#DesiBooks10QA: Koral Dasgupta on re-visioning the tired stereotypes of motherhood

About the author:

Koral Dasgupta is an Indian author, currently working on The Sati Series, a five-book mythological fiction project with Pan Macmillan. This is a feminist retelling of the stories of Panch Kanya. Ahalya and Kunti have been released; three more volumes will be published shortly. Dasgupta is a compulsive storyteller. She has published six books with Westland, Niyogi, Rupa, and Pan Macmillan. She is the founder of tellmeyourstory.biz, a story laboratory with crowdsourced narratives that also popularizes academic research. Dasgupta consults with educational and corporate bodies for content and communication projects and workshops. She was recognized in the Innovator 25 Asia-Pacific 2019 List prepared by The Holmes Report, a New York based agency.

About the book:

Kunti grows up as royalty with leadership in her blood and power in her dreams. Restless curiosity and unflinching clarity about her inherent supremacy lands her in trouble. So she negotiates certain terms with Durvasa, Surya, Bhishma, Vidur, Pandu and, finally, Indra. A scholar and a warrior with battles beyond the sword, Kunti—one of the biggest matriarchs of ancient Indian history—establishes her primary identity as a visionary strategist and ambitious politician. The book calls for a re-visioning of the pervasive, patriarchally-perpetuated identity stereotype of motherhood as selfless, sacrificing, and compromising. The Sati Series is an important women’s narrative challenging the male-oriented versions of Hindu mythology, which have narrowed the scope of historical interpretations for centuries.

Koral Dasgupta’s Kunti: The Sati Series II calls for a re-visioning of the pervasive, patriarchally-perpetuated identity stereotype of motherhood as selfless, sacrificing, and compromising. #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

I never thought that I could or may want to be a writer. It happened. I’ve been a voracious reader of Bengali literature as a child. As a Bengali, some might expect that I read Rabindranath Tagore and Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay. But I had a great taste for comedy. I still carry Sukumar Ray’s (many may not know that the filmmaker Satyajit Ray came after two generations of authors in his family) collections with me. When I was a child, neighbors would know I was home because they would hear my laughter as I sat by the window, reading Ray. This author’s poetry, plays, and stories were zany humor but, when you read with a more grownup mindset, they’re incredible social and political satires. Other than Ray, Narayan Gangopadhyay was a friend I’ve never met. I was introduced to more women-oriented narratives of Suchitra Bhattacharjya, Bani Basu, Ashapurna Devi, Mahashweta Devi, and others much later. I also remember reading the Bengali translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata again and again. In fact, my holidays usually began with those ever-enduring voluminous books.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

The Mahabharata. From classics by Pratibha Ray, Rajshekhar Basu, to the seniors like Namita Gokhale and Chitra Divakaruni, to the contemporaries like Anuja Chandramouli and Saiswaroopa Iyer—I read them all and immersed myself in their brilliance.

I go back to Bibek Debroy whenever I have a doubt. His books are a great source of information. I must also name Irawati Karve’s Yuganta, which was our first point of reference when Pan Macmillan and I began discussing this series. Both Ahalya and Kunti have been created such that the shape of the books might be reminiscent of Yuganta.

“When I was a child, neighbors would know I was home because they would hear my laughter as I sat by the window, reading [Sukumar] Ray. This author’s poetry, plays, and stories were zany humor…” Koral Dasgupta #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

During one of the story projects with tellmeyourstory.biz, one contributor said that there should be books written on the mystic, magic, and supernatural of the northeastern mountains in India. This idea has stayed with me and I’m looking forward to explore it further in the days to come. One special name that comes to mind is Sukanta Bhattacharjya, who was called the rebel poet of Bengal. His works caused severe discomfort to those who cared. I wish he hadn’t passed away at the age of twenty-one because we’ve lost all that genius that had just started to come to light.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

