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Deciphering the Forest: A Journey from an Intellectual Concern to a Lived Experience

By Sohini Naiya and Smriti Singh


The graphic novel Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (2019) by mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik and illustrator and author Amruta Patil is related to the 3000-year-old Vedic literature and the central significance of forests in Vedic mythology. The central theme revolves around natural elements and the world around us. It shows human transactions in the forests and how life evolves amidst nature. This study discusses how blurry the lines between self and others are and whether we truly “see” others and, in turn, ourselves. Domestication and civilization distance us from nature. This paper intends to discuss the tactics, manipulation, and consumption of space in everyday life that the protagonist Katyayani, her husband Yajnavalkya, and others employ within the setting of the dense, dark forest. The forest here acts as a psychological forest, where Katyayani’s inner self is transformed and which, for Yajnavalkya, serves as a place where he appears in the quest for knowledge. This paper further aims to show how, in Aranyaka: Book of the Forest, spatial changes take place in the forest using the concepts of human geographer Yu Fu Tuan, philosopher and psychoanalyst Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, French psychoanalyst and philosopher. The paper also looks at what role the forest plays in the self-awakening of the female protagonist, Katyayani.

Keywords: Forest, Topophobia-Topophilia, Smooth-Striated space, shapes-patterns, Seeing the other. 


The term “graphic novel” was first used by fan historian Richard Kyle in an essay published in the comics fanzine Capa-Alpha’s 1964 edition. The phrase gained prominence in the comics world after the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978). Considered to be the first Indian graphic novel, River of Stories (1994), written and illustrated by Orijit Sen, was published in 1994. Since then, the medium has flourished in India, and graphic novels have emerged as powerful tools for addressing topics that are still primarily related to mythology and superheroes, as seen in Devrajan’s Chakra (2017) and Ashok K. Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya (2003), as well as for examining social, cultural, and political issues, as seen in Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor (2004), Amruta Patil’s Kari (2008), S. Anand’s Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability (2011), Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir (2015), etc.

Writer and illustrator, Amruta Patil is India’s first female graphic novelist. Patil’s Kari is the first queer novel in India. She is the author of the Mahabharata-based Parva duology: Adi Parva (2012) and Sauptik (2016). She was awarded the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Nari Shakti Puraskar award. As expressed by Patil and Pattanaik, the story and the art of this graphic novel are done by Patil herself, and the concepts are of the renowned mythologist Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik (“Algebra: Amruta Patil”, 00:1:12-53) Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is a speaker and illustrator and has authored almost seventy books on mythology, fiction, children’s literature, and business management. 

Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (2019) features a protagonist named Katyayani who is bodily large, has a big appetite. She recounts a tale about seekers and learners, pupils, and teachers. It begins with the history of how lives emerged on earth and how domestication and civilization distance us from nature.  The narrative intricately weaves together three central female characters – the Large, the Weaver, and the Fig (the three rishikas – Katyayani, Gargi, and Maitreyi), who help us unravel humankind. Aranyaka is not only the forest around us but also addresses the wilderness within us (“In Conversation with Graphic Novelist – Amruta Patil” 00:14:20-30). The story starts with voluptuous Katyayani, who has been thrown out of the village for gluttony. Then, the story progresses with the character’s sojourn into the forest and her understanding of how forest life is so simple and enlightening. The novel also questions if wisdom can only be introduced in the classroom and the head is the only way to access suggestions or if there are other ways (“Amruta Patil On Her New Graphic Novel”, 00:10:12-25). The novel also provokes us to think if food is solely to satiate hunger, is a temporary replacement for a greater hunger/thirst in life, or if we feed others in the hope of being fed by them later. The illustrations are amazing throughout the book and they have many layers.

This article argues that the narrative of Katyayani’s journey from apprehension towards the forest to her eventual acclimatization and self-realization, culminating in establishing her own habitat, serves as a tale of transformation and personal growth. This transformation is mirrored in the deliberate choices made by Katyayani and Yajnavalkya in constructing their new space, which prioritizes security and ownership. The shift from an untamed forest to a structured habitat represents a transition from a wild, organic expanse to a more controlled environment. Additionally, the graphic novel’s deliberate use of shapes and patterns reflects the authors’ intent to create a visually structured narrative. In summary, this article argues that the forest space profoundly shapes personal growth, and intentional spatial design is crucial in influencing human experiences. The crux of my argument also is: Do forests inherently possess a lesser significance compared to civilizations? Is it not plausible for a forest to serve as a locus for profound transformation? Is it implausible for individuals to glean valuable life lessons through their immersion in a forest environment? If these premises hold, then the question arises: Why were individuals subjected to exile in forested regions during both the Vedic and post-Vedic eras? If the sylvan life failed to contribute to their self-enlightenment or impart the wisdom of life’s intricate philosophies, then the rationale behind such punitive exile to the forest becomes a matter warranting scrutiny.

