Book Review — Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths by Devdutt Pattanaik

Cover of Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek MythsThe Book…

Title: Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year: 2016
Price: INR 499/-

The book is a fairly comprehensive if highly simplified ‘retelling’, as its title implies, of Greek myths including Roman narrations (sources include Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid). The key selling point is that these stories are interspersed with qualifications and comparisons to Indian myths Ved Vyas’ Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Puranas). The problem, however, is that Indian myths are fundamentally different from Greek myths. There are, as Devdutt himself acknowledges, more points of divergence than convergence and any similarity is only superficial.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the highly abridged nature of the stories, the book does not adequately engage the reader. Add to that the highly populated and maddeningly confusing family trees which are the very nature of these stories! Uninitiated and dispassionate readers — if there are any — will find the experience rather bland. Also, the notes remarking on Hindu myths require a fair amount of prior knowledge to actually be of use.

Devdutt PattanaikAs such, the book will not impress the seasoned student nor engage the uninvolved newcomer. But for the engrossed newbie and also for people — like me — who are about chest-deep in the irresistible currents of these tales, it is a must-read. The emphasis is on relevant structure rather than the minutest detail. But this is not at the expense of clarity — which means there are a lot of names and bloodlines to keep track of. It is a book I will frequently return to for quick patches to cracks in my mythological armour.

If I may…

If I have one person to thank for my love of mythology, it is Devdutt Pattanaik who is ‘a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion’. Sometime in 2012 — or was it 2013? — I stumbled upon this TED Talk which cast me headlong into mythology. The story of Alexander and the gymnosophist offered a tantalising peek into what could only be a fascinating world. How could I resist? How could anyone resist?

Whether it is Manmohan Singh calling out the ‘drawing room Cassandras’ after the success of liberalization or John Milton invoking the ‘sisters of the sacred well’ in Lycidas or Rumbemo Kithan  talking about what seemed like a ‘Sisyphean task’ when he was grappling with the civil services exams or the IT guy discovering a ‘Trojan’ on your hard drive or the local church organising an ‘Orpheus Hunt’ or perhaps the local police officer declaring that the police would ‘leave no stone unturned’ to find the missing child,  they are all drawing upon Greek mythology. All of these references have stories that are guaranteed to fascinate you.

Interested? Get the book!