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Our mythologies have a lot we can learn from, with many interesting feminine themes, which Vijayalakshmi Harish’s Strangely Familiar Tales take a fresh look at.
Recently, I’ve begun shying away from reviewing books. Reason? I feel like I’d love the book so much that I wouldn’t have enough words to express how the book impacted me.
The logic behind this is that it’s only now that I am discovering writers and authors who also happen to be friends, and whose writing is far superior than mine.
And other than considering a well-written book as a mini creative writing class that teaches more about writing (a literal interpretation of ‘show, don’t tell’) than an entire lecture could on narrative voice or characterisation, what more could I say about it?
Therefore, when Vijayalakshmi Harish, a dear friend, announced she was soon to release her debut book, I was in a dilemma. I wanted to read these stories but not review the book.
I’m quite familiar with her writing, and I find her words to be expressed with an incisive thought-provoking perspective. I’ve mostly read her non-fiction articles (many of which feature on my list of favourite articles) but her stories are relevant too, and underlaced with strong social messaging.
If you have any doubts of what I say, just read her conversation with Sita.
The collection of short stories in this book are not based on, but only inspired from various legends and mythological tales from across the world.
The inherent themes and elements from mythology are beautifully woven with present day stories of regular people, even as the stories have a strong fantastical element to them.
More than the stories, which obviously get you thinking, are these lines from the Introduction.
“The usual criticism of these books is that today’s morality cannot or should not be used to look at how things were in the past. I disagree. There is a definite value to using the present as a lens to look into the past. It is only through a critical examination of the past, that we can create a better present and a brighter future. Especially given that the stories from the epics have been used since time immemorial to ‘teach morality’, it makes sense to question aspects of them that are problematic today.”
Often I have come across people ridiculing the need to question and dissect mythology, the logic being these were incidents or stories from the past and should be viewed from that lens. I’d always considered that these stories are relevant to our present too, and it is only when we learn from our past that we can make our present and future better.
Vijayalakshmi does not shy away from specifically saying the same thing. There is no walking the middle path, with her clearly saying that these stories are not just a representation of only the past. It was especially of significance to me given that I have a book out too on Dashavatar – the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu made relevant to the present, that she considers these stories worthy of being critiqued and analysed even in the present-day context.
It is this questioning of the problematic areas that makes for the basis of these three stories – mysterious, fantastical, engaging as they are – presenting a collection of tales that is as much steeped in the past as it is in the present.
The first story, ‘A Fishy Affair’ is a murder mystery. Vijayalakshmi ensures she makes a statement with the first story, itself.
In popular literature and media, there are only a few stories featuring a woman working as an efficient detective. Or, as a no-nonsense cop who wouldn’t shy away from sacrificing love for duty if it came to that. A Fishy Affair would be remembered for having both!
It’s a gritty mystery that keeps you hooked all through the end. I loved how Hindu mythology has been incorporated into the story – much like how the icons and symbols are an inherent part of our everyday life through paintings, sculptures, etc.
Her level of detailing in a story like this is fantastic. With a plot this complicated, there is easily a chance of going wrong somewhere, but Vijayalakshmi manages to keep a tight rein on the events as they unfold.
The second story in the collection, ‘Bitter Fruit’, explores the idea of having a wish-fulfilling tree. To have a magic wand or lamp that make all our wishes come true is something that each one of us must have whimsically desired for at some point in time or the other. The story explores this concept and makes us realize the implications of having such a possession.
In the story, the grey characters of Indrani and Ritu stand out. However, at no point does Vijayalakshmi let go sight of what’s right and wrong. Their actions may well be justified and may be even understandable, yet the strong values are evident in the narrative.
What I particularly loved about the story is the justifications given by the characters of their wrongdoings. In a mythical story like this, the superstitions fit in so well and would be believable to the most scientific reader.
The third story, which was also my favourite of the three, ‘A Definition of Evil’ may seem like a regular fantasy story that’s purely for entertainment but make no mistake about it being a scathing commentary on the present-day socio-political state of the country.
All those who ask questions are anti-nationals, oops, I meant Yakshis.
There are several lines from this particular story that resonated with me strongly.
‘But no war is ever good, and as much as it may seem that something has been achieved, it is always at a great cost.’
‘It was a dictatorship pretending to be a democracy.’
‘The purpose of a center of education is not just to help them become skilled, but also to teach them how to use those skills for good.’
These stories make one relook at the world we are living in and questions our own understanding of the world. It is interesting to note how Mythology could be used to write stories like these that are neither reinterpretations nor retellings, but simply fresh stories told to make one consciously work towards bettering our future.
The book also sets a fantastic example of how to incorporate feminism without making it look like a deliberate effort to push it down someone’s throat. In no way does the author indulge in male bashing, even with negative male characters like Ratan or Dushyant.
What I especially liked was how the women characters who are strong, even when they are a victim of their circumstances, and manage to hold their own despite the presence of formidable male characters like the foresighted Mahigeer or the typical toxic male Ratan, or even the mythical but egoistical men like Rudra or Henith. Two of the three stories feature queer characters, and consciously, but effortlessly, steer clear of any stereotypical feminine traits or gay tropes.
For example, Zoya is not someone who, just because she is a woman, cries at the drop of a hat. She is also not a hardened law-enforcement officer who in order to appear tough has locked away all her emotions and cannot laugh or cry.
In the second story, where there are no LGBTQ+ representations relevant to the plot, the relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law is explored extensively. What’s also commendable is how social evils like desire for a male child, marital rape, and female infanticide are dealt with, with sensitivity and subtly – not to make a feminist statement but only as a plot element, and without any vouyerism involved.
And in that subtle feminism lies the strength of this book. It elevates the reading experience to it being far more than just three random stories with fantastical elements.
The editing is spot on, and except for a couple of minor typos which do not mar the reading experience, the writing is crisp and gripping.
It is particularly heartening to know that while this book is priced at Rs 0, Vijayalakshmi Harish has put a monetary value to it and requested that the money be donated to a worthy cause. For me, this book is worth far more than the probable value that Vijayalakshmi has set.
A short read, this book wouldn’t take up much of your time and would give you a return far more precious.
Trust me, skip half an hour of Netflix or Prime today and read these three stories instead.
You’ll thank me for recommending it.
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Piyusha Vir is a writer, artist, a CELTA-certified English Language trainer, and a Creative
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