Literature Review and Objective

This section reviews the existing literature on Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik’s graphic novel, Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (2019). In their article, “Ecopoetics and Aranya in the graphic novel Aranyaka: Book of the Forest” (2021), Shivani Sharma and Annapurna Rath present a critical analysis of the graphic novel. They analyze complex visual and verbal metaphors (Sharma & Rath 1-9). In “Multi-modal engagement with Aranya: appropriating ecological awareness in Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik’s graphic tale Aranyaka: Book of the Forest” (2021), Somasree Sarkar and Goutam Karmakar deal with multi-modal narratology and then they focus on the ecological consciousness in Indian literary and visual practices with special reference to the graphic novel, Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (2019) (Sarkar & Karmakar 1-22). Cynthia Rose J. S. and Bhuvaneswari R., in their article “Anthropomorphism in Indian Visual Narratives,” (2022) identify some of the degrees of anthropomorphism noted in Indian visual narratives (Rose J. S. & R 1-8). In “An Eco-spiritual Reading of Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik’s Aranyaka: Book of the Forest,” (2020). Tanushree Ghosh argues how the authors challenge the traditional perception of Katyayani, portraying her as the forest-goddess figure and questioning the hierarchical nature-culture dualism, contributing to the discourse on Indian spiritual understanding of nature within ecocritical and eco-spiritual frameworks (Ghosh 131-139). 

Although these narratives deal with ecology, visual symbols, and anthropocene, they have not talked about the spatial changes that takes place in the graphic novel. Taking insights from Yi Fu Tuan’s concepts of topophobia and topophilia and Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of smooth space and striated space, this article investigates the role of the forest in the self-awakening of the protagonist Katyayani. Through human geography, this paper also analyses the forest as a setting and how Katyayani’s forest differs from Yajnavalkya’s forest and others. This article further touches on visual artefacts like shapes, patterns, and colours and analyses some illustrations.  

As a genre, graphic novels can serve as an engaging educational tool, presenting information in a visually compelling format. They can be used to explain concepts, showcase processes, and illustrate theories in a visually accessible manner. A graphic novel like Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (2019) illustrates umpteen concepts, showing the various components of forest ecosystems and the strategies employed in their management. Through detailed illustrations and visual storytelling, graphic novels have the potential to vividly depict natural environments, including forests, their flora, fauna, and ecological processes. This visual representation can help readers grasp the complexity and beauty of forest ecosystems. 

In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduce a rich tapestry of conceptual frameworks that challenge conventional notions of space, identity, and social organization (Deleuze & Guattari 3-25) Central to their work is the concept of the rhizome, which portrays a non-hierarchical, interconnected system of thought and existence. I use the concepts of smooth space and striated space to critically analyse the text which provide a valuable framework for understanding the spatial dynamics and organizational structures inherent in the narrative. This analytical approach offers insights into how spaces are represented, utilized, and transformed within the text. This concept helps identify areas of hierarchy, control, and organization. By employing these concepts, one can uncover layers of meaning and spatial relationships that may not be immediately apparent, providing a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the text’s spatial dimensions. Additionally, it allows for a deeper exploration of how space influences the narrative’s themes, character interactions, and overall development, ultimately enhancing the interpretative depth of the analysis.

Analysing topophobia and topophilia in the text provides a unique lens to understand the intricate relationship between characters and their environments. These concepts unveil a narrative’s emotional and psychological layers, revealing characters’ fears, affections, and how they navigate the spaces they inhabit. This analysis enriches the interpretation of the text by shedding light on the symbolic, cultural, and societal significance of specific settings. Moreover, it offers insights into character development, plot dynamics, and thematic elements, ultimately enhancing our comprehension of the deeper nuances within the narrative. 

Spatial Changes Taking Place

Dark is dangerous. You can’t see anything in the dark, you’re afraid. Don’t move, you might fall. Most of all, don’t go into the forest. And so we’ve internalized this horror of the dark.

—Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Before we delve deep into the concepts of different spaces, which I have employed in this article while analyzing the text, we must know what space and place are. Yi-Fu Tuan argues that sense of place is not solely a physical or objective concept but is deeply intertwined with human experiences, meanings, and attachments. He emphasizes that places are not mere spaces but rather hold personal and collective significance, shaped by the cultural, social, and emotional contexts in which they exist. The forest initially served as a “space” at the commencement of Katyayani’s expedition within its boundaries. Over time, however, it transformed, evolving into a “place” through her sensory perceptions, emotional responses, knowledge acquisition, and encompassing encounters. As a result of her comprehensive experiences, the forest acquired a distinct sense of meaning, imbued with personal significance, thereby solidifying its status as a “place.”  Yi Fu Tuan explores the emotional, symbolic, and experiential dimensions of place, emphasizing the subjective and humanistic aspects of our relationship with the environment. The transformation of the forest from a mere geographical expanse to a place of personal significance can be attributed to Katyayani’s profound emotional attachment to it.

