(This book review was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)
Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik’s book Aranyaka: Book of the forest is the kind of creature that seems inscrutable at first but gradually extends a befriending hand to those who show up with intellectual humility and a sense of humour. Books that cannot be easily described are fun to write about; they demand that readers pause every now and again to look at themselves — not only the text in hand — because we write ourselves into the stories we read. The same work of art can be seen as a critique of development, or as a container for peddling soft Hindutva. What you witness is as much about your gaze as the object of your attention.
If you thought that a graphic novel was not sturdy enough to hold a plotline alluding to 3,000-year-old Vedic scriptures, or supple enough to resonate with contemporary issues such as climate justice, ecofeminism and body positivity, this book will delight you in surprising ways. There are layers under layers — both of paint, and of meaning — within this skilfully crafted narrative that draws upon influences as diverse as Bahinabai, Didi Contractor, Alan W Watts, Vandana Shiva, C Rajagopalachari, Pupul Jayakar, David George Haskell, Samin Nosrat, Peter Wohlleben, Robert Calasso and many more.
The collaborative process between Patil and Pattanaik, or between any two artists with distinct voices and styles, is a theme that runs through the book. It is made explicit only in the final pages where they speak through first-person notes, but clues abound in every reference about what it means to see the other, to be seen, to cede space, to recognise as equal, and to dance between the body and the mind.
This book is more about inner churning than outer action, so it is difficult to delineate a plot summary. However, a skeletal framework might help you feel safe as you navigate this forest of relationships. Y is loosely based on Yajnavalkya from the Upanishads. He is the austere rishi with the sharp intellect, who has disciples eating out of his hand but is aloof from the hungers of the women journeying with him — Katyayani the Large, Gargi the Weaver and Maitreyi the Fig. They are luminous beings with unique personalities, wedded to craft and calling rather than the reflected glory of a revered man. Does he learn to see them, or continue to live in his head? Do the women become friends or rivals? Does the forest swallow up individual stories to throw up insights that must last longer than them? Read the book to find out.
Trying to fix what each character in the book stands for is one way of reading it, but there are other ways to approach a work of fiction that is open-ended, playful and self-reflexive. After a point, when you are immersed in it, the story ceases to be about the rishis and rishikas, because the world of Aranyaka is not separate from the universe you and I reside in. Patil and Pattanaik urge us to reflect on what we imagine the forest to be. This might seem like a cute exercise for bored people jamming over cocktails, but it isn’t.
Our imaginations are shaped by our fears and desires, our traumas and fantasies. Do we see the forest as metaphor or reality? Do we romanticise it as a place for spiritual realisation? Do we eye it as a natural resource? Do we long for it as an escape from busy urban lives? Do we remember that it is home and food not only to birds and animals and trees and streams, but also humans who have lived there for centuries with each other and their gods and goddesses? Do we decimate it when it stands in the way of a metro rail project?
You will enjoy Aranyaka if you enter without a mountain of expectations. There are two ways to go about this: Look for neither Patil nor Pattanaik. Or, look for both. They bring their preoccupations to the book but also dialogue with each other. Confluence is not necessarily a loss. Cohabitation is not always a compromise. Their politics is visible through their aesthetic and discursive choices.
Words like ‘Hindu’, ‘Indian’, ‘Brahminical’, ‘feminist’ or ‘queer’ do not make an appearance in Aranyaka, but they are likely to show up in critical readings that circulate after its publication. When we open ourselves to multiple perspectives, we acknowledge the many-sidedness of truth. Those who think unlike us do not get branded as enemies but merely as people who see differently. Much of this book is about darshan, which is translated not as adoration of a disembodied divine separate from humanity but as a wholesome seeing of what the other brings to a conversation. The reason is this: He is not me. She is not me. They are not me.