Sunday, December 28, 2014

Indian mythological fiction: what to read, what to ditch

Everyone’s writing a mythological novel. Most of them are being published. Readers are confused. Here’s some help.

In the wake of the misguided ghar wapsi frenzy, one is reminded of many other right wing activities that have done this country no favours. Back in 2012, a ban was demanded on AK Ramanujan’s scholarly essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations’ from DU’s English literature syllabus. The reason, as always, was the ‘hurting of religious sentiments’. As with all focus groups, they seemed to be missing the larger picture.

 What are they curtailing and why? Mythology is collective intellectual property and there’s little they can do to stop retellings. Epics, in particular, are creative fodder for generations of writers and artists. They have inspired thousands of versions – from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas to Ekta Kapoor’s Kahaani Hamare Mahabharat ki, from Kamba’s Ramavataram to Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, from Krittivas’ Sri Ram Panchali to Devdutt Pattanaik’s Hanuman’s Ramayan. And thanks to the current wave of mythological fiction in India, the Hindutva faction will have to deal with 300 more Ramayanas.

Gen Y seems deeply interested at the moment in knowing about its culture and a new generation of writers is riding the wave churning out one book of mythological fiction after another.  The fire was there are now many others who’ve joined the bandwagon. That said, not everything that is written is worth reading. Based on a very short survey and stoked by popular writers like Ashok Banker, Devdutt Pattanaik, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi and my own impressions, here is my list of five must-reads and five avoidable books in this genre.


1. Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant: Possibly among the first in this genre, Shivaji Savant’s Mrityunjaya was authored in Marathi and published in 1989. Its translations are now available in English and a few other languages, so mythology enthusiasts can enjoy this acclaimed work of fiction. This retelling of the Mahabharata, narrated from Karna’s point of view, weaves a veritably rich psychological tapestry and delicately handles the matter of Karna’s identity crisis.

2. The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik: I am partial to this book because this was among the first I read of this genre. But ask any mythology fiction fan and they are most likely to agree that The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is among his better work. The prolific writer has given us many more books since, but none with such an intriguing title and plot. The book tells us stories of many LGBTQ mythological characters – especially king Yuvanashva – highlighting the resulting dissonance and the need for acceptance.

3. The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi: While this set doesn’t offer much literary value, Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy merits a place in this list for its sheer popularity. What Chetan Bhagat is to Indian fiction, Amish is to Indian mythological fiction. The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and The Oath of the Vayuputras constitute the trilogy and may have been largely responsible for turning many book lovers into mythology buffs. The books offer a retelling of Shaiva mythology, in a fresh new plot and easy-to-understand language. However, most of Amish’s fans will concur that the last book was the most disappointing. It’s a must read for mythology rookies.

4. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: This book seems to have drawn equal amounts of flak and admiration for its retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. The author has maintained the original plot of the epic and the only change is that of perspective. Some love it for its feminism; some hate it for exactly the same reason. But there is no taking away from the fact that Divakaruni is a masterful storyteller in The Palace of Illusions and represents the voice of one of the epic’s most complex characters. Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna and Karna are the highlights of this work.

5. Ajaya – Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan: The first of the Mahabharata trilogy, Ajaya: Roll of the Dice is author Anand Neelakantan’s attempt of retelling the epic from the Kauravas’ standpoint. It comes after his hugely successful Asura, which was a Ramayana retelling from Ravana’s POV. The author is essentially a champion of the so-called villains and deserves an A for effort to turn these stories on their heads. Be warned of the lackadaisical language and classic victimization, though.

Other notable reads: Adi Parva – Churning of the Ocean by Amruta Patil, Parva by SL Bhyrappa, Yagnaseni by Pratibha Ray, Karna’s Wife by Kavita Kane, Jaya – An illustrated retelling  of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udayshankar, The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu


1. The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi: The problem with Ashwin Sanghi’s Krishna Key is its unabashed similarity with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It’s as if the international bestseller was repackaged for Indian readers, having thrown in some mythological characters (which seem to be the key to book sales these days). Chanakya’s Chant by the same author was a little readable, but with this one and the subsequent The Rozabal Line, Sanghi really seems to have lost the plot.

2. The Ramayana series by Ashok Banker: Ashok Banker was among the first modern writers to retell the Ramayana, in his eight-part series titled Prince of Ayodhya (2003), Siege of Mithila (2003), Demons of Chitrakut (2004), Armies of Hanuman (2005), Bridge of Rama (2005), King of Ayodhya (2006), Vengeance of Ravana (2011), Sons of Sita (2012). While attention to detail is a good thing, Banker’s verbosity is tiring. I’ve also found his style a tad to filmesque. The author’s love of l-e-n-g-t-h-y writing is seen in The Krishna Coreolis series too, which is again a nine (!) part series including Slayer of Kamsa (2010), Dance of Govinda (2011), Flute of Vrindavan (2011), Lord of Mathura (2011), Rage of Jarasandha (2011), Fortress of Dwarka (2012), Rider of Garuda (2013), Lord of Vaikunta (2014), and Consort of Sri (2014). Unless you have immense patience for average writing and / or immense love for the author, skip both series, I say.

3. Thundergod – The Ascendance of Indra by Rajiv Menon: As the title suggests, the book traces the course of the Vedic god, Indra’s ‘career’ from being a mortal to a divinity. The author throws in references from other mythologies too, in trying to create fantasy fiction for adults, but doesn’t do justice to all elements. This book is not without its fans, but most of all, Rajiv Menon’s Thundergod has been panned by critics for its lack of literary quality.

4. Arjuna – Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince by Anuja Chandramouli: Another disappointment in the realm of Indian mythological fiction comes in the form of Anuja Chandramouli’s Arjuna. In yet another retelling of the Mahabharata, the author writes the story from the prime Pandava’s perspective. With so many character-specific retellings in the market and subpar language, there’s nothing new this book has to offer. Her latest book, Kamadeva – The God of Desire chooses an unusual character and one hopes there are more takeaways.

5. Asura by Anand Neelakantan: This book sure made it to some bestseller lists, but it has as many detractors as admirers. As I’ve mentioned above, the author likes to turn antagonists into protagonists and Asura is a retelling of the Ramayana, which explores the layered character of Ravana. His Achilles heel, however, is his not-so-great language. The book gets simplistic and even boring in places. 

(This article appeared in on 28th December, 2014. It can be read here.)

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist by passion. She can be reached on

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Hindus - An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger: Impressions

In the age of short attention spans, finishing 700 page strong book feels like a victory of sorts. More so when the book is not a racy thriller. I’ve just finished Wendy Doniger’s (in)famous ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ after three, maybe four months, punctuating it with life. However, Wendy Doniger can’t be accused of NOT being racy - in both senses of the word. She may be writing history, but her ideas and her presentation are certainly page-turners. It’s just the small print and the mammoth scope of this book that make you want to stop and ruminate ever so often.