Topophobia and Topophlilia

At the very beginning of the novel, one finds Katyayani walking into the forest. When she appears, she immediately encounters the wildness of the forest: “Human laws are meaningless here. Aranya doesn’t mind you alive, it doesn’t mind you dead. It in fact, doesn’t care one way or the other” (Patil & Pattanaik 22). Katyayani feared the deep dark forest: “Countless life forms stirred, most invisible to my eyes. Eliminate the visible and the invisible remains. In those shadows that swallowed light, I was no longer the large – I was Katyayani the insignificant” (22). The forest here becomes a ‘topophobia’ (fig. 1) for Katyayani. As soon as Katyayani walks into the forest, the constant threat of becoming the prey of the strongest begins to frighten her. Aranya does not care about animals; it does care whether we eat or live or die or be eaten: “I crawled out of my hiding place only when the hunger became unbearable. A forest dresses richly, but is less eager to eat feed than it would appear. Food is hard to come by, and water even more so…No edible seed, no unrotten fruit to be found on the ground. Too much competition for resources” (19). When Katyayani begins to live inside the forest, she starts noticing her surroundings: “The tussle between animals is visible. But even seemingly inert trees engage in violent combat. Above ground, they jostle and strategize for light. Below ground, for water and minerals. Some neighbors they compete with” (20). Aranya here appears before us as tyrannical and brutal. Katyayani persuades herself and says that she is unprepared for living in the forest. Still, she realizes: “If you can withstand the blows and not cry foul at every adventure gone wrong, aranya opens itself to you” (18). Consequently, she throws herself into a trust fall, and eventually, over time, she learns to adapt to the forest: “I began to paint myself to be more invisible or daunting. My old clothes were replaced by strips of beaten bark and pelts of dead animals. I rubbed my skin with animal fat to mask clues of my fear and my sex. As I grew more confident, I began to wear twigs and shells, flowers, and intertwined vines. The beginnings of adornment are these” (28). Her remark – “The thought of leaving aranya was scary” makes it clear that bit by bit, she has started to admire the forest (49). Aranya now becomes a place of “topophilia” (fig. 2). Forest has been the best guide and philosopher for Katyayani. She learned all the heavy-duty philosophies and truth of life from the forest itself, “From earth, she learned patience. From wind, movement. From mountains, patience. From rivers, persistence. From outstretched branches and deep roots, she understood hunger. In every predator, she also saw frightened prey. She learned from butterflies how to gather without bruising another” (155). While talking about topophilia in his book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perfection Attitudes and Values (1974), human geographer Yu Fu Tuan mentions that topophilia might not be the strongest of human emotions, but it

…is useful in that it can be defined broadly to include all of the human being’s affective ties with the material environment. These differ greatly in intensity, subtlety, and modes of expression. The response to the environment may be primarily aesthetic: it may then vary from the fleeting pleasure one gets from a view…The response may be tactile, a delight in the feel of air, water, earth. More permanent and less easy to express are feelings that one has toward a place, because it is home, the locus of memories, and the means of gaining a livelihood. (Tuan, Topophilia 93)

Katyayani is swallowed by the forest.
Figure 1. When Katyayani enters the forest, she is swallowed by the sense of a deep, dark forest, the forest here becomes the topophobia for her. Source: Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (17).
Katyayani lays in a forest pool beside a swan.
Figure 2. Eventually, with experiences, the forest becomes familiar to her (Topophilia). She desires to take some part of the forest to her home (77).

The Forest that Katyayani Experiences

In Sanskrit, “aranya”’ means forest, and “aranyaka” means “in the forest.” “Veda” means the “book of knowledge,” and “Aranyakas,” which are a part of the ancient Indian Vedas, means the “book of the forest.” Through the narratives of Katyayani and other Vedic characters, Patil and Pattanaik project a different kind of forest in front of us. They show us that for all the danger that comes with being outside of civilization, the forest can be a place of freedom. Forests in the oldest storytelling are mostly enchanted, but the authors have introduced us to a wild forest, which is not always giving. Katyayani says: “Forest lore makes aranya seem clawless and affable, with a human lord-master who tames all chaos while bright-eyed faunae sing his praise” (Patil & Pattanaik 16). In aranya, “There is great violence, but no violation” (16). The forests are a place where people can escape the oppressive system of so-called civilization and return to their more unhindered natural state. For Katyayani, who is a social outcast, the forest provides a place of freedom. Katyayani outgrows the fear of dense, dark forest and, with the help of her spouse Yajnavalkya, organizes the space and makes it a living place where she feels a sense of protection: “In aranya, we ate quickly before some other animal got to the food. Here, there was no rush or danger. We ate at fixed intervals, unprompted by pangs of hunger” (68). 

