“Asura – Tale of the Vanquished” is an interesting book by first time author Anand Neelakantan. It’s the well known tale of Ramayana, one of the greatest Indian epics (the other being Mahabharata), told from the unknown perspective of Ravana, the antagonist and Bhadra, a nobody whose Life pretty much impacts everybody who is somebody in this tale.
Ramayana had always been told as Rama’s story. And over time, it has attained divine status – along with its hero – thereby denying an opportunity for the tru(th)e seeker to know the other side of the story. Just the way every coin has two sides, every story also has two perspectives. But just as only the winning side of the coin during a toss is seen by spectators, it’s always the winner’s side of the story that a reader gets to read. Anand, thankfully, provides that other perspective – that of the vanquished – with utmost clarity and conviction.
It is hard not to compare this book with my other recent reads – Parts 1 and 2 of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish – not just because both books are retelling of well known mythology by first time authors, but also because Lord Shiva is an integral part of both stories. Ravana, after all, is one of the most popular Shiva bakthas of yore.
Asura’s narration is straightforward, starting with Ravana’s childhood with insufferable hardship filled with insult; leading to his vibrant youth with burning ambition; resulting in fearless conquests and his eventual ascendance of Asura kingdom’s throne; inevitable interaction with the Hero, Heroine and sidekicks of Ramayana, i.e., Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, et al; and predictable end to his era of being the greatest Asura emperor ever.
Apart from the interesting and intriguing tale from the perspective of Ravana, Anand also adds another dimension to the story through Bhadra, the commoner who keeps crossing Ravana’s path but never gets his fair share of glory and ends up in misery all the time. Ravana and Bhadra’s lives weave through the tale like two threads of same fabric but of varying color and texture. Heck, they even share a common son!
Asura is full of characters that many of us know well from reading, hearing or viewing the epic (all of them invariably glorifying Rama’s side of the story), but what makes it memorable is how Anand weaves them into the story (both events and time) and connects them with the protagonist Ravana (remember – this is Ravana’s tale). While Vibishana, Kumbakarna, Soorpanaka, Maricha, Meghanada, Vali (pronounced Bali in the book), Sita and Hanuman feature prominently, the ones that end up being well etched in our memory are Ravana (can’t help wonder ‘Wow’), Mandodari (a perfect match for this tale’s hero), Bhadra (he’s more or less the 2nd hero of this tale), Mala (whose life is intertwined with both heros), Prahastha (a true model Prime Minister), Athikaya (the illegitimate son of Ravana who seems a purely fictional creation but is memorable nevertheless), Mahabali (a curious cameo as Ravana’s mentor), Shambuka (equally enchanting and heart wrenching) and Mayan (has a surprise connection to Ravana and almost the equivalent of Brahaspati in The Shiva Trilogy). Rama and Lakshmana are mentioned more of an afterthought (and appear only after 300 pages or so), which is perfectly understandable as they’re not larger than life Gods in Ravana’s perspective. Ravana and Sita’s relationship is the best twist of the tale!
Anand’s tale abounds with details on the Asura way of Life (which incidentally is not much different from our way of Life today) and of course the Deva way of Life (which certainly is not what we believed it was until now). Just the way Amish (quite successfully) made Shiva and all other mythical characters as humans in his books, Anand also depicts Ravana and all other mythical characters as humans, just belonging to very different races such as Asuras, Devas, Nagas (who feature prominently in Amish’s tale too), Gandharvas, Vanaras and Barbarians (or foreigners). He also sprinkles his tale with a generous amount of vices such as drinking and crimes such as rape. Graphic depiction of recurring bloody wars and their regrettable aftermath remind us that we humans aren’t any better as a race of people.
While both Amish’s and Anand’s tales are eminently readable, the significant difference between the two tales is the definition of characters and depiction of a scene or environment by Amish. Anand focuses on the story and events in it rather than shaping individual characters or describing the environment in detail. He also dispenses off the truly epic moments of the epic rather quickly. Despite this, the book is longer than Amish’s.
One of the reasons for the length is his intermittent discourses on politics, caste system (he’s especially vitriolic against Brahmins, a sect to which he too probably belongs to) and oppression of the lesser privileged, which is quite possibly influenced by the affairs of his home state Kerala, if not India itself. But just when the reader gets tired of this diatribe, he switches gears by moving to one of the significant events and gets our attention back. He could’ve either made this a 2 or 3 part book like Amit’s Shiva Trilogy or cut down on Bhadra’s perspective, which would’ve helped shed almost 1/3rd of the book’s length. But then, we would’ve never known the commoner’s view of Life in the island (Lanka) and mainland (India) during those times, which is as wretched and hard as it is today, millennia after the period of this tale.
Anand’s Asura is not in the same league as Amish’s The Shiva Trilogy, but is certainly an equally worthy effort by the first time author. May be he should consider retelling Mahabharata from Dhuriyodhana’s and a Bhadra like commoner’s perspective in his next book! Recommended Read by Swamy!
You may also read Swamy’s review of this enchanting book with a refreshing antagonist perspective in GoodReads!
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