For the few who may not know, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ recently became Doniger’s most talked-about book because an organisation called SBAS (Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti) objected to it. It’s founder, Dinanath Batra, dragged the book to court on account of controversial content that would hurt Hindu sentiments (yawn) and asked for it to be banned in India. Penguin and Aleph upheld these bans and withdrew all existing copies. And true to human nature, we all made a beeline for it just because they said NO. Thanks to the Internet, imported editions of the book can very much be bought online and e-books are readily available.

I gleefully dived headfirst into the book with starry eyes, a fan as I am of Doniger’s work like every aspiring Indologist. The book is divided into 25 chapters, each chronicling a definitive period in Indian history beginning from the prehistoric (50 million BCE) right down to the present. Doniger starts out with the man/rabbit in the moon metaphor, knowing well that nothing about Hinduism is what it seems. But it is plain to see throughout the book that her scholarship is tremendous; Wendy Doniger doesn’t miss a trick. However, what is most admirable is her erudition laced with wit. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her use of “maithuna you” and many such Doniger tropes.

Doniger is a humourous writer - sometimes to the point of irreverence - and this is probably what didn’t go down well with the Dinanath Batras of the world. Frankly, I don’t see anything in the book that may be called truly objectionable/ controversial, but here is a list of statements that were deemed so. Critics have panned it for inaccuracy, but I think they’re missing out of the idea that this is meant to be an ‘alternative history’. While most of Doniger’s claims are backed with scriptural/literary evidence, a lot of the book is also about her unique perspective. She writes Hindu history from the point of view of the suppressed lower classes and women. She tries to represent their anonymous voices, especially in all non-Aryan literature, that shaped the more recent body of scriptures (like the Puranas) and consequently the society. She makes these subdued voices loud and clear, without becoming cloyingly feminist or activist. She remains an objective scholar throughout the book, much to the chagrin of purists.

But the book is not without its weak spots and one thing I found annoying was the author’s preoccupation with animal motifs. Doniger obsessively harps upon horses and dogs, what these animals represent, the matter of sacrifice, vegetarianism and so forth. These are important and legitimate points but excessive all the same. That said, Doniger knows her India and its history better than most of us born here. Banned or not, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ deserves to be read for eye-opening insights about this country, taken of course, with the tiniest pinch of salt.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Journey After Life by Cyndi Dale: Impressions

For as long as I can remember, I've been incredibly drawn to that realm beyond 'reality'. What begins after science ends? What are the things our senses cannot perceive? Where does one draw the line between matter and spirit? If you look at my book shelf, you'll see at least a dozen titles on energy 'sciences', religion, mythology, philosophy, and allied subjects. I read endlessly about what lies 'beyond', but do I believe what I read? I can't tell. I don't know. Years of formal Western style education, combined with a deep interest in Eastern esoteric-­ism, have turned me into this half­-baked creature. A skeptical believer, a believing skeptic. I want to believe but I find myself compelled to question. A fine example of my personal paradox is that I have now simultaneously become a student of both – evidence-­led history and archaeology, and intuition-led mysticism and mythology.

However, in my quest for answers, I lap up books like 'The Journey After Life' when they come my way. 'The Journey After Life' is written by Cyndi Dale, an American healer, speaker and author. She has written several books on Chakras and other energy paradigms, has intuitively healed hundreds of people and continues to do such work, thanks to her psychic abilities. In this book she deals with the subjects of death, the soul, and afterlife. She also talks extensively about spirit beings, angels, dark souls, faeries and so on, and their role in our lives. She elaborates upon the nature of the soul, drawing from religious sources as well as quantum physics! Dale's book not only shows the extent of her 'research', but also her intuitive understanding of human nature and compassion. It was the latter that quite affected me as I was reading this book.

Just a few pages into the book, and I felt connected with her. I felt her spiritual presence in the room, as I sat holding the book, like I would hold her hand. Ever so often, I would find myself crying as I read her kind words. I was reminded of my spiritual mentor, Shilpa Inamdar – also an energy practitioner and healer – in whose kind presence I always felt so purged and refreshed. In her wonderful manner of communicating, Dale introduces the concept of death as a part of life in the introductory chapters, which form the first part of the book. She says how all life is light, as everything emanates from the great White Light. I found this idea very similar to the Hindu idea of Brahman, from which all creation and life emanates and into which everything culminates.

However, Dale's idea of the great source of light is not all that simple, as she speaks about several Planes of Light through which a spirit travels before it reaches 'Ultimate Consciousness'. The second part of the book describes these planes in great details, with a chapter dedicated to each of the 13 planes of light. She associates every plane with a chakra, explains what it means, what a soul's purpose on that plane is, who the guiding beings on that plane are, how to 'visit' and benefit from that plane even when one is alive and what their corresponding metals, colours and mediation techniques are. It is greatly practical book from this perspective, but the key is belief.

Despite my initial 'connection' with the book, there were times when there was a complete lapse of faith and what I read appeared to me as gibberish, or fantasy at best. I might as well have been reading a book on nuclear physics, because I had no clue what was going on. Because with my limited knowledge and ordinary perceptions, there is no way of ever corroborating the contents of this book, and I was always teetering on the edge of (dis)belief. Spirits, guardian angels, tunnels of white light, NDEs, curses, ghosts and other such ideas are hard to stomach but there are great takeaways from this book in terms of love, humanity, kindness and compassion. Choose what you will.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Who wrote the Bhagvad Gita? by Meghnad Desai

So the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) is trying to 'date' the Mahabharata on one hand, and we have Baron Meghnad Desai asking who wrote the Bhagvad Gita on the other. The timing of this book appearing in the market could not have been more right! Oh, there should be a ticket price for watching what happens after one has thrown a copy of this book in ICHR's compound. *wicked grin*

Jokes apart, 'Who Wrote the Bhagvad Gita?: A Secular Inquiry into a Sacred Text' is a book to be taken seriously. The ICHR may be the butt of many jokes in the intellectual circles right now, but it is no secret that a chunk of our nation thinks the way they do. Most of us have been taught to believe – and we like to believe – that the Bhagvad Gita is a divine composition. And in that light, this book is not for the 'faint­hearted'. Not that Desai makes light of the sacred position the Gita holds in our society; but academic inquiry is often in direct conflict with faith. Desai, like many Indological researchers before him, poses questions about the coherence and composition style of the text; which, to most laypersons might sound sacrilegious.

But Desai presupposes the Gita to be the work of a human author or authors, and then puts forth his theories. To the uninitiated, Meghnad Desai is a renowned British Indian economist, politician and a Padma Bhushan awardee. Although his work is extensively in the field of economics, he is highly respected as an academician in general. 'Who Wrote...' is his first book in the field of Indology, but his methodology and sharp insights as a pro researcher are evident. Desai draws his theories from many critical editions, translations and commentaries of the Gita. He cites the opinions of some of India's greatest thought leaders, including, Tilak, Gandhi, Vivekanada and Sri Aurobindo.