The graphic novel begins with Katyayani experiencing a forest that is dark, dense, and wild.  And the word “experience” “suggests what a person has undergone or suffered. An experienced man or woman is one to whom much has happened. To experience is to learn; it means acting on the given and creating out of the given. The given cannot be known in itself. What can be known is a reality that is a construct of experience, a creation of feeling and thought” (Tuan, Space and Place 9). As Susanne Langer puts it: “The world of physics is essentially the real world construed by mathematical abstractions, and the world of sense is the real world construed by the abstractions which the sense organs immediately furnish” (Langer 74). This is highly insightful when we learn that with time and experience, the forest transforms into a location she is familiar with. Experience is the overcoming of perils. The word “experience” shares a common root (per) with “experiment,” “expert,” and “perilous.” To experience in the active sense requires that one ventures into the unfamiliar and experiments with the elusive and the uncertain. To become an expert, one must dare to confront new perils. Why should one so dare? A human individual is driven. He is passionate, and passion is a token of mental force (Tuan, Space and Place 23). They give us knowledge about the world and mediate that experience through their design and how we utilize them. A more comprehensive understanding of geography can be built on the sensuous. 

Smooth Space and Striated Space

The forest here plays a role in the transformation. It is a place for seeking knowledge from people like Katyayani. To Katyayani, the forest is a space of freedom where she can roam freely as a nomad does. Hence, at the novel’s beginning, the forest serves as a smooth space. Later, when Katyayani and Yajnavalkya clear some portion of the forest to start settling and making their habitat, the forest appears as a striated space. In chapter 14 of A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Gilles Deleuze and Felis Guattari talk about the smoothing and striating of spaces. They refer to “smooth space” in their writing as the space of the nomad, which contrasts with the striated space of the state and is characterized by a type of free-flowing occupation that overrides the forces of institutionalizations (Barykina 2). The nomad establishes territory by “distributing himself in open space,” which they claim is the definition of “smooth space” in their writing (2). Deleuze and Guattari emphasize on how striated space is intrinsically hierarchical, meaning that one must count these spaces to inhabit them. This is not meant to imply that striated space is better than smooth space; rather, they meant that in the context of design, some striation of space is important to make concrete designs. The beginning of civilization is this. 

Deleuze and Guattari use ‘smooth’ as a metaphor for ‘full of potential.’ “Smooth space is filled by events of haecceities, far more than by formed and perceived things. It is a space of effects, more than one of properties…it is an intensive rather than an extensive space, one of the distances, not of measures and properties” (Deleuze and Guattari 479). Striated space is gridded, linear, metric, optic, state space; smooth space is open-ended, nonlinear, intensive, haptic, nomad space: “The striated is that which intertwines fixed and variable elements, produces an order and succession of distinct forms, organizes horizontal…lines with vertical…planes” (480). Striated space can also be seen as a conventional architectural space. Both “smooth” and “striated” intermingle: “smooth space allows itself to be striated and striated space re-imparts as a smooth space,” meaning the forest is a smooth space where Katyayani can roam freely (486). The forest also becomes a striated space when they clear a designated portion to make their home and the field. Now, it becomes static and stagnant, but Katyayani feels “security” and the “fallow season changed” her “adornments” (Patil & Pattanaik 53). Humans are creative; they can innovate to modify their surroundings and are backed by optimism. Dubai City, for instance, was built amid the desert, agriculture in a desolate, rain-fed region. The act of striating space is fundamentally inherent in the birth of agriculture and, therefore, private property. Indeed, agriculture first brings value to the land; this results in parcellation and ownership. The architecture separates the inner from the outside; as a result, individuals or organizations are vying for ownership of it: “Membranes courtyard, separating Y’s world from mine” (56). 

When Katyayani and Yajnavalkya built their habitat by clearing some portion of the forest, they were looking for a safer zone. This place would provide them with a sense of security and ownership. There, they can roam according to their wish, which was unlikely to happen in the forest. Katyayani says: “The most common thing about a field is an enclosure, a sign of ownership and control. What lies within the enclosed membrane is mine. What lies outside is ‘not mine’. Outsiders may not enter without permission” (49). Striation took place when they cleared some portion of the forest and made the field, Katyayani’s kitchen, the home for the cattle, and Yajnavalkya’s classroom. Aranya now transformed from a smooth space to a striated space. The new home now creates a sense of indemnity, and Katyayani says: “I dressed for utility and safety in the forest. Strategically dowdy, unless the aim was to be daunting. Things were different in the field. Here, the colors of wings and petals flashed and burned. They did not fear display, mostly” (53). 

