"The Ramayana is everywhere right now," marvels the Indian writer Samhita Arni. She has a point. In March, to some fanfare, the British Library digitally reunited disparate parts of a lavish 17th-century version of the Hindu epic. The same month, Narendra Modi, now the prime minister of India, was likened to the epic's hero-god Rama. Slightly less contentiously, the Glee star Lea Michele was recently linked with a role in a multimillion dollar animated version of the story by DreamWorks.
Arni's take on the tale of Prince Rama's quest to rescue his wife, Sita, from the clutches of the demon king Ravana doesn't quite have the fabulously attention-grabbing title of the movie. Little can compete with Bollywood Superstar Monkey, after all. But since its release last year, Arni's novel The Missing Queen has slowly but surely been attracting global attention for its pacey look at the Ramayana through the prism of contemporary India. This month, it has finally been published in the United States and has already been such a hit in Italy that Arni is set to visit for a summer book tour.
"I guess with the election we've just had, people are curious about India," she says. "And this book does try to offer some perspective about the state of affairs now in the country – even if it's told through a familiar story. I really believe that the epics are not static, they should be retold by every generation and when they are, they reflect that generation's anxieties and issues." Arni certainly has form where retelling epics from intriguing viewpoints is concerned. She had The Mahabharata: A Child's View published in 1996 when she was just 11 and her graphic novel Sita's Ramayana was a New York Times best seller in 2011.
In The Missing Queen, Ram is the ruler of prosperous Ayodhya, but confusion bedevils his regime as people ask difficult questions about his absent wife, Sita. His brother Lakshman is a fat office-bound army general and the Washerman, who, in Valmiki's original Ramayana, is the person who encourages Rama to send his wife into exile, is a secret police chief keeping tabs on a journalist looking for Sita.
"It felt quite natural to impose this contemporary setting on the Ramayana given that the metaphors in the story are still so much a part of the political and media discourse," says Arni. "The ideal state, the ideal man, the ideal leader – all of these topics from Ramayana form a part of the ideology of the Hindu nationalist movement today. Everywhere you go, you find Sita's footprint. I became fascinated by the way the epics interact with our daily lives in India."
Just as the graphic novel told the story through Sita's eyes, so The Missing Queen is stacked with strong female characters. Arni didn't want the book to be controversial for the sake of it – she says the risks she has taken with what can be seen as religious scripture can be defended – but it is a rebalancing of sorts.
"There are multiple tellings of the Ramayana and it is important to explore the differences, to get people asking questions about this idea of dharma," she says, referring to the elusive concept of duty, ethics and virtues. "One review of this book called me an 'obsessive Marxist feminist' – which is quite funny – but if I had to describe The Missing Queen I'd call it a speculative mythological feminist thriller. "
Luckily, The Missing Queen is nowhere near as dense as that might sound. Arni says one of her favourite authors is the crime writer Ian Rankin and her time working as a scriptwriter on a Kabul-based police drama confirms she knows her way around a compelling story. For now, she's finished with mythological epics and is writing a Bangalore-based comedy, but you sense Arni will come back to epics some day.
“My perspective has always been female, but in the future I’d like to explore what happens to men in war,” she admits.
• The Missing Queen (Penguin/Zubaan) is out now. Visit www.samarni.com