‘Each character in the epics is worth a book’

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After completing post-graduation in English Literature from Pune’s Fergusson College, Kavita Kane did not rest on her laurels. She studied for another degree — post-graduation in mass communication and journalism from the University of Pune. She then went on to secure a diploma in French Language and Literature from the same university. An avid lover of cinema and theatre, she works as a journalist and lives with her family in Pune.

Her first book — Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen — told the story of Uruvi, wife of Karna, that ‘ill-starred’ hero from the Mahabharata who remains gloriously unsung. Her second book, that has just been released, draws from the Ramayana. Sita’s Sister is based on Urmila and her life in the palace of Ayodhya after her husband Lakshman leaves for a long exile with his brother.

Kavita Kane’s work is path-breaking for she has dared to enter the hitherto mostly-pariah realm of Indian mythological writing and make an effortless success of it. Indian writers in English have generally stayed away from the genre for reasons that remain obscure. Kane brings to her narrative decades-long experience of observing the ubiquitous tribulations faced by women in India — across economic and social divides. Her heroines are mythological, marginalised from religious memory and memorable for more reasons than can be recounted here.

Kavita Kane speaks to Tehelka about the unusual stars of her novels, her process of bringing them to life and what constitutes literary inspiration for her.


Edited Excerpts from an interview •

What made you choose the character, Karna’s wife Uruvi, for your debut novel, Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen?
Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen is the story of Karna — but as seen through his wife’s eyes, a woman who loves him while knowing that he is a man torn between his scruples and loyalty, between good and evil. She becomes his conscience. She is essentially a sutradhar who voices his angst, questions him and all those responsible for the war — Mahabharata — and the ensuing tragedy.

In your second novel, Sita’s Sister, Urmila, wife of Lakshman, stays behind instead of choosing to accompany her husband on a 14-year exile. Is it mere coincidence or by design that both your novels feature characters of immense strength but also those that have been left out of our collective religious memory?
Urmila stays behind as that is what has expected of her. But why she did this intrigued me. She could have well argued the same logic that her sister, Sita, used for Ram. She did not, and she soon realised, that she could not. That is one of the premises of the novel. Marginalised characters like Urmila are fascinating as they have enormous potential of being further expanded into full-blown characters in an altered narrative, had they been given a chance. By making her a protagonist, Urmila tells her story — a story everyone wants to hear. It is not a retelling of the Ramayana in Urmila’s voice nor is it a profile of Sita as seen through the former’s eyes. It is about (the) Urmila who was not just Sita’s younger sister, Janak’s true born daughter or the bride Lakshman left behind in the palace of Ayodhya. So, then, who was she? And what did she do those 14 years? What happened to the three old Queens in the palace after Ram left for his exile with Sita and Lakshman?

Sita’s sister kavita kane Rupa Publications 320 PP; Rs. 221
Sita’s sister
Kavita Kane
Rupa Publications
320 PP; Rs. 221

Tell us something about your writing process. Especially, tell us something (or a lot) about the criteria that you applied in selecting Uruvi and Urmila as the lead characters of your novels.
Uruvi tells a man’s story, Urmila tells her own, but neither are in first person. That can work as a powerful tool but can also get limiting. Sita’s Sister is not just about Urmila. It is a story of four sisters whose personal equation must have changed once they married the four princes of Ayodhya. They too must have got sucked into the power play, politics and royal intrigue but they braved tears and tragedy and triumphed. As it was with Uruvi. Both win the men they love, lose them eventually and yet come out as winners. Yet they (these novels) are not just love stories — they are also stories of power and jealousy, faith and disappointment, revenge and forgiveness.

What do you make of the trend of mythological novels being published in large numbers these days? Is it just a fad or is the practice here to stay?
I guess the publishing houses could answer this better. But the enormous response I received from the audience asking for more, means that there is a strong resurgence of interest in Indian mythology. There are so many tales (waiting) to be retold. Each character in the epics is worth a book! Who would not want to know more about say Shakuni, Gandhari, Mandodari, Surpanaka, Vidura? They are all so enigmatic, waiting to be unravelled. But how one tells the story is what makes it interesting.

Do you think mythological novels stand out in publishing? Both ways. As saleable works and also, as hard-to-market propositions?
Again, I think the publishers would be in a better position to answer this question. These days, unfortunately, the author needs to write and market his own book!

Given your work, you obviously look into the past for inspiration. Any present-day characters or those from the recent past that may have inspired you?
Oh, always! Influences are always dynamic — past and present is mere time line. If, say, Krishna and Karna and Uruvi and Urmila are inspiring, so can my domestic help or my friend or the man selling newspapers be an inspiration for my next story. There is a story in everything, in each one of us. That is exactly what fables and mythology tells us.

Tell us about your next venture.
I am at it but it’s better to be silent than speak about it right now.

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