Currently I am not reading a desi book but I will soon start reading The Blue Horse And Other Amazing Animals from Indian History by Nandini Sengupta. It’s about royal animals from Akbar’s reign and tells the history of war and existence. And Firesongs by Somrita Urni Ganguly (translation of Duronto Eegawl by Dinesh Chandra Chattopadhyay). My son and I read together every morning and I will read both of these with him. I just completed Tuhin A. Sinha’s Mission Shengzhan, an inter-country political thriller with the backdrop of the pandemic, and Kiran Manral’s More Things in Heaven and Earth, a psychological thriller with moving characters in a picturesque and mysterious bungalow in Goa. Whenever in doubt, I get myself one of Ruskin Bond’s works.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

If there is one work that I recommend most often, it is Dr. Dev Nath Pathak’s In Defense of the Ordinary: Everyday Awakenings. Humor, poetics, philosophy, and critique come together in a sociologist’s travels through the many layers and complications of the ‘ordinary’. A work I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

When I was small, my mother would get me to wake up early and complete the most brain-racking tasks during that hour of the day. I remember keeping the essay-writing for the mornings because thoughts flowed better at dawn (for me, at least) and I wasn’t exhausted with half a day’s chores already. I never memorized from or referred to other sources then; I preferred to write on my own. “Write early in the mornings” is one piece of advice that has continued to work wonders for me.

#WritingTip from Koral Dasgupta: “‘Write early in the mornings’ is one piece of advice that has continued to work wonders for me.” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

I get up very early and that is my only writing time. Those two hours, no one needs me and no one calls me. It is absolutely peaceful and blissful. The pandemic has been a period of great distress and disruption. But writing is meditation. When I’m working on my manuscript, it’s the best time of the day. I make the most of myself in those two hours after which I live in compartments of responsibilities. While writing Kunti, I was discovering many facets of mythological women and their worlds. I seldom have a story-graph with me. But I almost get to see the people and the spaces they are inhabiting. The story flows by itself more than me controlling it. Liberation itself is a motivation.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

Literature is a multi-way communication. When I’ve exhausted myself completely, and yet feel spiritually enriched, I take that as success. The next level of success is when the editor or publisher is truly happy with the manuscript and, even between reading many other submissions, finds the time to express their delight. Finally, when the readers connect with my writing, they come back with praises (sometimes they come back with criticism too.) When my works manage to elicit a constructive and logical response from the audience, it is great joy and great learning. That joy and learning is success. Like every professional, I have my own setbacks. The fact that those didn’t find a home inside my heart, didn’t cloud my literary sensibilities with vengeful bitterness, or make me overlook many colossal blessings, is something I would certainly call literary success.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

Writing is a very private process for me. I interact the least on the genre I am working on. I socialize sparingly. I have a few ‘go-to’ people—they are very senior and accomplished authors. I just get my clarifications or seek help if/when I need. Post-publication, many author friends have come forward to read, review, and spread the word. Also, each book introduces new friends from the authors I haven’t interacted with before and we begin fresh journeys and discussions.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

Indian women and, more broadly, South Asian women have been stereotyped on many counts. Their choices have been compromised and they have been intimidated with examples from the great epics. The epics have only told stories; how those stories are interpreted depends on the politics of the audience. For a very long time, the stories of the mythological women have been retold across generations with patriarchal convenience in mind. Also, in India, especially in Hindu households, the first stories told to children to shape their imagination and cultural pride are from the epics. They get to know about the bravery of Arjun, Krishna, Bhishma, and Rama. Parents or grandparents have not learned to discuss the greatness of Sita and Gargi, Chitrangada and Kunti, Draupadi and Mandodari, with young minds because they themselves are traditionally and patriarchally educated. I would love for books like Ahalya and Kunti to be read by such parents. My books propose that the flagbearers of the future aren’t fed with pride and belonging with respect to only one section of society. The first learning of the child then is far more inclusive. I believe that such expansion in critical thinking will shape more empathetic and creative decision-makers.

“Also, in India, esp in Hindu households, the first stories told to children to shape their imagination and cultural pride are from the epics.[…] I would love for books like Ahalya and Kunti to be read by parents.” Koral Dasgupta #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


Koral Dasgupta’s Kunti: The Sati Series II is out now. More at her website.

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