However, his largest influencers are D D Kosambi and Dr. G S Khair – two of the most vocal (and respected) critics in this sphere. There are a number of points Desai makes to support this theory of Gita's human authorship, but the primary among them are:
a. A discernible difference in literary styles among certain sections of the Gita
b. Internal ideological differences in those corresponding sections

Then there are cases of chronological problems, verse repetitions interpolations, caste and gender discrimination, and the induction of Buddhist ideals, the details of which a reader should get from the book. Desai deals with every aspect in a categorical manner, citing the verses he finds ‘objectionable’ and laying down his reasons for the same.   

But my greatest takeaway from the book was Desai's assessment of the Gita's social worth in the Hindu society. He brings to notice some very recent – in the grand historical perspective – political and cultural events that brought the Gita into prominence. Before Tilak and Gandhi wrote and spoke about it extensively, the Gita doesn't seem to have had much sway in the nation. Today, we repose unquestioning faith in the text and hold it in the highest esteem. In this context, Desai asks us a very pertinent question: Does the Gita's 'slippery opportunism' morally allow us Indians to be corrupt and complacent?

Read it, think about it. I have been thinking too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Journey Home by Radhanath Swami: Impressions

I recently resigned from work, having decided to take a two-year sabbatical to study. I hope to change the course of my career and consequently my life, choosing my passion over a safe, set career. Coming upon the story of Radhanath Swami’s spiritual journey at a time like this was probably a sign. The account of a young American boy’s internal conflicts, his thirst for a higher purpose and his subsequent finding of a spiritual home resounded well with my state. That said, I was disappointed by the literary quality (or the lack thereof) of the book. When I chose this book to read and review, I was expecting something like ‘Autobiography  of  a Yogi’. But I realized soon that this book was nothing like that spiritual classic. (I really want to question that ‘International bestseller’ sticker on the cover of this edition.)

But that’s not to undermine the things I took away from ‘The Journey Home’. Radhanath Swami’s journey is extraordinary to say the least, and mere mortals like us can only look on with awe and reverence.  Born Richard ‘Monk’ Slavin, Radhanath Swami’s childhood was spent surrounded by noble Jewish parents in an American suburb. In his youth, he discovered the counterculture of the hippies and did everything that the flower children did. At the age of 19, he set out to backpack across Europe with his friends to experience the adventure called life. But the call of the divine took him further on from Europe onward to India on a road trip. Travelling alone and often penniless, Monk experienced a number of thrilling, sometimes life-threatening, episodes as he crossed Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. en route.

Once in India, the author roamed the country, especially through the Himalayas and other holy places. He met the most accomplished Yogis and lamas, got a taste of the different spiritual schools and teachers, and spent months as an ascetic, observing strict austerities. He lived in caves, under trees, by river banks and begged for food, living like a true sadhu. But his heart would not find refuge in one place or philosophy, until he landed in Vrindavan. There, he discovered Krishna, the path of Bhakti Yoga, and ultimately his guru in Srila Prabhupada (the famed founder of ISKCON).

While Radhanath Swami’s journey is awe-inspiring, the book often gets boring to read. Whatever else he may be, Radhanath Swami is not a writer. His lack of skill makes even the most fantastic instances sound ordinary, and the spiritual insights he offers – peppered in italics through the book – often sound juvenile. It may be that these ‘insights’ were that of a 20-year-old American boy and hence are the way they are, or it is purely poor writing. I can imagine the editors of this book pussyfooting around the author because of his spiritual stature. Also the testimonials by famous people seem to have been made more because they couldn't turn down a holy man rather than because of the quality of the book. But as a reader and a critic, I find it hard to ignore the subpar literary production. So, unless you are particularly interested in the man and his mission, you can give this book a miss.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Menstrual Cup - a love story

I’ve had a dry creative run for the longest time. Nothing has been inspiring or challenging enough for me to want to write about. But then I came upon the menstrual cup, which has been nothing short of life-changing. I almost feel obliged to share information and experiences with the menstrual cup, with my fellow women. In a country where discussing menstrual anything is a taboo, I find it imperative to let women know about this wonderful product on menstrual hygiene. However, this is for tampon initiates and little virgin maidens who will use only pads and never consider anything ‘penetrative’, this is not for you.

Despite the information overload in the age of the Internet, I am willing to bet that LOT of Indian women have never heard about the menstrual cup. Heck, many don’t even know what a tampon is! I didn’t know about this product either, until a few months ago. One of my lovely Twitter friends from Australia shared a link about the menstrual cup, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my life changed.

Types of menstrual cups

So, what is a menstrual cup? A menstrual cup is a 3-inch long, 2-inch wide cup made of surgical quality silicon that is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. This cup covers and sits at the mouth of the cervix, air sealed, thanks to the tiny holes on the cup’s sides. Because the cup is about 3-inch deep, it is able to collect a fair amount of menstrual discharge. The cup needs to be extracted after a few hours, emptied, washed and BINGO it’s ready for reuse. Did I want to try a product that was discreet, did not need disposal & re-purchase and was eco-friendly? Yessir!

I asked around some more, and was told that there are a couple of Indian companies making and selling this product. I ordered mine via phone from Shecup, a Bangalore-based company and the product was delivered to me in a swift couple of days.

While I had looked it up on the net, I wasn’t prepared for the size of the product. It seemed BIG in the beginning and I was like… “I’VE GOT IT SHOVE THAT THING IN?” Especially for someone who is accustomed to using a tampon, the menstrual cup seemed decidedly large and uncomfortable. And make no mistake; IT TAKES SOME TIME AND PRACTICE TO GET USED TO. It reminded me of my first days of using a tampon, when I was too scared to push it far in and sat awkwardly in office chairs, feeling poked, poked, poked all through the day. But as one gets used to all things, I mastered the tampon and thought it was the best thing to happen to womankind… until the menstrual cup came along (with its initial hiccups, of course).

Unlike the tampon, which has a string, the cup doesn't have a pull-out aid. I would initially push the cup too far back in. After a few hours, when it was time to empty out the cut, I would be having panic attacks in the loo because WHERE WAS THE FRIGGIN' CUP? I would gingerly push up my index finger – long nails and all – and not find the cup. Then I would push (not a good idea if you also have the urge to crap at the same time) and grunt and finally extract it from the great dark pits of my hoohah. Jackpot! I’m sure my joy would have rivaled a treasure hunter’s at that moment. Sure, it can make you a little squeamish in the beginning, holding a small cupful of your own menstrual blood. But you can play pretend, imagine you are a witch and throw the blood down the great magic pot-cauldron! Whee! PS: menstrual blood DOES NOT STINK. And this, especially for the chee-chee ladies, it is YOUR OWN BLOOD. Chill.

There is a technique of insertion and removal, which I mastered over the next couple of days and trust me, it’s not rocket science. Fold the cup nicely and gently insert it; just remember to not push it in as far as a tampon. You should be able to feel the stem of the cup; and no, it doesn’t poke. The cup gets pushed in a little more eventually anyway. To pull it out, squat or sit down and relax your vaginal muscles. Use your index and middle fingers to reach it, press the base of the cup lightly to release the air suction and gently pull out the cup. Try it pull it out straight, so that there are no spills. This will take some practice again, and should you spill a few drops of blood, it is easily cleaned up with water of tissues. And in a few times, you will be, ahem… pushing and pulling like a pro!

