I’m delighted to welcome for the second time to my blog the author Shveta Thakrar, whose second YA novel The Dream Runners was published by HarperCollins last year. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Star Daughter and this one's even better. Shveta weaves into her YA fantasies all kinds of mystical beings from Hindu legends and sacred texts, and Holly Black describes her writing as ‘beautiful as starlight’. In this post, Shveta retells the story of the enmity between the nagas and garudas, describes the creative thinking behind her novel, and challenges us to consider ways to turn old enmities into friendships.
We all know about faerie courts. Night Courts and Bright Courts, Seelie and Unseelie. But what of nagas and garudas?
Dream Runners, the second in my Night Market triptych of YA fantasy
novels based on various aspects of Hindu mythology, started out as an answer to
that question. I’d finished all work on Star
Daughter, and my editor reached out to ask me what was next. I took
some time to ponder that. I knew I loved changelings and faerie courts, but I
wasn’t ready to stop writing about Hindu mythology and folklore when I’d really
only just begun.
|Garuda devouring a naga|
Then it struck me: I already knew of a similar scenario, that of the ancient mythical war between the nagas—serpent shape-shifters—and their cousins and mortal enemies, the garudas—eagle shape-shifters. With such sharp lines of division, these two groups might as well be two opposing courts. In fact, since I am a storyteller, allow me now to tell you their tale.
(There are, of course, different variations and even different narratives, but this is the version I learned as a child. And if you enjoy it, I highly recommend seeking out a series of comic books called Amar Chitra Katha, which recount many Indian myths and legends.)
Long, long ago, in the time of the Mahabharata, there were two sisters, the elder called Vinata and the younger Kadru, daughters of Lord Daksha. Wed to the same rishi—sage—Kashyapa, both sisters bore children by him after requesting that boon: Vinata gave birth to two eggs, which contained Arun, who later became Lord Surya’s charioteer, and Garuda, while Kadru gave birth to a thousand eggs, from which emerged the first nagas.
One day, Kadru, known for her wily nature, challenged Vinata to name the color of the tail of Uchchaihshravas, the divine horse born from Samudra Manthan, the churning of the Cosmic Ocean of Milk. However, the wager came with a cost: should Vinata answer incorrectly, she and her son would then become enslaved to Kadru and her brood. If she answered correctly, the reverse would be true. The question seemed simple enough, and as the seven-headed horse was radiantly white from head to toe, Vinata guessed that his equine tail was white.
But Kadru had been scheming. She sent her children, the nagas, to cover Uchchaihshravas’s tail, then brought her sister to see him. “Black,” she pronounced, and her unfortunate sister had no choice but to agree.
The humiliation of being proven wrong would have been unpleasant but bearable, had that been the only consequence. Of course, it was not, and so Vinata and Garuda began their indenture, waiting upon her sister and her nieces and nephews. Watching his mother endure their abuse was an indignity Garuda could not accept, and from that day forward, he nursed a grudge against his cousins, stoking the fires of his hatred.
At last, having grown mighty, with a wingspan that could block the sun, he demanded of Kadru that she free Vinata. Kadru, naturally, would do no such thing without a price: the amrit from the heavenly realm of Svargalok. Garuda then fought all the gods in the realm, even Lord Indra, and came away with the nectar. Kadru freed her sister and instructed Garuda to distribute the amrit amidst her children.
|Garuda returns with the vase of Amrita|
However, Lord Indra had beseeched him not to grant it to the nagas, so instead, Garuda commanded them to wash and purify themselves before they could imbibe. While they did so, Indra’s son, Jayanta, stole the vessel back. When the nagas returned, Garuda consumed them all.
(Yet in the contradictory way of mythology, there are still more nagas and later a race of garudas, who continue this enmity forever more.)
And that, gentle reader, is why eagles eat snakes.
I’ve always been fascinated by this story—and the antics people get up to when they have no true purpose driving them—so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I had initially used it in my first attempt at a novel, now trunked. But when my editor came calling, it occurred to me that I could cannibalize elements from that trunked novel and incorporate them into what became The Dream Runners. By then, I had become a skilled enough writer to do the myth justice.
That original attempt featured a human main character named Sameer, who became relegated to a tertiary character in The Dream Runners, while his girlfriend, the delightful and audacious nagini Princess Asha, now took on a greater role as a secondary character. I also—of course—resurrected the magical bar with its enchanted libations such as silver wine (distilled moonlight) and set it in the Night Market from Star Daughter, thus connecting the two books.
Meanwhile, two new characters, Tanvi, a dream runner who starts waking up, and Venkat, the dreamsmith she previously sold her harvested dreams to in return for a beloved bracelet, ran away with the story of boons and dreams and arranged marriages between naga clans, all set against the backdrop of the mythological war between the garudas and the nagas.
And so, The Dream Runners became my loving fanfiction of the original myth.
Myths exist for many reasons, one of which is to reflect our lives back to us. I cannot help but see the connections between things, and I think a lot about interpersonal communication, empathy, and what plays out on the world stage when we forget that we’re connected and view others as our rivals, if not as our enemies. When we forget that, as the Sanskrit saying goes, we are all one world family: वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम (vasudhaiva kutumbakam), we harm both others and ourselves.
As in the myth, that fundamental truth gets dismissed again and again in a dog-eat-dog global society focused on greed for the few at the cost of the rest. Though I didn’t intend it, there’s definitely an anticapitalist slant to The Dream Runners. I might not have realized that’s what I was writing in Tanvi and her harvesting, but I stand by it.
So, returning to the matter at hand: What do you do once a war has calcified into what appears to be inevitability, and seemingly unmovable, unbreachable lines have been drawn? When you hurt me, so now I must hurt you, and because I hurt you, you will now hurt me?
How do we break old cycles of violence and hatred?
I won’t spoil how my characters choose to solve that problem, but I personally believe that we need to find answers to these questions. Our world depends on it. I wrote The Dream Runners to be a magical escape for my readers, to celebrate Hindu mythology and shine a spotlight on the beings lesser known in the West, but also to get us to consider if there might be alternatives to the way it’s always been. If we can write a new ending to an old story.
I invite you to start writing yours.
The Dream Runners by Shveta Thakrar, HarperTeen. Cover art by Charlie Bowater
Garuda devouring a naga: Painting at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok, Wikipedia
Uchchaihshavras: origin unknown: https://www.quora.com/What-is-known-about-Uchchaihshravas
Garuda returns with the vase of Amrita: V&A collections