A Young Houston Author Brings a Feminist Perspective to Ancient Hindu Myths in ‘Goddess of the River’

A Young Houston Author Brings a Feminist Perspective to Ancient Hindu Myths in ‘Goddess of the River’

“DO YOU KNOW how a river forms?” is the question that begins Houston author Vaishnavi Patel’s new book, Goddess of the River. The voice belongs to Ganga, goddess of India’s Ganges river, who has been transformed against her will by Lord Shiva from “a tributary of the cosmic ocean” into the physical form of a mere winding river, with no path to the heavens, only the sea. Later, Ganga runs afoul of a powerful sage who transforms her yet again into a human, and as it happens in myths, things get complicated.

Drawing from the revered, ancient Hindu poem the Mahābhārata, Goddess of the River reimagines its complex war story from the perspective of a woman. “In a lot of these epics, most of the women don’t have voices, or are very secondary to the men,” says Patel, whose first novel Kaikey stars the eponymous queen from another Hindu myth, the Rāmāyaṇa. “Giving voice to those women and having them be much more active agents in shaping the world around them is important.”

Growing up in Chicago, Patel first heard these stories from her maternal grandmother, who traveled from India each summer to visit the family and at lunchtime, retold the fantastic and labyrinthian plotlines of theMahābhārata from memory. Mesmerized, Patel and her younger sister asked to hear these stories again and again, and each time, their grandmother told them a little differently. But she always began with Ganga and the goddess’s warrior son, Bhishma.

Years later, when studying the Mahābhārata, Patel was surprised to discover Ganga is treated like a supporting character. “She kind of fell away,” says Patel, “and that’s what sparked my curiosity about the importance of Ganga’s story to the epic.”

Like most myths, the Mahābhārata explores struggles and intersection of divine and earthbound beings, something Patel also experienced while writing Goddess of the River. “In 2022, I launched my first book, graduated law school, got married, took the bar, and got really sick,” says Patel, who was enjoying success as a bestselling author while battling a severe, undiagnosed infection. When treatment finally arrived, Patel spent several months in recovery, unable to do the things she loved to do, including climbing and swimming. Writing kept her sane. “I could still feel I was interacting with the world in a meaningful way without having to leave my house,” says Patel. “It was a real support for me during that time.”

Patel, now 28, and her husband relocated from New York to Houston in August 2023. She juggles a career as a clerk in the federal district court of Texas with writing, and her next book, Ten Incarnations of Rebellion, will be released next year. Not surprisingly, Patel’s storytelling grandmother is one of her biggest fans.

“Last time she was here, she took a suitcase full of my books back to India,” Patel laughs, “which was really funny to explain to customs!”

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