Once the cup has been pulled out and the menstrual fluid emptied into the toilet (and flushed down), wash the cup with anti-bacterial medicated soap. Wash your hands too before re-inserting the cup to minimize risk of infection. A freshly-inserted cup can easily serve its purpose for close to 8 hours (yup, you do not bleed THAT much), but of course it will change from one woman to another. At the end of your period, sterelise the cup in boiling water for about 10 minutes, and put it away until the next month in a soft cloth pouch. DO NOT STORE IT IN A PLASTIC CONTAINER – plastic tends to harden the cup. Stored and used properly, a silicon menstrual cup is said to last up to 10 years. However, the recommended change time is 1-2 years. Even so, it is highly cost-effective, considering a cup costs you only around INR 800.     

I strongly advocate this product, and think more women ought to know about and use it. It is discreet, comfortable, DOES NOT LEAK, medically safe, eco-sensitive, reusable and generally, a little boon. If you would like to know more, there is plenty of stuff online. And if you have any questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. Just DM me on Twitter or write to me on

Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer: Impressions

Many times during the course of 'Stranger to History', I admit trying to find Aatish Taseer's Twitter profile (with no luck). The more I read this book, the more curious I became about the author whose life seems to be an extraordinary case of ironies. I sought inane little details – as a person is wont to give away on Twitter – about Taseer, if only to humanise, 'normalise' him a little. Because going by the book, internal and external conflict is all he has ever lived by. Picture a set of parents belonging to different religions, living in different countries and divorced. Picture a little child who has only just known shadows of his father, forever clutching at straws of identity. It all befell Taseer's lot, and 'Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands' is his story.

Born as a lovechild to a rising Pakistani political activist and an Indian political journalist, Taseer's destiny seemed to bear the fault line of the Indo­Pak border. While his parents got married for a while, they divorced soon after, owing his Muslim father's political ambitions in Pakistan. His Sikh mother raised him in Delhi, with help from a host of Sikh relatives. Once a young man, Taseer is driven by a need to know his father and to truly understand what being a Muslim is. He sets out on a journey that takes him from Turkey to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran to finally his father's doorstep in Pakistan.

Taseer samples the unique flavours the religion of Muhammad travelling through these Islamic states. Through his journalistic lens, he shows you the undercurrents of radical Islam in the largely secular Turkey, the monied 'Sheikh' culture of the Saudi, the oppressive religious regime in Iran, the constant political unrest in Syria and finally, the imploding state of Pakistan. It's a great bird's eye view of the current state of affairs in these nations and an eye­opener for people like me who do not follow global politics; especially the politics of religion. Because he is a journalist, Taseer's writing is analytical, but it is also delightfully lyrical in places. Through the people he meets during his travels, he personalises the account, without ever getting emotional.

That's not to say the book is devoid of emotion. The book is an intensely personal account of a search for identity. It is hard not to be moved by Taseer's confusion, occasional jubilation and often, rejection. The point of strife between Taseer and his father is the question of identity, with Taseer being Indian yet not, Pakistani yet not, Muslim yet not. His father's reluctant acceptance of him after many years, and a fresh rift owing to difference of opinion are painful to witness.

It is hard not to feel sorry for him, for ourselves and for our Pakistani neighbours, who live in this milieu of political mistrust. Taseer's life could well be an exaggeration of the conflict all of us, who live in the post 1947 world, feel. Pakistan's children, are perhaps in a worse place, having rejected all their shared history with India. It can't be nice growing up with a big black void in the collective social consciousness. Reading this book causes one to ask many questions about one's religious and national identities. These are important questions that need to be asked and for that, I thank Taseer.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Father's Day

I call this quick graphic tablet sketch Father's Day, what else? :)

And here the reference picture I used to make it. Features the two most important men in my life.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Women by Charles Bukowski: Impressions

The Internet is a strange amazing thing, and one without which life seems unimaginable now. One reads and meets the most incredible beings here, who sometimes repulse, sometimes attract and sometimes change one's life. I came upon one such curious creature called Charles Bukowski here. He came as a wave on social media. Suddenly one was seeing Charles Bukowski being quoted everywhere; and by everywhere I mean Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Anyone who frequents these social media sites will know about waves like these: Rumi has had one, Neruda has had one, Agha Shahid Ali has had one. Lovers go about looking for their words – lovers of people, lovers of words, lovers of love. I am one too. So imagine how struck I was when I read this by Bukowski: Find what you love and let it kill you. No soft wave of love this; it was like being pounded by a big wall of water. And then came more such lines. Naturally, I ran off to Flipkart to buy me a Bukowski.

A prolific American author, Charles Bukowski has written extensively and compared to some of the finest writers of the 20 stood out for its title: Women (and the wonderful cover graphic!). I had to know what the great CB, who wrote brutally about love, had to say about women. So I bought it, read it, and now I am disappointed.

To put it mildly, 'Women' is not Bukowski's best work. Yes, the book is dark and direct, in true CB style, but there are few, if any, flashes of genius that I was seeking. Perhaps I was turned off by the gritty Americanism of the book. Such oppressive superfluousness! American literature has never appealed to me and Bukowski's 'Women' did nothing to change that.

 'Women' is a seemingly autobiographical story about a noir poet, whose new-found fame helps fund his debauched lifestyle. Protagonist Henry Chinaski is about 50 years old, an unrepentant alcoholic and will sleep with just about any woman. Wild women, volatile women, young women, blonde women, black women, fat women, thin women, trippy women, good women, whore women... Chinaski's conquests are endless. There is a love interest called Lydia in the beginning, but once she fades out, the plot becomes a blur. Tammie, Iris, Sara, Katherine, Debra, Cecelia, Valencia, Tanya, Liza, Dee Dee become one indistinguishable blob – a mass of breasts, legs, ass, hair, mouth and sex. They all come, drink, fuck and leave. We find Chinaski waking up at noon with a hangover, puking, gambling at the racetrack, drinking some more, and looking for his next fuck.

Occasionally, we find him flying to one city or another to give a poetry reading. The book almost reads like soft porn, but for CB's existential angst peppering its pages. The story ends with a hint of Chinaski's transformation, but one comes away with nothing.

Because Bukowski is a good writer, you cannot put the book away easily. You go on reading and hoping there will be something of beauty, of substance in these 'Women', only to find hollow shells. His character sketches do not impress, except for one or two. Well, the characters have no real 'page time' to be able to reveal themselves. Chinaski's drinking-­whoring routine reads depressingly dull and monotonous, save for a few occasional insights about the human condition. At the end of it, the book felt like a waste of time, and life's too short for bad fiction. Skip it.

In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler: Impressions

Some authors make you laugh, some authors make you cry, and some authors mean business. Ensler means business, grabbing you by your gullet, making you laugh and cry all at once. But Ensler's business isn't about selling copies (although she happens to be an international bestseller); it is about flipping radical switches. Anyone who has watched the play, 'Vagina Monologues', written by her will know how she does what she does. She glides easily underneath the thick crust of what is considered socially acceptable, and speaks loudly and clearly of things most of us don't even like to admit to ourselves. 'In the Body of the World' is not just Eve Ensler's memoir; it could be the story of every woman, every soul that wears a body, every body that inhabits this world.

