In Mahasena (Westland, ₹399), the first in Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s proposed trilogy of novels re-imagining the life of God Murugan, there’s a brilliant scene where the demon king Ravana is composing a 15-hymn ode to “the Dancing Lord, Shiva”, who’s also Murugan’s father. Again and again, Ravana gets stuck on the 14th verse, before Murugan (also known as Skanda, Kandhan, and several other names) steps in to save the day. It’s a highly atypical scene because the “divinity” here is not moving mountains or parting seas or slaying magical opponents—it’s composing rhymes and tunes on the go (the various unique features of the Tamil language are considered aspects of Murugan himself by devotees).
“As the stanzas ran on and they came to thirteen, the king felt his breath begin to swirl in his belly. It rose up, thick and hot, making his throat burn.… Ravana’s eyes were shut, but he could hear the boy, this son of Shiva and Parvathy, singing along, without faltering—he knew the words!”
Also read: Why my novel upset my mother
Before Mahasena, Ramesh has published two collections of poetry, He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar (2016) and Offer Him All Things, Charred, Burned And Cindered (2018). These are contemporary Bhakti poems, written in the voice of a poet whose words aren’t just about Murugan; he’s both source code and self-help manual. Imagine a god as your editor for a moment: It’s a liberating thought but also a sobering one. It makes you stop and consider the nature of the enterprise, the nature of all writing, in fact.
“In imagining God as the One Who Protects or the One Who Provides, there is a comfortable distance, a sort of hazy ease,” says Ramesh. “Because these imaginings are familiar and you are in the company of others. But God as the One who Creates Languages is terrifying, because such a God is inevitable, urgent, inescapable, dangerously close by; right inside one’s body. He not only wants to hear your words, but also tinker with them and make you rework them, if needed, before they go out into the world, for they bear his mark.”
In the northern parts of the country, Murugan is generally called Kartikeya and the mythological children’s books I read as a child growing up in Bihar—Amar Chitra Katha included—constantly referred to him as the military commander of the gods, tasked with defeating the demons, their arch-enemies.
If there was an illustration, there would be two notable aspects to Murugan/Kartikeya: His boyishness would be exaggerated by drawing everyone else a head taller, and he would always carry a lance. Not being clued into the Murugan mytho-sphere as a young reader, I was unaware of his crucial role in the life of writers, artists and so on.
Speaking about this dissonance, Ramesh says, “It seems to me that Murugan as the ‘Leader of the Gods’ is a trope, convenient, overt and more ‘universal’, which exists alongside and sometimes overwhelms an older understanding of him as the multi-faceted, multi-functioned, shape-changing, trickster boy.”
Also read: How to learn art history through typography
“In the more ancient versions, he is a mover of language, inducing interior and exterior animation in poets, scholars, oracles and dancers that result in poetry, song, trance and dance,” she adds.
Ramesh, who teaches at the communication studies department of Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru, where she was also a student, grew up in a house full of books, movies and music.
“I was a precocious, ambitious reader,” she says. “I wanted to read what my parents were reading, and I did begin to, a little, from the time I was about 13. They read mostly Malayalam books, so I would read both Malayalam and English. My Brother Plays the Clarinet is a book that has stood first in my memory of childhood books.”
The Malayalam bits are significant because Ramesh was born in her father’s village in Kerala, “a remote, hilly village with a magical landscape and magical people”. She lived there until she was five-six years old. (“I went to a ‘kalari’, a school with an Aasaan teaching Malayalam alphabets.”)
Crucially, her parents made no hierarchical distinction between “high” and “low” culture. All sorts of pop cultural influences were encouraged (indeed, during our conversation, Ramesh referred to popular Tamil films on more than one occasion).
“We watched at least one film every week, and usually the first day first show: They knew the owners/managers of most theatres in Bangalore and called ahead for tickets,” she recalls. “Music was a daily thing, over the radio, on records and live performances: film songs in all south Indian languages and lots and lots of Carnatic music. The thing that I was most affected by, in my childhood and teens, was the variety, the happy mush of ‘low’ and ‘high’ forms of everything that my parents gave us.”
Throughout Mahasena, there’s this sense that you are not just reading the mythology behind a god, but also the story of his followers, the story of their deeply personal enchantments with the deity. The differences between “ordinary” and “magical” events start collapsing as the novel goes on—which is also one of the larger points of Murugan’s fascination with language.
As Ramesh says: “In my imaginations of him, Murugan enjoys the ‘ordinary’ transforming into something so potent with magic, that he himself cannot resist; not only language, but also other things that move and possess humans—love, for example, which, too, he is the God of.”
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.