Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you – Book Review


I picked this up at the Bangalore airport last weekend and finished it in about two sittings during my viral fever (see? falling sick has some advantages!). Given I was also trying to prevent Chotu from running away while shopping, I didn’t get a chance to figure out exactly what the book was about before buying it.  I expected it to be a book of lesser known tales which it is but it’s also a look at sexuality as expressed in Hindu mythology.

The books starts with a lovely poem which was my favourite part of the book. This is followed by a longish introduction where the author talks about how tales can be taken literally but also be interpreted from a Queer perspective. This was interesting and also very elegantly put. The author talks about sexuality as a spectrum rather than the binary M/F switch we are accustomed to thinking of it as. He also introduces the idea that various words used to describe different types of sexuality were actually non-judgmental. It’s modern Indian society that’s makes no room for anything beyond the binary, he says and then goes on to talk about the influence of monastic Buddhism on Hindu tales and the subsequent Hindu influence on Buddhist tales such as the appearance of Tara as a female form – again, very interesting stuff. After about 20 pages of this, the tales begin.

The book has 30-odd stories dealing with gods transforming into women, women turning into men, spontaneous spilling of seed (gotta be honest. I love this phrase!), long distance fertilization, arbitrary switching of gender, and so on. Thankfully, no immaculate conception through boons from gods in a book about sexuality. Each story is narrated briefly, a bit too briefly for my taste, and is followed by the author’s notes. This is where I felt a bit cheated. The notes are written as bullet-points and they re-hash a lot of what was already said in the introduction. It feels a little unpolished to read individual points that don’t quite flow and it gave me the impression of looking at an early draft of the book rather than the completed, published version. One thing I loved though, was his mention of “queer questions” about each story. These questions force you to think about the story and question some things about the nature of human sexuality. A minor peeve was that he didn’t include a glossary to explain the exact meanings of all the words in ancient Indian vocabulary to describe different types of sexual behaviour.

Overall, I rate this book 3.5 stars and recommend it. I consider myself to be quite liberal in thought and values but after reading this book I realized that it’s probably not enough to just adopt an “to each their own” attitude. It’s important take that next step to understand the perspective of someone who views the world so differently from us not for their sake but for our own. We can all use a little shaking up once in a while.

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8 Replies to “Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you – Book Review”

  1. Very good Article. Devdutt Patnaik is a grity writer. His passion of Hindu Mythalogy shows up in his books. I have read one of his book “Jaya – Mahabharata” and it was fantastic (again lots of facts which we are not aware of that time). Good to know about this book. Will try this soon. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the feedback and for dropping by… 🙂

      I read his book myth equals mithya and I agree that he manages to write objectively about so many sensitive subjects. I haven’t read Jaya and I’ll pick it up soon. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I did get a chance to read the ‘The Pregnant King’
    by this author…and a new mom myself at that time was awed by the way the book was presented…Thanks for the review ..will look forward to read it some time soon

    1. Thank you! To be honest, I loved the introduction more than the actual stories themselves. We need a book like this in India where the what’s acceptable is still defined by Victorian values. I’m surprised no one’s tried to get this book banned yet.

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