Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik was released at the right juncture when the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) struggle for dignity came to the fore in India. Homosexuality, often considered a taboo today, has existed eons ago. In this book, Pattanaik has explored the theme of queerness and gender fluidity, and has given the readers a glimpse into the stories of the queer that have adorned the chapters of the Hindu mythology.
The book begins with the mention of queer sexual behaviour as depicted in various cultures across the world. Further, Pattanaik explores the discovery of queerness in different times and cultures. The author talks about patriarchy, feminism and queerness with an intent to make the reader understand that everything is accepted in the realm of this vast universe with equal respect and dignity.
During the course of the book, the author makes an important point that the soul has no gender. Pattanaik accomplishes this through one of the most striking passages in the book: “Feminism, the idea that men and women are equal is, however, discovered in Hinduism as the scriptures point to the difference between the soul and the flesh. The soul has no gender. Gender comes from the flesh. The unenlightened value the flesh, hence gender, over the soul. Such a unenlightened being values the male flesh over the female flesh, the young flesh over the old flesh, flesh encased in fair skin rather than dark skin, the property owned by that flesh, the family to which that flesh belongs, the stature of that flesh in society. The enlightened see the flesh purely in functional terms: they venerate both the devadasi, who offered her body to everyone, and the sanyasi, who offered his body to no one.”
This thought sets the tone for 30 stories on gender fluidity, sexual identity and queerness from the Hindu mythology. There are stories of male gods who took the form of female gods to destroy evil, of a king who wanted a man in the adjacent tomb, and of people who were neither men nor women but were welcomed with open arms in Ayodhya. The stories go to show that the society then, embraced queerness. The cruel irony today, however, is that though we worship these immortals despite and for their queerness, we are not ready to accept the mortals for their queerness.
The stories are written from a cultural point of view without being rhetorical. Through this book, Pattanaik manages to raise questions but does not take sides. Through lucid narration, the author manages to drive home a crucial point–all things queer are also part of nature. Interestingly, in places, the footnotes are longer than the stories, however, not without a glimpse into the author’s perspective on a debatable subject such as sexuality. The author’s meticulous research on mythology is commendable and the beautiful illustrations across the book are the icing on the cake, as is the case with Pattanaik’s books.
Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You is recommended for those who are interested in the Hindu mythology. And to those who are intrigued by the thought that ‘queer’ was a part of the uniquely diverse Hindu mythology. Just as well as stories on queerness are told in the book, stories on platonic friendships warm the cockles of your heart equally. All in all, it is a befitting tribute to all those who are here, there and in between.