'In the Body of the World' is primarily an account of Ensler's battle with cancer, but also of her deeply troubled childhood and her work in the Congo. Everything in this memoir is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Ensler has been around the world as an environmental and women's rights activist, but only when she starts working in war­-stricken Congo does she understand the extent of cruelty humans are capable of. Amidst the cancer of human greed, she is also diagnosed with cancer and from there begins her journey of suffering and healing. Each time she speaks of the physical pain of the treatment, emotional traumas from her past surface.

Her incestuous and abusive father, her detached mother, her drug and alcohol­-fueled wild teenage years all form a flux of pain and are released onto the pages. These fuse with the pain of war crimes and chemotherapy, and threaten to swallow her in an impossible blackhole. But she rises, and rises and picks you up along the way.

Ensler's words are as indomitable as her spirit. There is so much self ­realisation, such brilliant self ­aware writing that it dazzles. But what is most remarkable, most inspiring is the complete lack of inhibition, of shame. The humanness she allows herself, is very liberating. She lets you in on her most visceral truths simply and is unapologetic about it. You could be reading about her exploding poop bags, enemas, incontinence and vomit and be smiling or crying through it; but never cringing. You could be reading about her father raping her, her sex life, or her unconventional views on relationships, but not judging. In baring her vulnerabilities and failures, she allows herself and the reader fallibility and imperfection. And in this, lies her grandness.

Few words that come to mind when I try to describe Ensler's style of writing: clarity, brutal honesty and poetry. It's a lethal combination, really. She is beautiful to the extent of painfulness. Like brilliant light that blinds you. When she speaks, you listen; when she orders, you obey.  I have been shaken and slapped and kicked out of my stupor of ordinariness, by Ensler's extraordinary story.

I've fallen asleep with her words in my blood, and woken up with the taste of cancer, incest and horrific war crimes in my mouth. It is unputdownable, undeniable. Like the cancer and Congo changed Ensler, this book will change you. READ IT.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Helpline by Uday Mane: Impressions

'The Helpline' will always be among the most special of the books I've reviewed for two reasons. One, because the author, Uday Mane, who is a good friend, sent me the book at the manuscript stage for my opinion and has very kindly put my name on the acknowledgments page; two, because it is a striking story. In fact, it is one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I've read in a long time. And no, I'm not saying this because Uday is a friend. I have a lot of qualms about this book, but we'll come back to that later. Let me talk about why this story is so beautiful, first.

'The Helpline' opens with protagonist Samir Masand in a bad state, battling depression and suicidal thoughts. He is a 20-year-old college dropout, who has shut the world out because of a personal tragedy and the ensuing guilt. Despite the best efforts of his friend, Neha, he refuses to be drawn out of his shell. He is seemingly spiraling out of control, until one day, he decides to call a suicide helpline. On the other side of the phone is Rachel, who will change the course of his life. It is through Samir's telling  of his story to Rachel that his life unfolds before us. We hear about Ria, Samir's love interest, their courtship, and an unexpected climax. But the best part is the climax after the climax! You want to read this book for the part where Rachel's identity is revealed!!!

Mane builds up the plot beautifully, with a not too linear narrative. We come back to the protagonist's present sometimes, but the story is mainly about his past. His characters are well-rounded with attention to detail. Apart from the main characters, the minor ones like Samir's grandpa (Nana), Ria's brother Siddharth – a special child with Down's Syndrome, Parker Chacha, the cafe owner, also become endearing. Two more things that struck me as special in the story are the prologue, which is a dream sequence, and an episode where Samir and Ria go to a lake. The prologue is powerful in its 'subconscious' manner of writing, while the lake episode is extraordinarily romantic. The two climaxes, of course, take the cake.

Mane keeps his narrative fairly fast-paced, but there are parts where it tends to slow down. Mane is a good story-teller, but he has to evolve a lot as a writer. My biggest grouse is against his editor, who seems to have done a lousy job. The plot could have been made tighter, and goodness, the shoddy proofing!  There are too many instances of grammatical ineptitude and not to mention the spelling errors. I hope there will be corrections if a second edition comes out. I also was unhappy with the epilogue, which seemed forced and unnecessary. I don't remember reading it in the manuscript and liking the ending better.

The writer's grip on the language is not his strongest point, but he has full marks for the narrative art. 'The Helpline' is only Mane's first book, and I know it is the beginning of a long journey for him. I've known him for close to four years now and I have enthusiastically followed the short stories on his blog. In fact, he has slyly incorporated two of his best in the novel. He is a gifted story-teller and I know he will only get better with his subsequent works. 'The Helpline' is a wonderful debut, and certainly one of my favourites!

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant: Impressions

If I had to pick one work of non-fiction from among the many I've read over the years, 'Servants of the Goddess: the Modern-day Devadasis' would be an easy choice. Author Catherine Rubin Kermorgant has a gift of style that can trump many novelists. She holds the reader's attention from the word go, and who can turn away from a title like 'Servants of the Goddess'? Especially people like me, who take an avid interest in Humanities. When the book came up for a review, the blurb promised me insights on social structures, caste systems, religion, mythology, and tradition surrounding the Devadasi system. And then there was some amount of shock that made me pick it up.

That the Devadasi system should still exist in a big enough way for books to be written about it, shocked me. Living in a metropolis, enjoying the freedom and privileges of education and financial freedom, it is easy to push the knowledge of the oppressed into the recesses of one's consciousness. We don't like to acknowledge our failings as a society, as a government, as human beings. Often, we need an outsider's perspective to wake up to our home truths; and that is exactly what 'Servants of the Goddess' does. The book not only reveals important social issues, but also the author's beautiful spirit.

Kermorgant is an author, researcher and documentary film-maker based in Paris, and she has worked on several projects highlighting social issues in India. She comes to Kalyana in Karnataka in 2002, hoping to make a documentary on the Devadasis of the region, for BBC. Kermorgant recounts her journey in this book, the trials she faced, the prejudices she learnt about, and the friendships she forged. With an astute interpreter, Vani, by her side, Kermorgant penetrates the cloistered society of lower caste devadasis and gains their trust. She understands the religious, economic and social motivations and implications of the devadasi system, often shocked and saddened by the vicious cycle that sustains it.

A few months later, she returns with a film crew and after numerous hitches manages to capture on film the custom of dedicating young girls to the Goddess Yellamma, the implicit sexual slavery, the eventual prostitution and the pitiful social position of these women locked into the system. Kermorgant learns how devadasis choose not to break away from this tradition owing to deep-rooted superstitions/ religious beliefs in the powers of the Goddess. But underneath it all, she is inspired by the dignity and resilience of these women. However, the tables turn during the editing phase, when her co-director distorts the film, failing to highlight the social and economic plight of these women. Angry, Kermorgant, sues the production company, and the film still hangs in a limbo.

