Arshia Sattar has a Ph.D. in classical Indian literature from the University of Chicago. She works with the Sanskrit epics and storytelling traditions of India. Her abridged translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, published in Penguin Classics, is regarded as one of the definitive presentations of the epic in English. She has written a number of books on Hindu mythology for younger readers including the bestselling Ramayana for Children and Garuda and the Serpents. This week we spoke to her about her love for these epics.
Q. Do you remember when and where did you first encounter the Mahabharata?
AS: No, I actually don’t remember my first encounter with Mahabharata like so many other Indians. It’s as if the story was always known. Little by little, as you grow, you hear more and more stories from the text, and one day, you decide to put them all together in a coherent narrative and you say that you know the Mahabharata. but there is always one more story that hasn’t quite reached you or one that you’ve forgotten. so you’re never actually done with the Mahabharata.
Q. You have translated and written extensively on both Ramayana and Mahabharata. What is it about these epics that resonates with you?
AS: They’re both fantastic stories, even when they’re retold. Because the retellings respond to a place and time, the stories always feel relevant. They contain the big questions of human life, the questions that we have never fully answered — questions of right and wrong, of love and loyalty, of death and what happens to us after. These questions are universal and so Ramayana and Mahabharata really do belong to the world. they can be read and appreciated by anyone.
Q. With the variety of fantasy books available in the market, do you think children and young adults of the 21st century will still read Mahabharata?
AS: Yes, of course, they will. These are also stories that expand the imagination, they’re filled with magical creatures and superhuman feats of strength. There’s adventure and excitement, there are journeys and battles and the sweetness of coming home.
Q. What is your favourite part of the story?
AS: There are so many wonderful parts, it really depends on my mood or the time of day or the weather. There’s something for everyone in these stories — an incident, a character, a moment of truth. Older people and younger readers will all find something that speaks to them in both Ramayana and Mahabharata.