When Katyayani encounters Yajnavalkya for the first time in the forest, he is “a man in a termite mound – immutable, oblivious to insect bites, hunger pangs, scorching sun” (17). Yajnavalkya, the “man in a termite mound” is a representation of a human being who has stopped responding to the world, neither driven by hunger nor bothered to feed others, he has cut off all connections with the outside world. As Yajnavalkya gradually becomes acquainted with Katyayani’s philosophy of life, he learns that he “was startled by hungers in him that he didn’t know existed” (37). Later, “Aranya became a fetter” to Yajnavalkya (47). And we see that “Everything that wasn’t utilitarian began to annoy him, distrust him” (47). The forest seems to distract him, and he says, “I need focus and stillness” (47). A sense of placelessness arises in him. What had been a fetter to Yajnavalkya was freedom to Katyayani. So, Katyayani’s forest purports to be different from Yajnavalkya’s forest. Suddenly, a striation occurs, and the forest becomes a striated place for Yajnavalkya. Katyayani initially ponders over: “The luxury of stillness isn’t for hunter-gatherers. Leaving had become inevitable,” but the thought of “leaving aranya was scary” (47). Although she is reluctant to leave the forest, later on, she begins to contemplate: “Settling could be a new adventure” (49).

Architectural Space: Shapes and Patterns

 Amruta Patil, in her illustrations, plays with shapes and patterns. We see that Katyayani and Yajnavalkya attempt to create a place out of the forest space. A section of the forest is wiped out. Their house is built. Yi Fu Tuan says, “By shifting from one place to another, a person acquires a sense of direction. Forward, backward, and sideways are experientially differentiated, that is, known subconsciously in the act of motion” (Tuan, Space and Place 12). Like a skilled architect, Yajnavalkya plans and constructs their house with expertise. The illustration of Katyayani’s habitat follows a pattern. The field, the kitchen, the classroom, and the courtyard are respectively rectangular and square, whereas the grove is circular. Yi Fu Tuan claims that humans “are more sensitive to vertical and horizontal lines than to oblique lines, more responsive to right angles and regular shapes than to acute or obtuse angles and irregular shapes…The bilateral organization of the human body and the direction of gravity have been suggested as the causes of such bias” (Tuan, Space and Place 19). The rectangular kitchen or classroom has vertical and horizontal lines, and the perpendicular lines make angles. The straight lines symbolize order, while angles or complex edges represent complexity. Here, the grove to Katyayani represents the forest, which embodies her freedom. The grove was a place where Katyayani used to spend her leisure time. It was a place far from the complex outside world. The grove was very close to her inner self. And to remain close to the forest, she “chose to bring a bit of aranya back home” (Patil & Pattanaik 77). To begin with there was no grove when Katyayani and Yajnavalkya established their habitat. They had constructed a house, kitchen, classroom, courtyard, cattle house, and field. When Katyayani moved to her new dwelling, she found herself yearning for the forest. In remembrance of it, she resolved to reintroduce a fragment of the forest into her surroundings. Consequently, she created the grove. The grove held the strongest emotional attachment for her because it reminded her of the forest. According to Yi Fu Tuan, the circle is a symbol of wholeness and harmony, is a recurrent motif in the arts of ancient Eastern civilization. Suffice it to say that the forest, which represents the grove, symbolizes wilderness and free will; one can never control nature, and human-made laws do not work in the forest. In contrast, spaces like the kitchen, classroom, and field are structured for specific purposes, reflecting human efforts to impose order and control. Place here is associated with gender identities as well. Though there were female disciples who came later, the classroom basically is a place that is identifiable mostly with Yajnavalkya, the men. Initially, Gargi, the ancient Indian scholar and philosopher, who is known for her deep philosophical inquiries and debates, was the only woman in Yajnavalkya’s classroom, fighting in the boys’ world. About Yajnavalkya’s classroom, she remarks, “Thoughts, too, are rectangular here” (109). Whereas the kitchen is a place that is identifiable mostly with Katyayani. Debbie O’Connor while talking about shapes and patterns, says “The shapes with straight lines and angles usually symbolize structure and order, while the shapes with curves are softer and represent connection and communication” (O’Connor). The grove is an informal recreational open space for Katyayani. An informal recreational open space offers an opportunity for more sedentary leisure activities, such as strolling, sitting, and general unwinding. Parks, linear open spaces, amenity spaces within residential neighborhoods, natural/informal open spaces, decorative gardens, and grassed sitting places are examples of some informal recreational open spaces. While talking about how contemporary Western society perceives patterns and shapes, Gunther Kress says: 

In contemporary Western society, squares and rectangles are the elements of the mechanical, technological order of the world of human construction. They dominate the shape of our cities, our buildings, and our roads. They dominate the shape of many of the objects we use in daily life, including our pictures. Unlike circles, which are self-contained and complete in themselves, rectangular shapes can be stacked and aligned with each other in geometrical patterns: they form the modules, the building blocks with which we construct our world, and they are, therefore the dominant choice of builders and engineers, and of those who think like builders and engineers (Kress 54).

