An interview with Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik
by Mukta Raut on June 13, 2013
Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik (born December 11, 1970) is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist and author whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, mythology, and also management. He has written a number of books related to Hindu mythology, over 15 of them, including Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata and The Pregnant King.
He is the chief belief officer of Future Group, one of India’s largest retailers, bringing the wisdom of Indian mythology into Indian business, especially in human resource management. He writes a column for the newspaper MiD DAY, is a story consultant for the Star TV group and also has the distinction of being a speaker at the first Indian TED conference in 2009. In an exclusive with IndiaBookStore, Dr. Pattanaik shares his thoughts on various subjects like Indian pluralism, his writing and beliefs and the dreaded writer's block!
1. What do we find on Devdutt Pattanaik's bookshelf?
Lots of research books based on folklore and mythology. And then popular fiction books like ‘Game of Thrones’.
2. There's a line from one of your talks that particularly resonated with the 'Indian' in a lot of us. You said that in Sanskrit, there is no word for 'chaos'. This is because we do not perceive 'chaos'. We perceive multiple orders. So what's chaotic to me is systematic to someone else. It's a beautiful, poetic notion. How do I reconcile it when I'm stuck on a flyover between a truck and a overburdened rickshaw? In other words, what role does (or can) myth play in getting through every day life?
You reconcile to the fact that the world does not exist for you alone and there are people in this world who live either more fortunate lives than you (they fly around in helicopters) or less fortunate than you (they drive that truck and that rickshaw to earn a living). We imagine the world should be a place to give us satisfaction and grumble when reality does not match our imagination.
3. The theme of pluralism is fairly dominant in your perception of the Indian narrative and the Indian way of thinking. For example, in several instances, you have cited that the U.S. Dollar has only one language while the Indian Rupee has seventeen. In recent times, though, there has been such a clamp in the Indian scene on freedom of speech and expression (ban on Rushdie, ban on M.F. Hussain's works, mandate to Karan Johar to change 'Bombay' to 'Mumbai' in 'Wake Up Sid', ban on Ramanujan's essay on the '300 Ramayans'). Do you think this idea of the Indian pluralism is still true?
We are learning to be more and more Westernized while the West is learning to be more and more Indian. Such is the way of things. We crave to be what we are not. We aspire for the other. So Indians hate Indian diversity that leads to inefficiency while the West is waking up to the fact that their developmental models has inadequacies and unanticipated consequences.
4. Apologies if we're getting reductionist about this…but from Business Sutra, are there any paradigms you think apply to entrepreneurs especially?
All of them because it is about people and relationships that are integral to any business but usually come low on the list of priorities, until it is too late, as we see in major organizations today that have talent crisis.
5. You were a medical doctor earlier and now you are a Chief Belief Officer. From medicine to myths – what similarities do you see in the two disciplines? Did medicine, in any way, prepare you for the work you do today?
I worked in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry and was never a clinician. To understand myth, you have to understand evolutionary psychology as well the aging and sexual dimorphism, so a medical background helps. My medical background enabled me to be organized, analytical and separate the root cause from symptoms. Very useful in a the clutter of myths, folklore, legend and rituals.
6. When you started writing, when you were first published, were you apprehensive about the reaction your work would receive?
I was first published in 1997, with the book ‘Shiva-an introduction’, by VFS publishers. I never doubted that my book was unique and filling a need of the market, but it took me time to appreciate how much distribution and marketing plays a role in sales. What surprised me was the reactions of many Indians – the essential discomfort with all things Indian.
7. What plays a more important role in the making of a good writer? Nature or nurture?
Both. You need to have something within you to communicate. And you need hard work and ability to hear and take criticism, which you develop over time.
8. Which other books that interpret Indian mythology have you liked?
Over the years, the books I have liked have fallen by the wayside as I have realized their incompleteness and prejudice, for most writers are from Europe and America and do have a colonial or paternalistic attitude towards their own belief systems. Today, I realize that is the nature of Western culture – the burning of books of the past and the overindulgence of the present.
9. When you write, what kind of daily discipline do you follow?
My best writing happens in the morning after I wake up and in the silence of the day I make my coffee and sit on my computer. By noon, the energy tapers off. And I do other things – nourish my body with food, exercise my body (if I can) or indulge my mind with films and friends. This does not happen on days I have to travel and give lectures or workshops.
10. What about writer's block? Do you get them? How do you tackle that?
I submit to it. Don’t fight it. Do something else. I realize cleaning and organizing my cupboards helps me deal with writer’s block.
11. Making a myth a little personal now. What does your name mean? Do you live up to it in some way, with the work you do?
My name means ‘gift of god’ – it is Arjun’s conch shell trumpet and the name of Buddha’s envious cousin. So I guess, I do communicate like one and feel inadequate like the other.
12. Imagine this scene: You check your email one afternoon. There's a mail asking you for the rights of one of your books to be made into a movie. Now, answer the following questions based on your preferences:
a. Which book would you want to see on the silver screen?…Pregnant King
b. Who would direct it?…. Vishal Bharadwaj
c. Who'd be the cast?… Prithviraj (Yuvanashva) and Vidya Balan (Shilavati)
d. Who'd write the screenplay?….Me
e. Who'd do the music?….Vishal Bharadwaj
IndiaBookStore thanks Mr. Pattanaik for taking time out from hisbusy schedule for this interview. We wish the author all the best for his future endeavors! To know more about the author and his works, do have a look at his website.