Apr 12, 2018

Folktales not myths; region not religion || A guest post by Sayantani Dasgupta

Hello bookworms. First of all, to all my fellow tamil and Sri Lankan readers, happy new year! 

Today, I am extremely excited about the post I have for you all. We have a guest post by the amazing Sayantani Dasgupta, author of The Serpent's Secret, a fabulous desi MG which is hands down one of the most exciting 2018 books. Moreover, I am even more excited about what the guest post is about, it's a topic that I myself have always had strong feelings for - the blurred lines between mythology, history, religion and folktales when it comes to talking about culturally diverse books, especially but not limited, to desi books.

The first time I heard someone describing my middle grade fantasy novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic, February 2018), as based on Indian myths, I reacted badly. “No, I based the story on Bengali folktales,” I immediately corrected. My frustration was met with confusion. “Isn’t that what I said?”

But folktales about tricksters and heroes are not the same as myths about gods and goddesses (think Jack and the Beanstalk vs. Zeus and Osiris), and regional tales enjoyed by communities of various faiths are not the same as religiously based stories. These distinctions are particularly important for those of us of South Asian heritage in the subcontinent and throughout the diaspora, particularly those of us who seek to resist divides along religious lines, and celebrate our common Desi histories.

As an Indian immigrant daughter growing up in the U.S., my connection to my heritage was mediated by stories. Of course, there were the fantastic folk stories my grandmothers told me that inspired The Serpent’s Secret, stories filled with flesh eating rakkhosh, evil serpents, brave princes and princesses, and wise cracking birds. But there were other stories too. My maternal grandfather, who was jailed at age 15 as a freedom fighter by the British due to his participation in the Chittagong Armory Raid (an area now in Bangladesh), told me of the pride he took in being a secular Indian, someone who put the dream of a self-reliant and self-governing homeland far above religion. In addition, although my parents were born in India, both of their families were originally “from that other shore” – from what is now Bangladesh – and so there were stories about that history too, what life was like under British rule in Dhaka, Chittagong, and Burma (now Myanmar). I heard stories about a time when people of multiple faiths lived happily and peacefully as friends and neighbors. And then of course, I heard stories about Partition, the splitting of Bengal in two (into the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of East Pakistan – which later became Bangladesh) and the terrible communal violence thereafter.

The 1947 Partition of South Asia has been called by writer William Dalrymple as “central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.”  It is a historical event that casts its shadow upon us even today, causing rifts between South Asians of different faiths, encouraging our antagonisms as if they were pre-ordained and inevitable.

Yet, most of the Bengali stories I drew from to write The Serpent’s Secret are from a pre-partition history. These are folk stories that are still very much enjoyed by Bengali-speaking Indians and Bangladeshis, by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and any other faith. Of course, I fully acknowledge that these stories are interpreted through my own particular lens and my own particular identities. But to gloss over that shared heritage – to claim that Bengali folk stories are unique to Indians or particular to Hindus – is to commit a type of cultural violence that I utterly and categorically resist. These rich stories belong to all of us of Bengali heritage, not just some; they unite us in our shared history. (I mean, what better unifier of people of multiple nations and faiths than a cannibalistic, drooling, rhyming rakkhosh demon?)

The Serpent’s Secret is a fun and fast paced fantasy adventure about a 12 year old girl from New Jersey who must return to her parents’ homeland (“The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers” – the make-believe land that most Bengali folktales take place) to fight demons and monsters, while finding out the truth about her own strength and her own origins. In the process of publishing it, I, as its author, have had to re-discover and re-articulate the strength of my own beliefs; I have had to resist convenient national or religious categories, and remember with joy the words of the Bangladesh national anthem, written by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore: “My golden Bengal, I love you. All my days, your skies, your breeze set my heart’s flute to sing.”

Title : The Serpent's Secret
Author : Sayantani Dasgupta
Publisher : Scholastic
Release Date : February 27th 2018
Synopsis :


(But she doesn’t know it yet.)

On the morning of her twelfth birthday, Kiranmala is just a regular sixth grader living in Parsippany, New Jersey… until her parents mysteriously vanish later that day and a rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. Turns out there might be some truth to her parents’ fantastical stories—like how Kiranmala is a real Indian princess—and a wealth of secrets about her origin they've kept hidden.

To complicate matters, two crushworthy Indian princes ring her doorbell, insisting they’re here to rescue her. Suddenly, Kiran is swept into another dimension full of magic, winged horses, moving maps, and annoying, talking birds. There she must solve riddles and slay demons all while avoiding the Serpent King of the underworld (who may or may not want to kill her) and the rakkhosh queen (who definitely does) in order to find her parents and basically save New Jersey, her entire world, and everything beyond it…

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