Aranyaka: Book of The Forest, by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik, loosely inspired by the Upanishadic story of rishi Yajnavalkya and his two wives, Katyayani, and Maitreyi, brings to us timeless lessons about ecology, feminism, and empathy.
“The more I saw, the more I knew how little they saw me. They who valued scholarship and bodily restraint above all, what did they make of me? Big, greedy woman? Guru’s unlettered wife? Skilful kitchen hand?
Do you see me?
Their eyes glazed over without malice. No, they didn’t see me at all.”
~ Quote from Arankaya : Book Of The Forest
When I first saw Aranyaka being promoted across my socials, I was intrigued. The title brought to mind both sacred forest groves and impregnable forests. Then, I saw that one of the authors was Devdutt Pattanaik.
Now, I am one of those people who lives by what the other author, Amruta Patil (India’s first female graphic novelist), chooses to call, “the tyranny of political correctness,” and knowing that Mr Pattanaik has made casteist comments in the past, I have chosen not to read books by him anymore. So, I put the book out of my mind and moved on.
However, I then heard that it is a story in which Maitreyi and Gargi (or characters who represent them) play a major part, and my interest was piqued again. Additionally, when I was asked to review this book for Women’s Web, I finally capitulated.
I’ve have tried my best to keep this an unbiased review, by separating the art from the artist (nearly impossible, but necessary sometimes) and my thoughts about the author from the task at hand.
Both the authors have been rather vocal about the fact that Aranyaka is not a direct adaptaion of retelling of the story of Yajnavalkya. Instead, it uses that story from the Upanishads, as a springboard to create an original fable that acts as a vehicle for a variety of Vedic philosophical concepts. In fact, a number of stories come together here to inform the narrative.
To quote Devdutt Pattanaik (from the ‘Making Aranyaka’ section at the end of the book), “In our book Ramayana’s Sita, daughter of Janak, makes a special appearance. We mingle the Upanishadic story of Satyakama and his cows with the Puranic story of Dilip, who protects his cows from a lion in the story of Upakoshala. There is also a reference to Avadhuta Gita, the song of the mendicant who sees teachers everywhere in nature and culture.”
The book is told from the perspective of Katyayani, who is exiled to the forest (aranya) for eating the food meant for Gods. Everything about her is large –her body, her appetite, her libido and her observations about nature and people. When she finds, Y, a man “watching the world” from a termite mound, she offers him food and sex, and eventually becomes his wife. Y, as opposed to his “physical” wife, is an “intellectual” man, who seeks knowledge that his human teachers were unable give. When they start a domestic life outside the aranya, he becomes a teacher himself, who attracts students –such as Upakoshala, The Weaver and The Fig.
What I most appreciate about the book are the stunning illustrations. They are not only vibrant and attractive, but also thoughtful. A particular favourite of mine, is the illustration titled “kumbha,” in which Katyayani makes a pot. She is shown sitting behind the pot, the shape of which is such that it matches her body perfectly. There are layers to every illustration, and a careful, unhurried reader will find much to unpack.
Unlike most mythological stories that center the man, Aranyaka centers the women. Ecofeminism, also called ecological feminism, is a branch of feminism that explores the relationships between women and nature. Specifically, this philosophy emphasizes the ways both nature and women are treated by patriarchal (or male-centred) society.
Aranyaka explores this in the way each character responds to nature. Y, the man, rejects the wilderness and the grove , for the classroom, which he believes is superior. Even when he is shown the value of learning from nature by Katyayani, who is intimately connected to the aranya and the grove, he chooses to transport the lessons to his classroom in metaphors, rather than transport the classroom to the grove. He is willing to let his students be apprenticed to Katyayani, but he still regards what she can teach them as inferior to his own teaching in the classroom.
This annoys Katyayani, but she learns to live with the idea, “he is not me.” She doesn’t judge him for being different form her, but responds to his occasional pompousness with wry humour.
The book also emphasizes that there is no one way to be a woman. From their physical appearance to their temperament, the women of Aranyaka are very different. Where the generous Katyayani, “sensuous, intuitive, plus sized –has large Durga eyes and deep curves” is inspired by the imagery of village goddesses; the competitive, dark skinned Weaver is inspired by the thin, tall Dancing Girl figurine from the Indus civilization; and The Fig (who has features that are similar to women from North-East India) whose fearsome initial physicality is reflective of her desire to be seen for her mind and not her body, is inspired by the story of Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who sacrificed their physical beauty at the altar of spiritual advancement.
Where Katyayani is “non-cerebral”, but still open to learning –from her kitchen and from nature; The Weaver views everything, even learning, as a transaction, and prefers the classroom to the kitchen. The Fig learns from everywhere.
One idea unites them all –“she is not me.” The understanding that every woman has her own strengths, her own desires and her own choices.
A graphic novel is not the best vehicle for the scale and depth of ideas that Aranyaka aims to communicate. One cannot say that it is not successful –from the importance of living in harmony with nature, to the idea of samvaad(discussion that builds on ideas) versus vivaad (debate/argument), the book does offer much food for thought. However, it can only do so much. Thankfully, for the reader who wishes to delve deeper, an index of the vedic concepts included in the book and a recommended reading section have been thoughtfully provided. The “Making Aranyaka” section that describes how the conceptualization and collaboration on this book came about also makes for interesting reading.
In the age of Greta Thunberg, environmentalism and feminism are both increasingly becoming relevant. It is unsurprising that most people who are for policies that arrest climate change, are also likely to be feminists. In this context, a book like Aranyaka fits well.
Amruta Patil writes, in this “Making Aranyaka” section, “I think we have accomplished our goal of creating a complex story that is ‘disarmingly simple.’ There is a lot going on if you care to see. Beneath its surface are many narrative undercurrents –the ecological one, the feminist one, the one where food is a stand-in for many other sorts of human appetites.”
I agree. Like the forests of yore, that provided different things to different people, Aranyaka too provides abundance. For someone who simply desires to read a graphic novel with a mythological setting, Aranyaka provides just that. For another reader who treats reading like a treasure hunt, and is willing to dig deeper, Aranyaka provides that too.
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