Kermorgant takes recourse in this book, telling her side of the story. She gives us a powerful narrative, often exposing the prejudices we live with and perhaps even unconsciously condone. She rightfully points fingers at our lackadaisical system of reforms and unwillingness to bridge the caste gaps. The book is, however, not entirely free of the 'White Man's complex', where (s)he wants to 'civilize us barbarians'. But for the most part, it is deeply insightful and empathetic to the Indian way.  Also apparent is the author's erudition and extent of research. She starts the chapters beautifully with relevant verses from several Indian religious scriptures and ends them thought-provokingly.

It's a beautiful, informative book, really. Read it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Virgin Gingelly by V Sanjay Kumar: Impressions

For those outside their ambit, South Indians are a mysterious lot, and we know as little about them as say, the Maoris of New Zealand or the tribes of the Rainforest. Bollywood clichés in the form of Rohit Shetty films have done little to change our perception of ‘Madrasis’. The Internet is slowly bridging the gap, but “South Indians” – Tamilians, Kannadigas, Malayalees and Telugus all clubbed together in a mash – remain a largely curious set for people on the other side of the Vindhyas.  And then, once in a while one comes across fascinating book covers featuring an Indianised Michelangelo artwork with dark men in Kathakali masks, and intriguing teasers like this:

A smoky medium.
A viscous oil that marinates gunpowder,
anoints heads and crisps appalams.
An uptight Brahmin.

Before I started living in a society and neighbourhood dominated by South Indians, I didn’t even know what Gingelly meant. It was only after I spotted row after row of gingelly oil – a cooking oil favoured by South Indians, especially Tamilians – that I cared to Google it. Gingelly is basically sesame, and its oil is very highly priced, at least in the supermarkets that surround me. I’ve tried it once and don’t understand what the big deal with it is… much like I don’t understand its users.

And authors like V Sanjay Kumar aren’t helping. Sure he sounds seductive, sure he makes the reader want to go from one page to the next, to the next, but he doesn’t help comprehend. At least not with this book.’ Virgin Gingelly’ is Kumar’s second novel, the first being ‘Artist, Undone’. Kumar’s titles and style of writing are both very intriguing, and I’d best describe Virgin Gingelly as a piece of abstract art. It does not lend itself to easy understanding, and is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

First of all, the title: Virgin Gingelly. Beautiful metaphor there, albeit a little stretched. A medium that TamBrahms like to cook with, cook in. Virgin, I presume, is a connotation for purists – a quality often attributed to that class. The novel is set in Rainbow Colony, a co-op housing society of TamBrahms in Chennai. With Kumar, the reader becomes a voyeur, peeking into the homes and lives of its residents. There’s no plot, really. Just existential slices of writing about characters called Ranga, Murthy, Kumar, Valiban and even a dog. These are old people, young people, people wrestling with their ages, sexualities, relationships and social stations.

Kumar’s use of language is at once irreverent and poetic. I imagine it to be largely biographical, given his background. Some of his characters, like him, are stuck in the identity crisis limbo, having been born in the North and raised in the South. He depicts with tenderness not just this Northie-Southie problem, but also other man-man and man-environment relationships. But it is the lack of linearity that makes the book difficult to keep track of. His first person narratives in random places are confusing, and his characters are sketchy. Throughout the book I would forget who the chapter I was reading, was about. Parallel lives, cryptic dialogue and not to forget the liberal use of Tamil words don’t make it an easy read. But his writing is poignant, terse and beautiful in most places. I have too many favourite lines from the book to recount here. But sometimes, he tries too hard and the effort shows.

‘Virgin Gingelly’ is not so much an exercise in storytelling as it is an act of indulgence. You smile as you see the author toy with words and sentences, and you frown at his purposeful lack of clarity. Kumar teases, leaves beautiful clues and plays hard to get. Like I mentioned above, it is comparable to an abstract art piece, which you know is beautiful, but cannot say how or why. Will I read him again? Yes, ‘Artist, Undone’ stands on my shelf, waiting to be explored.

Friday, April 25, 2014


'Give me 5 minutes of Internet, baby,' I beseech the web lords
They haven't been kind lately.
I feel like kicking the computer each time I try to surf..
"Frustration ka saamaan," I mumble angrily and log off.
But I am back again after a restless 30 minutes
I need to check on my social media jaanu... my many jaanoooooos
Has anyone wilted from my inattention yet?
Has anyone even noticed I am gone?
Are they seeking me, or am I seeking them seeking me?


Perhaps this is what loneliness looks like, fleshed out
Living a forlorn life, even with a man in my bed
I amuse myself by breaking rules.
Coke with rose sherbet,
butter chicken with fried rice
unsafe (mind)fucks with complete strangers


Love, love, love, love, love
What's love got to do with it?
'Everything!' I say one day;
'Nothing', I concur next
But grown ups should be able to do without
I don't want to grow up
Lovers on Twitter
Lovers on Facebook
lovers in novels
lovers in poems
real lovers, imagined lovers
Goddamn, this soul stinks of need.

Monday, March 10, 2014


On my bed sleep poets and saints; 
volumes of hardbound madness. 
There's a little space left -  just enough to make love.
Won't you come, my lover, and partake in this orgy? 
We'll lie among sheets of silk and paper, 
we'll talk through the chaos of geniuses.
Rumi can watch how you kiss me
And you can be witness to my love for Hafiz
Let's lock fingers, as if in prayer
even as obscenities stream out of our mouths
Sex toys and rosary beads in our sweaty palms
lines between the profound and profane erased
Jalaluddin cries out for his lover divine 
like you for me and I, for Khwaja Shams-ud-Din
Follow the poet's lead, and let your hands pleasure me
Make my head spin in ecstasy, like a whirling dervish 
Listen to what Shams says, 
"Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly".
Drop the sweet talk and an aashiq's tehzeeb
and fuck me while the saint-poets look on and sing.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

THE CHILDREN OF SATAN: Black Metal as the present day proliferator of Satanic, Pagan and ancient Germanic myths

A Daily Mail (UK) article published on their website on the 15th of January 2014


As recently as 16th January, 2014, this news piece about an obsessive fan killing a Black Metal musician for 'not being Satanic enough' made international headlines. It shocked the international music fraternity and harked back the early days of Black Metal in the 80s, which was characterised by a lot of violence.

Dark lyrics, an extreme subculture and violent imagery are among the hallmarks of Black Metal, which borrows heavily from the darker aspects of Heathen and Germanic in addition to Satanic mythology. Bloodlust, arson and murder characterised the second wave of Black Metal during the 90s, but things had somewhat sobered in the last couple of decades. The news of this murder reminded people how deep 'Satanic' influences still run in some parts of contemporary society, (no) thanks to the Black Metal scene.

This paper attempts to chronicle the influence of Satanic, Pagan, Heathen and Norse mythology on Black Metal music, the symbols associated with it, the evolution of these myths; and finally to understand how some ancient myths continue to influence popular culture and consequently our lives.


Before we move on to exploring the mythological connections of Black Metal, here are a few basic concepts explained, based mostly on Wikipedia.

