“I SAW YOUR KUMBHAKARNA by the way, by the way,” Arnav Mukherjee teased his brother, Aditya. It was October, and the two were seated across each other at a table, in an office in a south Delhi commercial complex. Each held a fanned-out handful of glossy, colourful cards, printed with the names, images and descriptions of individual characters—Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Vishwamitra. Arnav pointed at the back of a card in Aditya’s hand and declared his intent to capture it, then threw down one of his own cards. And so the battle began.
The Mukherjee brothers—Arnav is 22 years old, and Aditya six years his senior—are the inventors of Astra, a children’s collectible card game in which two players wage battles between mythological characters, most of them based on figures from the Ramayana. The brothers hope it will appeal to a generation of Indian youngsters captivated by creative adaptations of Hindu myths—take the Mahabharata-inspired Chhota Bheem cartoons—and character-driven card sets—such as the Pokémon trading cards, which feature fictional creatures from a Japanese anime series. But in creating a commercial spin-off from a text of near-scriptural stature, the Mukherjees have had to balance carefully between popular veneration and potential profit.
The Astra world consists of 40 characters so far, and the brothers have plans to introduce more. Players draw hands of four cards each, and then try to win all of the opponent’s cards. Characters come with attack and defence scores, of up to 100, for “strength” and “magic” powers. On each round, one player chooses a character in his or her possession to pit against one picked blindly from the opposing hand. Battles can take up to two rounds, and depending on outcomes characters can be captured, swapped, or wounded—that is, disabled for two turns.