According to Dondis, the square represents “honesty, straightness and workmanlike meaning”; according to Thompson and Davenport, it “represents the world and denotes order” (54). We must search for the underlying principles that connect these meanings as well as the primary contrasts between square or rectangle and circle and between the angular and the curved. In nature, squareness does not exist, and Kress goes on to say:

Circles and curved forms generally are the elements we associate with an organic and natural order, with the world of organic nature – and such mystical meanings as may be associated with them derive from this. Angularity we associate with the inorganic, crystalline world, or with the world of technology, which is a world we have made ourselves, and therefore a world we can, at least in principle, understand fully and rationally. The world of organic nature is not of our making, and will always retain an element of mystery. Curved forms are therefore the dominant choice of people who think in terms of organic growth rather than mechanical construction, in terms of what is natural rather than in terms of what is artificial. The square can connote the “technological” positively, as a source of power and progress, or negatively, as a source of oppression which, literally and figuratively, “boxes us in.” (55)

 Hence, both Kress and Tuan underscore the disparity between geometric shapes, implying that circles evoke organic and natural elements, associated with mystical connotations, while angularity is associated with the inorganic and the realm of human-made technology, which is more easily understood and rational. This differentiation mirrors Katyayani’s inclination towards curved forms, representing organic growth and a profound connection to the natural world. In contrast, the classroom and the field, both rectangular in shape, symbolize sources of constraint and oppression.

A map of the ‘Settlement’ in the Aranyaka
Figure 3. The ‘Settlement’ in the Aranyaka (79).

The Wisdom She Learns from the Forest: Do You See the Other?

In Rig Veda, we have a goddess called Aranyani. In Sam Veda, we have the poetries, which are divided into songs for the forest and songs for the settlements. Ramayana and Mahabharata talk about forest exile. The Vedic ideas do not come from an esoteric, magical space. They come from basic human things, forests, fields, homes, boundaries, food, quarrels, classrooms, kitchens, and rivalry. This graphic novel is not about the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, but the author does use one tiny tale to springboard into the matter. Katyayani is a woman who is an outcast from her community for stealing food that was left out for the Gods. She is essentially a hungry girl, and her point of contention is, “This is a stone! It has no mouth! I’m alive! I’m hungry! Who needs food more?” Her community (which Patil referred to as a ‘hive,’ where people kind of struggle to fit in) frowned upon her and remarked: “Throw her out! Exile was inevitable” (Patil & Pattanaik 14). “Vanvas” is a Sanskrit term for exile, meaning residence (vas) in a forest (van). It usually carries a connotation of forced exile as a punishment, like Ram to the aranya and the Pandava to the aranya. When imposed as a punishment, “vanvas” carries an implication of enforced isolation from society and exposure to life-threatening extreme situations (the elements and wildlife). But Patil and Pattanaik claim that exile is not a punishment. It’s much more than that. They state that all the wisdom, moral codes, and ideas of justice that people gather to stand intact in the complex society patently become meaningless once one enters a forest (“Times Lit Fest Delhi”, 00:18:00-00:20:30). A kind of self-awakening takes place inside the forest, and the forest becomes the venue of suspension and learning. 

Patil says in an interview, aranya teaches us “…to see the world as a predator and a prey, as a potential ally and potential mate…It (Aranyaka: Book of the Forest) is an attempt to understand that the world is fuelled by two things: hunger and fear” (“Work and Creative Journey”, 00:32:25-42). Apart from these two themes, the graphic novel revolves around one thing in particular, which is seeing the other person. She adds, “And to really see another person is to see what that person is hungry for and see what that person is fear of. And when somebody abuses another person, they are doing the exactly same thing. They see what they are hungry for and they see what they are scared of. And when somebody protects somebody well, they do the same thing” (“Work and Creative Journey”, 00:32:43-00:33:02). Hence, the story of Katyayani is primarily associated with hunger. From one who eats to one who feeds to one who wants to be fed; that’s the journey of Katyayani inside the forest. This is life; this is the teaching of the Vedas. When our lives begin, it begins with what we want to eat. As we age, we are to feed others around us. And as we grow old, we want to be fed. “Katyayani is hungry and she knows the hunger in others, so feeding others and feeding herself is her way of addressing others,” says illustrator Patil. Katyayani says, “Eating alone has no charm” (Patil & Pattanaik 13). Katyayani thus sees the ‘others’ through their stomach and tries to satisfy their hunger. 