Black Metal: Black metal is an extreme sub genre of heavy metal music, often having lyrics which deal with the Devil and the supernatural. Often synonymous with Satanic Metal, Black Metal has now incorporated more mythical elements (apart from Satan) into its fold. While some bands continue make pure 'Satanic or anti-Christian' music, some others have lyrics about heathen/pagan/Nordic characters like Odin, Thor, Prometheus, the Vikings, etc. These further derivatives, who often reject Satanism, go by the name of Viking Metal and War Metal.

Common traits of Black Metal music include fast tempos, shrieked vocals, highly distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, blast beat drumming, raw (lo-fi) recording and unconventional song structures.

White/ Unblack or Christian Metal bands borrow from Christian scriptures and imagery for album art 

Interestingly, there are completely oppposite sub genres called Unblack Metal and White/ Christian Metal too. These have the musical style and constructs like that of Black Metal, but are ideologically its diametric opposite, promoting Christianity and Christian imagery. 

Death Metal: Closely linked with Black Metal is Death Metal, which explores themes of violence and often elaborates on the details of extreme acts, including mutilation, dissection, torture, rape, cannibalism, and necrophilia. It sometimes employs Satanic imagery, thus overlapping in places with Black Metal. 

Death metal bands like The Intestinal from Sweden often use gory and violent imagery on their album covers, but Satanic motifs are also seen

Death Metal typically employs heavily distorted guitars, tremolo picking, deep growling vocals, blast beat drumming, minor keys or atonality, and complex song structures with multiple tempo changes. 
Other loosely related sub genres include Dark Metal, Doom Metal and Thrash Metal.

Satan: The concept of Satan comes from Abrahamic religions with references found in Jewish, Islamic and Christian texts. His primary traits are deceptive, tempting and evilness.  The word 'Satan' in Hebrew loosely translates to 'accuser' or 'adversary', but the character was developed into a full-blown evil one – the devil – subsequently. He is often identified with Lucifer, the fallen angel, who rebelled against God and became ruler of the netherworld.  

Gustave Dore's illustration of Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost
Satanism: The Satanism is a broad term referring to a group of Western religions comprising diverse ideological and philosophical beliefs. Their shared features include symbolic association with, or admiration for the character of Satan, and Prometheus, which are in their view, liberating figures. While it has been practised by underground groups in one form or another since the early days of Christianity, Satanism as we understand it today, caught on with the establishment of the Church of Satan in 1966 by Anton La Vey. 

Famous metal artiste, Marilyn Manson with Anton La Vey

There are two primary kinds of Satanism – theistic and atheistic. Theistic Satanism aka Traditional Satanism, Spiritual Satanism or Devil Worship believes in a deity of Satan and other magical and ritualistic practices. Atheistic Satanism, as perpetuated by La Vey is more philosophical in nature.  Its teachings are based on individualism, Epicureanism, and an "eye for an eye" morality. Unlike theistic Satanists, LaVeyan Satanists are atheists who regard Satan as a symbol of man's inherent nature. La Veyan Satanism was made popular with the publishing of The Satanic Bible in 1969.

Ásatrú: Ásatrú is an Icelandic (and equivalently Old Norse) term consisting of two parts. The first is Ása-, genitive of Áss, denoting one of the group of Norse gods called Æsir. The second part, trú, means "faith, word of honour; religious faith, belief". Thus, Ásatrú means the "faith/belief in the Æsir". Ásatrú is variously known as Heathenism, Paganism, Odinism,  Forn Siðr, Wotanism, Theodism, and other names, is the contemporary revival of historical polytheistic Germanic paganism. 

Prometheus:  In Greek mythology, Prometheus (which might mean 'foresight') is a Titan, culture hero, and trickster figure who is credited with the creation of man from clay, and who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, sentenced the Titan to eternal torment for his transgression. 

A classical painting depicting Prometheus being 'eaten alive' by Zeus' eagle.

The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back to be eaten again the next day. Because Prometheus' gift of fire to mankind enabled progress and civilization, he is known as a champion of mankind.

The punishment of Prometheus as a consequence of the theft is a major theme of his mythology, and is a popular subject of both ancient and modern art. 

Odin/ Wodan/ Wotan: Odin is a major god in Norse mythology, the Allfather of the gods, and the ruler of Asgard. His name could mean 'fury', 'excitation', besides 'mind', or 'poetry'. His role, like that of many of the Norse gods, is complex. Odin is a principal member of the Æsir and is associated with war, battle, victory and death, but also wisdom, Shamanism, magic, poetry, prophecy, and the hunt. Odin has many sons, the most famous of whom is the thunder god Thor.

A modern graphic image of Odin

Thor: In Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing, healing and fertility. Thor's hammer and chariot pulled by two goats are important icons, adopted in the artistic tradition.

Thanks to Marvel comics and the recent Hollywood movies featuring Chris Hemsworth as Thor, this old Norse God has come back into the spotlight

Oskorei/ Wild Hunt: Both Odin and Thor, especially Odin, have been associated with the Wild Hunt or Oskorei. The Wild Hunt is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe in which a phantasmal, spectral group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, with horses and hounds in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it. 

The myth of the Wild Hunt is often used to explain the phenomenon of thunderstorms. This illustration of an Oskorei was used as the cover art for Swedish band, Bathory's album - Blood Fire Death

The Vikings: The Vikings were seafaring north Germanic people who raided, traded, explored, and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries. A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages began to take root in the 18th century, and this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival. The received views of the Vikings as violent brutes or intrepid adventurers owe much to the modern Viking myth that had taken shape by the early 20th century.

New age digital art representing a Viking


The Christian world saw the emergence of a cult of Anti-Christian musicians in the early 1980s, who formed Black Metal bands. The first among these, comprising bands like Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost set the Satanic stage for this subculture in the Scandinavian nations. In fact, it was British band, Venom's second album, Black Metal, from which this genre gets its name. Other early bands, which strengthened the Satanic and Pagan associations of Black Metal included the Swedish band, Bathory and  Mercyful Fate. 

Venom band members Mantas, Cronos and Abaddon and the cover of their second album, Black Metal

America too witnessed a rise of bands with dark themes, such as Slayer and The Misfits. However, Satanism was always watered down, and '...never seemed to achieve quite the unadulterated level of blasphemy weilded by the British founders of Black Metal..' say Michael Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderland in their acclaimed book, 'Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of Satanic Metal Underground.' 

Although a Death Metal band, Deicide made ample use of anti-Christian symbols, like the inverted cross, in their cover art and lyrics. This is the cover of their 8th album.

Bands like Deicide, who flamboyantly adopted the upside down cross and resorted to bloody theatrics on stage were exceptions. Death and Thrash Metal with half-baked Satanic ideas, which were popular in the late 80s, began to lose their appeal and the audience wanted something darker and edgier, making way for the second wave.


Black Metal, at least in its Norwegian “second wave,” is commonly described as Satanic, largely due to the influence of the mass media, which portrayed the genre as such. In fact, much of media fodder was provided by a Norwegian band called Mayhem, established by Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth in 1984, along with  Jørn 'Necrobutcher' Stubberud and Kjetil Manheim. They were later joined by Varg 'Count Grishnackh' Vikernes and  Per Yngve Ohlin, whose stage name was 'Dead'. Apart from their dark music and ideology, the band drew a lot of controversy with respect to arson, murder and a suicide.

