength. As children, these tales generate awe. To adults, well, we just note the discrepancies; some of us move on, others hold on.

The real purpose of mythology is not to mobilise our good senses. These can be viewed as guides in leading a sane life. Mythology appears based on  very real experiences. Their characters, when one considers dispassionately, are as flawed as me and you. They are scared, hurt, ecstatic; they wage wars, plunder, have fits of anger, cheat, love, lose and do every other thing in the book (pun intended) to live by. Their condensation into a powerful rhetoric is what does the trick. That, and generations of hearsay. Some among those characters are distilled into purity, and are revered as Gods. They are what keeps us anchored.

An evolving line of literature now deals with the humanising of these Gods and their actions. The response to this has been enthusiastic enough, judging by its successful prevalence in Indian literature too. While we have authors taking a scholastic view of these stories  dissecting and analysing and finally superimposing them on the modern day events - we have another category of writers, who are building, what we can call sequels or extended universes. The mythological base of every culture is deep-rooted, with countless stories and sub-plots, hiding clues to bigger events. At a time when access to information - not all of which is strictly necessary for our general living - is cheaper and faster, it is easy to lose track of these minor stories and nuances. To authors of these stories then, we owe our thanks.

My recent tryst with re-packaged mythology  was by way of American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It is a sacrosanct book for many Gaiman fans; they would swear by it and having finished it only yesterday, I understand why. For characters, you have Gods and lesser Gods and similar beings, the setting is as mundane as your backyard and the aim is as simple (or as complex) as the conception of faith. Nothing startles more than a miracle in broad daylight. It helps us believe, it humbles us. While I am yet to come across Indian writing of this scale and complexity (frankly, American Gods is not really a complex book at the end), it is not to say that we haven't forayed into that territory altogether. There have been interesting point-of-view versions (Palace of Illusions, the Ajay Trilogy, Asura among others), while the now-famous Shiva Trilogy is closer in nature and handling to American Gods, though the former is still only a very captivating re-telling. One way or another, these age-old stories are being dusted and presented in their new avatars, reshaping our thinking of Gods and their role in our lives. Our daily travails may pale in comparison to the proportion of theirs, but the reactions and course of actions remain similar, indicating the close association of man and supposed fiction. The Mahabharata isn't just an epic, it is rightly a socio-political episode, as is the Aenid or the Odyssey. There are some who scorn at the attempt of 'grounding' Gods, but from a literary point of view, it is perhaps a far better way of connecting with the higher forces, having known that the beacon that guides us is, in a manner, approachable.

Ultimately, mythology, like good manners, maketh a man, if only that much; and retelling stories, tweaking the hearsay while choosing to maintain or gently rock the essence, is a fine way to stimulate the brains.  

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