In order to remember and respect the kitchen, Katayayani decides to keep the kitchen closed twice a month, and she “began to slip away to aranya on the days the kitchen was closed” (76). There, she learned to find pleasure anew. On her first night out, Katyayani “saw the luxuriant tree cover I had seen countless times before. For the first time, I noticed the care trees took to ensure their canopies didn’t touch one another. Each searching for the best light, but giving the others space” (76). While in the beginning, the same trees emerged as competitors to her, later on, she observes the symbiosis they are in. And here, Katyayani learns to actually see other people who are completely different from her. Amruta Patil says, “The advantage of Katyayani is that she is a label-less learner” (“Algebra: Amruta Patil”, 00:16:15-20). Unlike others who have strictly put themselves in a role of performing what they stand for, Katyayani is a hungry woman who feeds people intelligently rather than just piling up people’s plates with whatever is available. She is constantly engaged in observing and studying others, ensuring they are not fatigued, hungry, or need healing and nourishment. So, there is a certain seeingness, a certain looking, which happens to her and does not happen to more intellectual people, who are just transmitting knowledge top-down. Her seeingness allows her to become an open-source learner. The authors have skilfully integrated the character Upakoshala, a disciple of Yajnavalkya who assisted Katyayani in the kitchen, into the narrative. Katyayani sent Upakoshala to look after the herd of cows. When the tiger came to him and revealed that he wanted to eat the flesh of the cows, Upakoshala was outraged and replied, “You can hunt deer or hare or go hungry. But I cannot let you take my teacher’s cow” (Patil & Pattanaik 98). In reply, the tiger said, “You seemed like a fair man. But there’s a hierarchy in your head about which lives matter and which don’t – why does the life of a deer matter less than the life of a cow?” (97). When Upakoshala returns from the field, he throws himself at Katyayani’s feet in gratitude, saying, “I was so ashamed of my wife’s coarse ways and butchering knife. But she did what she could to feed me while I read my books. She is not me! But I judged her harshly for not being me. I must go back now. My big lesson came from the kitchen, not from the classroom” (99). This incident reminds us that the hardest philosophies of life or moral teaching can sometimes come not from the classroom but from the kitchen and field. After this incident, Katyayani “permanently altered” her “parameters of seeing” changes and she realizes: “He (Yajnavalkya) is not me. Why do I judge him for not being me?” (100). The incident changed her eyes and her way of seeing others. By feeding others, Katyayani sees the others, and in return, she wants to be seen and fed. She asserts: “The more I saw, the more I knew how little they saw me. They who valued scholarship and bodily restraint above all, what did they make of me? Big, greedy woman? Guru’s unlettered wife? Skilful kitchen hand? Their eyes glazed over without malice. No, they did not see me at all” (86). 

Symbiosis, Two Exactly Opposite Person Allies; Katyayani and Yajnavalkya

 The comparison between Katyayani and Yajnavalkya represents a fundamental philosophical contrast. She embodies the concept of “Iti Iti,” which means an insatiable desire for everything. Whereas, Yajnavalkya embodies “Neti Neti,” denoting a rejection of certain things (“Times Lit Fest Delhi”, 00:10:30-45). While Yajnavalkya is briefly mentioned in the Upanishad, Patil and Pattanaik have taken this subtle reference and expanded upon it. Yajnavalkya is a rishi of the multiverses. He is a wise man and a man who is singular in his quest. The singularity of the quest often comes at a personal price. He cannot pay attention to smaller hunger. And yet he stops and recognizes limitations. He does not completely understand his Aranyani, or forest spirit wife, but he knows that there is something there. He knows that his students have something to learn with her, even if that is not his way. It is said that Yajnavalkya had two wives: Maitreyi, the brilliant brahmabadini, who is his intellectual heir, and Katyayani, who has intelligence common to women. According to Patil, it is not said as a compliment. It is like a slender shed directed their way. When Yajnavalkya decides to go for Vanprastha, Maitreyi decides to take his wisdom, and Katyayani decides to keep the property and the cows. Katyayani is seen to be lesser than Maitreyi because it is bodily and material rather than cerebral. Patil, in an interview with Pragya Tiwari, claims, “A woman who makes this proposition (of keeping the cash and the cows) is a woman of a certain manner of wisdom” (“Algebra: Amruta Patil”, 00:4:10-50). So, they attempted to question this hierarchy of classroom superior to the kitchen. Hence, the argument here is why Katyayani, who inhabits the kitchen and feeds other people according to their appetite, cannot be a part of the quest for what lies beyond!

Rivals: Katyayani and Gargi, is She a Potential Ally? 

The first panel shows two women, one working. The second shows a plant. The third shows three snails, two of them mating.
Figure 4: Katyayani and Gargi are different (104).