In 1991, band member 'Dead' committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in what seemed like an act of self-fulfilling prophecy. Dead had a history of self harm and often cut himself during live performances. Band member Euronymous allegedly clicked a picture of the scene of Dead's suicide and used the image as an album cover to further Mayhem's cause.

Mayhem album 'Dawn of the Black Hearts' featured an image of Dead's corpse

In January 1992 Burzum’s Varg Vikernes gave an interview where he claimed responsibility for a number of church burnings, which led to a moral panic and a media frenzy focused on stories about “Satanism in Norway.” This escalated a year later with Vikernes’s murder of Euronymous, and the convictions of several individuals involved in Black Metal for a number of the church burnings that had occurred in Norway in the early 1990s. The Norwegian documentary film Satan rir media (Satan Rides the Media) clearly shows how the Satanism-label was applied by the media, how dubious “cult experts” validated this, and how the number of arsons drastically increased in the process—from approximately one per year in the early 1990s to fifty arsons altogether between 1992 and 1996.

The band Mayhem with Euronymous (L) and Dead (R)

Satanism became an identity marker in Black Metal, largely due to the media-created Satanism providing a “script” for Norwegian “second wave” Black Metal musicians and fans.

Mayhem gave the underground music scene much more than their music. The tradition of  black leather outfits, metal spikes, corpse paint can be credited to Euronymous, and Black Metal bands across the world today are seen dressed in similar outfits, using similar Satanic symbols.

The band Immortal performs on stage wearing typical gear and corpse paint

Used widely as an anti-Christian symbol in the Black Metal community, it is in fact, quite Christian in its origin. The inverted cross is the sign of St. Peter, who deemed himself too unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Christ, and hence chose an inverted one. However, in the metal music context, an inversion of the primary symbol of Christianity is meant to signify an opposite path.

A pentagram (sometimes known as a pentalpha or pentangle or a star pentagon) is the shape of a five-pointed star drawn with five straight strokes. In medieval Christian tradition, the pentagram could represent the five wounds of Jesus. In the Renaissance it came to be associated with magic and occultism. The inverted pentagram, as used by English black magician, Aleister Crowley and Anton La Vey, founder of the Satanic Church, came to be associated with Satanism. It is a popular with Black Metal bands and modern day Wiccan cults.

Baphomet - from the from medieval Latin Baphometh - is a term originally used to describe an idol or other deity, which the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping, and
subsequently incorporated into disparate occult and mystical traditions. Baphomet is often synonymous with Satan/Lucifer, and hence the raised fingers could either mean Satan's horns or Baphomet's. Modern day Black Metal fans use the hand sign as a customary salute.

For anyone even remotely aware of the heavy metal culture, the skull will be a familiar sign. Representing death and destruction, the skull is a favourite element of artists
designing extreme metal album covers.

The Triquetra is an originally Christian symbol, which often signifies the Trinity. However, Pagans consider the symbol sacred too and it might signify three divine elements. However, some have interpreted it as a hidden symbol for the number of the Devil – 666, and hence one comes across the Triquetra in the context of Black Metal.

Anarchism has a long-standing relationship with the arts, particularly music. As a symbol of opposition to any form of authority, all extreme music embraces anarchy. Punk rock is most associated with the sign, although some death and black metal bands employ it occasionally.
Other common symbols and themes include the Werewolf, the moon, the colour black, fire, blood, virgins, dark priests, forests, crows, etc. 


Apart from symbols, Black Metal carries forth the myths of Satan, and other Pagan characters through its explicit, blasphemous and sometimes downright disturbing lyrics. There are ample Christian and anti-Christian references, like Sabbath, Exodus, Day of Judgment, the pact with the Devil, sacrifices, Black Masses, etc. Such extreme lyrics sway teenagers, who are the largest consumers of such music. There have also been instances of suicides influenced by such music and ensuing lawsuits. However, dark myths continue to be fostered through the Black Metal underground culture. Here are some instances: 

• Gorgoroth – Satan-Prometheus 

See the hordes ascend
Crushing the face of god
See the horns rise
The eternal reign of Satan

• Solar Deity – Through the hallway of Narak

Satan… bless my soul
Father… we are yours
There is one god
Dark lord, you’re the one!

Indian black metal band, Solar Deity

• Nunslaughter – Satanic

Lucifer's grip upon the throat
Of the catholic priest
Asphyxiate eviscerate
The holy are deceased

• Mayhem- Pagan Fears

Pagan fears
The past is alive
The past is alive
Woeful people with pale faces
Staring obsessed at the moon
Some memories will never go away
And will forever be here

• Burzum – Lost Wisdom

Other planes lie beyond the reach
of normal sense and common roads
But they are no less real
than what we see or touch or feel
Denied by the blind church
'cause these are not the words of God

• Bathory – Sacrifice

Present at ungodly births
In holy paradise
I spread eternal dark on earth
And raped the mother of Christ

• Bathory – Shores in flames

Thor of thunder way up high
Swing your Hammer that cracks the sky
Send the wind to fill our sails and take us home
Guide your sons, us, home


Religion and the arts have always been carriers of myth. Since music as an art form has a wider appeal than most others, myth in music has been common across nations and genres. Whether one sings hymns in praise of God, chants praises of natural beauty, or rages against convention, myths are always useful in conveying an idea more powerfully. 

In the realm of Black Metal too, Satanic and Pagan myths are used mostly for artistic purposes than as ideology. Very few Black Metal artists admit to following Satanism in their everyday lives. Their dark costumes and stage ‘rituals’ are more for shock and entertainment value than anything else. There are crazed fans and extreme instances like the murder of the Thai Black Metal artiste are few and far between. 

Black Metal ‘arrived’ in India around the year 2000, but very little has happened since then. There are not more than five bands that play serious Black Metal. These bands are wholly inspired by their Western counterparts and their music is inspired by the same set of myths and ideas. Avid heavy metal follower and blogger, Devdutt Nawalkar succinctly sums up the Indian Black Metal scene, “There aren't any bands that make studied use of Satanic literature and symbols to the best of my knowledge. I can only think of Solar Deity from Bombay who claim to be influenced by Anton Lavey's cult of personality (the Satanic Bible is nothing but a trussed up self empowerment course), and Witchgoat from Bangalore who use various hackneyed cliches like inverted crosses, Baphomets and pentagrams as an ironical tool to make fun of black metal. Metal fans in India will regularly use flippant salutations like "Hail Satan" but it's little more than juvenile delinquency acted out to appeal to the outsider within. Indian Vedic literature has a formidable canon on atheism that deals with very pertinent questions of existence itself; we don't need to "Indianize" what is essentially a Judeo-Christian concept.”


This assignment was part of my PG Diploma Course in Comparative Mythology, at the Department of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai, for the academic year 2013-14, Sem. 2, Paper II. Images have been sourced from the Internet and none belong to me.