Book Review: The Kathasaritasagara of Somadeva by Meena Arora Nayak

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  • ISBN: 978-8194874157
  • Genre: Fiction, Mythological fiction, Legends
  • Publisher: Aleph Book Company (10 December 2020)  
  • Price: INR 999/-

About the Book

One of India’s greatest epics, The Kathasaritsagara is thought to have been compiled around 1070 CE by Somadeva Bhatt, during the reign of Raja Ananta of the Lohara dynasty of Kashmir. Even though this extraordinary work is one of the longest creations in Indian and world literature, it is considered to be only a small part of an even longer work called Brihatkatha, composed by Gunadhya in a lost language known as Paisachi. Somadeva collected and retold the stories of The Kathasaritsagara in Sanskrit to entertain Raja Ananta’s wife, Suryavati. This masterpiece is foundational for many of India’s best-loved folk tale traditions, such as Vetala Pachisi and Panchatantra, and it has influenced many of the world’s best-known classics, including One Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales. 

In addition, contemporary writers like Salman Rushdie have drawn from the work in books like Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Within its vast frame, The Kathasaritsagara has several hundred stories that owe their origin to India’s limitless storehouse of myth, scripture, and folklore. Snake gods rub shoulders with enchanted princesses, and heroic warrior-kings battle rakshasas tall as the sky and wide as the ocean. Celestial apsaras seduce handsome princes, wise prostitutes counsel errant husbands, fools parley with ghouls, and riddlers and talking monkeys pace through the tales. 

Here you will find talking birds and swindlers, beggars and conjurers, sages and polymaths, divine beings and semidivine vidyadharas, yakshas and yoginis, walking corpses and sleeping giants, and a host of other remarkable creatures mingling with ordinary men and women in a multitude of magical kingdoms, enchanted islands, and forbidding forests in the three worlds—heaven, earth, and the netherworld. And through this skein of stories contained in eighteen books, Somadeva spins tales of love, infidelity, death, rebirth, sacrifice, fulfilment, courage, cowardliness, honesty, untruth, separation, togetherness, joy, sadness, and much, much more. The central story of this epic revolves around the son of the famed Raja Udayana, Naravahanadatta, and his marital quests, in the course of which he acquires numerous wives, encounters a host of memorable characters, and wins supremacy over the mystical vidyadharas. Meena Arora Nayak’s brilliant new retelling of The Kathasaritsagara, the first major rendition of the epic in a quarter century, closely follows the adventures of Naravahanadatta and brings these ancient tales to new and enthralling life.

About the Author 

Meena Arora Nayak is the author of The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India; three novels, Endless Rain, About Daddy, and In the Aftermath; a children’s book, The Puffin Book of Legendary Lives; and a monograph, Evil in the Mahabharata. Her stories are included in the anthologies The City of Sin and Splendour and Enhanced Gravity.

Book Review

I remember being told about the Kathasaritasagara of Somadeva by my grandfather when I was a kid. Though I might not remember the stories he narrated from this, I do remember the thrill these stories brought to our minds. Summer afternoons spent lazing on the huge swing in the main room of the old house at my granny's place with endless sessions of story-telling - surrounded by my cousins these memories were rekindled when I read this book.

To begin with, I would like to comment on the beautiful cover of the book. It is a brilliant design, extremely eyecatching in shades of gold and blue which does ample justice to the whole theme of these stories. Also, a small note - this book is a heavy read both in terms of size and content. One needs to be patient to enjoy the beauty of the stories and the book.

The Kathāsaritsāgara ("Ocean of the Streams of Stories") is a famous 11th-century collection of Indian legends, fairy tales and folk tales as retold in Sanskrit by the Shaivite Somadeva. Kathāsaritsāgara contains multiple layers of story within a story and is said to have been adopted from Guṇāḍhya's Bṛhatkathā, which was written in a poorly-understood language known as Paiśācī. The work is no longer extant but several later adaptations still exist — the Kathāsaritsāgara, Bṛhatkathamanjari and Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha. (Source)

This book is a retelling of the famous collection from the 11th century. 

Meena Arora Nayak's efforts at recreating these stories without losing out on their essence and retain the enthralling element in each one of them are truly commendable. Though the stories end with a moral, they are not preachy in the sense of making a reader feel uncomfortable. The lessons are deeply imbibed in the narrative in a manner that leaves the reader thinking. 

The stories are narrated by a character to another and the chain keeps continuing till the end. This adds to the layers of the narrative with characters reappearing and there is a strange continuity within these stories which is extremely engaging. Interlacing themes like love, hatred, death, life, and other nuances of life with finer detailing, these stories strike a chord effortlessly for a reader. 

However, the stories need not be read in a sequence. I found this collection to be like Pandora's box. I picked any story randomly and started reading it, only to be amazed by the narrative. These stories have a voice of their own, the characters though intertwined, have a shape of their own and their voices is what connects deeply with the reader. 

There were many portions when I was transported back to my childhood as they reminded me of Panchtantra and Hitopedesha stories. This collection has the power to make you forget everything around you and simply mesmerize you with its powerful storytelling. 

This book is an amazing retelling and the Nayak deserves full credits for her efforts to bring this project to fruition. This is one gift that every book lover would cherish and love to pass onto future generations as a keep sake. These stories need to be read, experienced, and re-read only to retold again. 

Such collections are a beautiful reminder of our classics which are on the verge of extinction. And for this, I have always commended Aleph Book Company. Their ability to bring up collections of stories from Indian writing ranging from translations to retellings is simply mind-blowing. They are a name to reckon with if you are looking for quality literature in Indian Writing. 

Strongly recommended for the flair of language, the beauty of writing, and the captivating stories in this collection!

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