Monday, October 15, 2007

Ganesha Goes to Lunch (Classics from Mystic India) by Kamla K. Kapur

Ganesha Goes to Lunch by Kamla K. Kapur is a collection of twenty four stories drawn from the oral tradition of mythical tales in India. The stories are retold in contemporary language, and maintain the essential structure and characteristics of the folklores. Kamla's choice of stories ranges from tales about why Ganesha has elephant's trunk, to the marriage of Shiv-Parvati to the creation of Brahma and universe. The story of the friendship of Sudama and Krishna is retold as is the tale of Vishwamitra-Vashisht rivalry.

The Bharatiya (Indian) tradition thrives on stories passed on from generation to generation. Each generation adds its own experience to knowledge and reinterprets the understanding passed to them. The Hindu myths by their very nature don't have absolutes. They represent Gods or men trapped in their vices, roused or limited by their virtues, acting in response to the demands that existence as humans on earth demands from us. The attempt is to create examples as prototypes to deal with contradictions and complexities that daily strife, be it in war, peace, family matters, need, greed, valor, and amorous desires lead us to. This had lead to several epics about avataars or incarnations, and as humans Gods lead exemplary lives, faulting at times, and suffering for them. In Kamla's collection, the gems from the boundless sea of folklore are picked, polished and repackaged to lure Western audiences as well as those Indian readers who have learned most from English education and English Literature.

The book has a number of pictures and illustrations, which allow a non-Indian reader to visualize the God or character in question. We Indians grow up with these tales, and somehow we imbibe their lessons into our being without realizing when or how. The modern age has brought a slew of stories and media into our household, and in these times, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the shallow characterizations and sensationalist serials. The demands of materialistic modern life, makes it even more important for us to connect to the spiritual wisdom of centuries, the philosophy both rich and humbling is present in highly entertaining form in these stories. Kamla Kapur's effort is commendable in both the spirit and the style of execution.

While most of these stories can be read out to children, a few characterizations are little more sensual than I would have hoped for. The discussion about Shiva and Shakti, the male and female powers, is done quite boldly, whereas my encounters with these stories as a child were in an understatement, and in euphemisms. Perhaps the retelling must respond to the contemporary world, where the Victorian writing, the euphemisms are considered trite and cliched. The tale from Ramayana, incorrectly mentions that Hanuman brought Sanjivini (or the hill with that herb on it) for reviving Ram (I am certain that it was needed for Laxman). Aside from these quips, most of the stories are brief and well written, and will form a good reading for people of all ages.

Myths by their very nature appeal to the heroic, and the virtuous elements of our being. Kamla's rendition ensures that the heroic and mystic elements are distilled into a reader's consciousness. The simplicity of language, the delightful imagery, the translation as if of whole oral tradition of myths into this eclectic collection speaks volumes about Kamla's craftsmanship and reverence for these tales. While the tales are derived from Hindu myths, the structure, the impact, the ideals, the virtues they inspire transcend time, space and religion. I enjoyed these, and so I hope you will too.



Vivek Sharma said...


Vivek Comment By : Vivek
Posted On : Oct 16 07, 08:45 AM
Myths in general are great reads, which have wisdom of centuries thrust into them. For everyone who wants to be a great writer, the knowledge of myths of his nation is as necessary as is the grammar of his chosen language.

Publish | Delete


Comment By : lefty
Posted On : Oct 16 07, 12:28 AM
Hey Vivek,
your description of the book was precise and beautiful. Its true that the ancient stories have a lot to offer in terms of buiding values in children. And it has to be fine tuned to attract the present generation and for it to be appealing to the western audience.

Vivek Sharma said...

comments from

Deepti Lamba
October 16, 2007
06:46 AM

The tale from Ramayana, incorrectly mentions that Hanuman brought Sanjivini (or the hill with that herb on it) for reviving Ram (I am certain that it was needed for Laxman).

Thats a ghastly mistake on the part of the author and the editor as well.

