Taking a break from the festival posts, here is a book review instead, for you, while I gather more Navaratri - related material to post!
I had high hopes from ‘Asura’ – Tale of the vanquished - The story of Ravana and his people, by Anand Neelakantan. After all, how often is it that we get to read the other side of an epic? I should have been warned by the title – or rather, the long explanation to the title. The book is just the same, a long, rambling monologue, which brings little new or interesting to the fore.
We are all familiar with the Ramayana. This is an attempt to write the ‘Ravanayana’ – the story of Ravana. The character of Ravana has always been interesting. The story of his growing up in less than perfect circumstances, his jealousy towards his step brother, his devotion to Shiva, and the ultimate gain in power, his defeat of Kubera, becoming the King of Lanka, the growing greed and lust, and his eventual death at the hands of Rama – all of it makes for a gripping story – no matter how often retold. It is a pity that the author takes such a wonderfully dramatic storyline and reduces it to the self—pitying memories of a dying man.
Anand Neelakantan, to his credit, tries to weave the familiar story with nuances of history as well social structure. It could have been a beautiful take on the origin of our social hierarchy, and also on the state of our country today. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t hold it together, and we are left with just a narrative which sounds like a moral commentary on the times then and now.
Even the story of Sita, shown here as Ravana’s daughter, failed to hold my interest. This is one version of the story that might have come as a surprise... no, a shock, to many. I am sure there are many who disagree with such an idea. It could have been the USP of the book. However, even that story seems to be half-hearted. Or maybe I am just prejudiced. After all, this version is not new to me. I have heard the story from my mom, a story she heard from her grandmother. My great grandmother’s version was much shorter than this book. But it was filled with a poignancy which was sorely lacking here.
The highlight of the book should have been the character of Ravana. In any rendition of the Ramayana, he is just as much a heroic figure as Rama, though always the anti-hero: the one sullied by his desires and lack of control. Here, however, he is portrayed as strong, though lacking in will power, consumed by jealousy at each and every person, be it his ministers, or later, even his illegitimate son. He comes across as single minded, but always doubting himself, looking to others for ideas and appreciation. Even the adult Ravana is shown as the rebellious youth who chooses to take a course of action just because he has been advised the opposite! I have no problem with such a depiction. Obviously, to the author, that is how Ravana appears, and there is nothing wrong with that.
However, to me, the story of Ravana is just as much the story of a hero, as is the story of Rama. Each of them makes choices that come back to haunt them. Both make mistakes, and both pay for them dearly. There is a lot more they hold in common than love for Sita, and if I ever wrote my own version of the epic, this would surely be the premise. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be happening, so you all can relax. You won’t have to read it just yet!!
Coming back to this book, the only thing I found really interesting was the character of Bhadra. The word ‘Bhadra’ means ‘brother’. He is not Ravana’s brother, but he is present through the story. He is older than Ravana, present during the first Wars which wipe out his family, leaving him consumed by hate, desiring to pay back the Devas for their crimes. He aids Ravana at various times, in various ways, but he is just another of the many nameless and faceless soldiers to the Asura king. He shows up at every turn in the story, and disappears into the mass of humanity at other times. He lives for long after Ravana’s death, and even outlives Rama. And yet, in all that time, that anger doesn’t really go away, and neither does the desire for revenge. He narrates part of the story, and this could have been another section which could have taken the book to another level, but once again, the language and the writing lets us down.
The voices of Ravana, and Bhadra merge, as do those of the others we hear of, through the story. There is nothing to distinguish one from the other. After all, in the book, they aren’t really people with character, but characters as they appear to Ravana in the last moments of his life. Ultimately, to me at least, this is what lets the book down.
This book was sent to me for review by Leadstart Publishing, but the views expressed are my own.