Must-Read Books: Samhita Arni on Mythology

Samhita Arni

Samhita Arni

Samhita Arni is the author and illustrator of the The Mahabharata – A Child’s View, (Tara Books, 1996), which has since been translated and published in seven languages. She lives in Bangalore and is working on her first novel, a feminist speculative fiction thriller, tentatively titled Sita, which will be published by Zubaan Books in 2012. Sita’s Ramayana, a graphic novel retelling of the Ramayana, developed in collaboration with Patua Artist Moyna Chitrakar, will be published by Tara Books in June 2011. For more information, visit her website.

Since a lot of Samhita’s work has revolved around Mythology, we asked for her recommendations in the same field. This is a really wide area, but we think she’s created a wonderful list:


“When choosing works inspired or about mythology – there’s a huge number of books to deal with. The difficulty comes in selection – deciding what kind of books, or what kind of mythology, should feature on such a list.

So, after thinking about it for a while, I’ve chosen an easy (and perhaps cowardly) way out, and just selected my favorite books. And so the list features a diverse range of books – from literary fiction, plays inspired by the Mahabharata to humor and adventure. It’s rather eclectic, but hopefully, there’s something on it to appeal to every kind of reader!

Mahabharata Retellings:

The Pregnant King

The Pregnant King

The Pregnant King, by Devdutt Pattanaik: Devdutt Pattanaik’s tale is situated in the time of theMahabharata, and develops a little-known myth from the epic – that of Yuvanasha, the Pregnant King – a tale in which men turn into women, women into men, and some inhabit the complex, difficult space in-between.

We tend to view our epics and mythology in very straight-laced terms to today, and Pattnaik’s mind-blowing tale reveals that issues of sexual identity have always occupied a space in Indian mythology.

Andha Yug, by Dharmvir Bharati (trans Alok Bhalla): Dharamvir Bharati’s seminal play recasts the end of the epic in light of the issues that plagued a newly-independant India in the time of the Cold War. Andha Yug asks that question – is war worth it? And what is the price of war?

In the age we live in, where on our TV screen we watch battles in Aghanistan and Iraq, the questions Bharati explores are as relevant today as they were generations ago – and reminds that the Mahabharata, as ancient as it is, is always relevant.

Yayati, by Girish Karnad: Girish Karnad takes yet another tale from the Mahabharata – the tale of Yayati, the cursed ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Both Andha Yug and Yayati are more than just retellings – they can also be read as powerful critiques on leadership and events in India’s post independence history. If you’d like to read more of Karnad, Hayavadhana – inspired by a tale in the Kathasagarita – is just as compelling and political.



Yuganta: The end of an Epoch, by Irawati Karve: A very influential book on the Mahabharata, first published in Marathi, by anthropologist Iravati Karve. In Yuganta; part essay, part retelling of the epic; Karve examines the characters of the Mahabharata, and the complexity of their choices, from a feminist perspective.

From other Mythologies

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso: Italian Author Roberto Calasso takes as his inspiration and develops one of the most intriguing stories of Greek Mythology, the meeting of Gods and mortals – the story of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, and his marriage to the Goddess Harmonia. Calasso reflects on the multiple meanings of this myth and traces it’s lineage through Sparta, Nazi Germany and modern-day Europe. A fascinating read.

In Ka, equally grand in scope and just as fascinating, Calasso visits Hindu Mythology.

American Gods

American Gods

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors to read. In this novel, the Old Gods – Norse, Egyptian, African deities – are alive in our present-day world, in the most implausible guises and places, but their power diminishes in our modern, technology-obsessed world.

This book won a whole slew of awards, including the Hugo and Nebula. Also worth reading is the sequel to American Gods – Anansi Boys, as well as the ground-breaking Sandman Graphic novel series.

Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis: One of CS Lewis’ (of Narnia fame) lesser-known works – this is a powerful, poetic, haunting retelling of the Cupid-Psyche myth.

Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips: There seems to be a rash of works in the West that imagine the deities of ancient mythology living in either New York or London. In Gods Behaving badly, the Olympians are resident in Hampstead, and yes, they are very, very naughty. A fun, hilarious romp.

For Children:

Percy Jackson

Percy Jackson

The Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordian: Great fun, and a wonderful way to make mythology exciting and contemporary. It’s a fast-paced read.

The odd Man out:

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: This is strictly, speaking, not really a mythological story – for Susanna Clarke takes myth, legend, fairytales and magic and weaves these elements together to create a mythology of her own(with scrupulous footnotes!). Clarke’s book is inspired from sources as disparate as Georgette Heyer’s regency romances, Spenser, Byron and Tolkien. It may be argued, that this book doesn’t really belong on this list. But this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time – and I just couldn’t resist. A MUST-READ.


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