The review is excellent but that kind of a mistake stops me from buying the book:(

October 16, 2007
09:42 AM

Deepti, Don't hang the author for one mistake, there is enough element in the book to hold your interest. The mistake was a surprise though, and maybe there is some version of Ramayana where that happens. If it is a reinvention, it is strange one, for every normal Indian reader would flinch at it.

October 16, 2007
10:06 AM

Ashok Banker's book states that it was bought to revive BOTH of them. But I guess the difference between the two might be that AB rewrote the whole epic (and how!) whilst this author seems to be narrating stories she'd heard in general.

Did I just make sense?

Deepti Lamba
October 16, 2007
10:14 AM

Vivek, depends on the book's seduction powers. I will take a peek at it in Strand ie if they have it.

DG, since AB's books still seem to fresh in your mind and it is the Rama season can we expect a review?;)

October 16, 2007
10:22 AM

Looking forward to a group review of the Ashok Banker books - starting with Vol 1 upto Vol 6.

Sanjay Garg
October 16, 2007
10:28 AM

I've personally been involved in a book publishing process, right from concept to final publication and an egregious error like this one in inexcusable. It is like mistaking Peter or Paul for Christ in the Christian tradition.

If the author or the editor/ publisher cannot distinguish Ram from Laxman in perhaps one of the key episodes of the Ramayana, then it does not really inspire confidence in, or respect for, the rest of book.

Personally, I would also want to read an excerpt from the book to assess the claim of modern language & interpretation.

October 16, 2007
10:36 AM

Amazon provides an excerpt from the first chapter.

The televised version of Ramayana is the source of knowledge for most of us, and perhaps that may or may not be the best version to judge what Valmiki or Tulsi Ramayana originally contain!

I will select a few sections from the book and post them later in the day.

Vivek Sharma said...

more from

October 16, 2007
10:37 PM

I checked the book again; the Rama episode is but a paragraph in a book of twenty-four well written stories, but the reference was odd enough to stick in my memory. Lets discount it for now, for I guess publishers must have overlooked it as they are foreign, and the story in which this paragraph occurs is, by all means, a good read.

here is a promised excerpt:

Story: Vishnu forgets

When earth, weighed down by ignorance, sunk to the bottom of the cosmic ocean, it was Vishnu that incarnated as Varha, the Boar, to rescue her. He dove into the ocean, nosed his way to the darkest and deepest region, where Earth lay on the verge of dissolution, and carried her up from the murky depths. As he arose again, Earth put her arms around him, looked into his eyes with love and gratitude, and spoke.

"My Lord, O how many times have you rescued me thus?"

Vishnu, who had been rather annoyed with her for having disturbed his peace, nevertheless fell in love with her instantly. He hadn't meant to. It was quite contrary to his intent and mission: to recover the sunken Vedas - holy books, repository of the wisdom of the ages - which along with Earth had sunk to the bottom of the primeval sea. Vishnu had intended to set her afloat in the cosmos so that she could birth and support life again, and return to his exalted position as the first of the gods. But now, enraptured by Earth's embrace, he didn't want to return to Vaikunth, the home of the gods.

And this really annoyed Shiva. It offended his sense of how a god the stature of Vishnu should behave. Here was Vishnu, fleeing from his responsibilities, feeding, fighting, fornicating in the mud with Earth, who had assumed the form of sow to mate with her Lord's incarnation as a boar. Enamored and ensnared by the illusion of life, he had forgotten his true nature. Shiva knew that other tasks, other heroic incarnations awaited Vishnu. (and the story goes on)

The above excerpt illustrates the nature of Kamla's voice, and how it is contemporary in choice of how it narrates the tale of Varahavataar. The text is quite rich in passages which work very well in a transposed, translated, reinvented language, in English, something I think we must learn to do to most of Indian mythology.

Deepa Krishnan
October 16, 2007
10:45 PM

I'm going to buy it.