Gargi is bodily and mentally very different from Katyayani. Patil and Pattanaik’s Gargi is androgynous and lean, and they call her “the weaver” and say “The readers see the Gargi here, whom they are familiar with. She is a very logical, analytical woman: this-that, up-down, Back-forth, Warp-weft”, like a good lawyer. She is on a different quest. She wants to be crowned the best by the best. So, she is in quest of a teacher who is not insecure about her being a spectacular student. “She had a horror of debt… The burden of favors was heavy on the weaver” (Patil & Pattanaik 105). “Among plants, she would be the groundnut, a species that simply won’t trust others to do a job as well as it can… Among animals, she would be a snail, a hermaphrodite whose male body part will dally with many, but whose female receptacle is extraordinarily picky. She is not me”, says Katyayani (104). The rishikas in the Vedic age were frightening women. They were terrifying women, women of spiritual power and autonomy. The yoginis, to follow the path of intellectual and spiritual quest, are compelled to deny their body and their desire. Aranyaka’s Katyayani is a rishika as well, but she does not deny her body in order to seek mindful knowledge. 

Rivals: Katyayani and Maitreyi

Women speak in the forest. An old man is left behind, tied to a tree.
Figure 5. Maitreyi and Katyayani are exactly the opposite (121).

We see Maitreyi, a character whom Patil and Pattanaik call a fig, through her journey to the quest, denies her body in order to draw her attention to the mind. If we see the bhakti tradition, it is full of women who needed, in a way, to decimate their bodies so that the spiritual quest goes forth. Maitryei does not resemble Katyayani, neither intellectually nor physically. Subsequently, Katyayani remarks: “The fig was not me. Her aranya, with its scant vegetation and rugged rockfaces had no resemblance to the dark, wet aranya. I knew she saw my forest as a source of esoteric knowledge… She would’ve liked me to intellectualize aranya, but I couldn’t. She would have liked me to romanticise it, but I wouldn’t” (121). With the arrival of the female characters, Katyayani becomes jealous, but eventually, she learns to alter her parameters of seeing. She learns to accept those who do not resemble her. 


The novel begins with the core elements of nature. Vedas not only philosophize life and open space for heavy-duty ideas but also talk about the basic ideas that come from these daily household chores, kitchen, field, the relation between people, and the uncontrollable nature: fear and hunger. There is much to learn inside the forest because the rules that are set by human society fail in the forest; there is no social hierarchy there. Irrespective of gender, class, and caste, individuals’ ability to satisfy their hunger is determined by their physical strength and resourcefulness. Unlike human society or city life, the forest gives everybody equal opportunity. The grove symbolizes a part of aranya that we bring home, meaning vegetation and gardening. In Patil and Pattanaik’s novel, Aranyaka: Book of the Forest (2019), the forest stands as a binary to the field, that is, a wild nature vis-à-vis organized space. Human civilization starts with the destruction of nature. We witness the commencement of spatial changes that take place within the territory of the forest. A large portion of the forest was cleared by the Katyayani and Yajnavalkya to start the civilization. Patil and Pattanaik also exhibit how shapes and patterns play an important role in our lives through the circular grove and the rectangular classroom. We also take a glance at how Katyayani’s darshan changes over time. By feeding others, she gets to see others. Also, the book questions the hierarchy of wisdom. Why is it so that knowledge can be produced only in classrooms? Why can one not seek knowledge from the kitchen, field, and the grove, for that matter? Patil and Pattanaik claim that Aranyaka: Book of the Forest is a book of darshan (“Amruta Patil On Her New Graphic Novel”, 00:42:50-00:43:50). It is about “Seeing nature for what it is, seeing yourself in nature and nature in others,” says Patil (“Amruta Patil On Her New Graphic Novel”, 00:42:50-59). All the characters of this graphic novel stand for the different ways of mind and different ways of approaching life. There is a mind and body conflict in the storyline. Yajnavalkya, Gargi, and Maitreyi represent the mind, whereas Katyayani epitomizes the body. One very striking thing is the idea that when a person is seeking when there is a certain manner of self-actualization that is being sought, the first thing he/she seems to be doing is wanting to check out the poor, old body, like going beyond the beyond. And Katyayani here questions why this beyond the beyond does not encompass her, sitting in the kitchen. Why does this need to be surpassed? Essentially, there is this fact that people are assumed to be higher than or better than or above the body in some way and it’s something that is needed to be challenged. And when it comes to a woman who is in her quest, this just becomes more challenging. Therefore, Katyayani, throughout the book, wonders why, sitting in the kitchen and feeding other people, she cannot be a part of the quest of what lies beyond! The forest here in Aranyaka: Book of the Forest has been represented as a psychological forest, says Patil. Patil and Pattanaik also exhibit the affective bond between the people and the environmental setting, that is, the forest, though initially there was a sense of terror involved. The focus shifts to one’s fear, hunger, and quest to understand oneself as a predator, ally, or prey within that ecosystem. It is constantly based on the idea that the world resembles a forest. In this environment, meritocracy is not always assured, predators and prey occasionally switch roles, and the laws of man are meaningless. In this Aranyaka, one learns to negotiate. Similarly, there is a forest inside of us. There is an instinct to the predatory, an instinct to the ally-like, and an instinct that is submissive or prey-like in all of us continuously as we engage with the world.

Works Cited

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