‘AJAYA’ BY ANAND NEELAKANTAN - BOOK REVIEW
Epic of the Kaurava Clan – Book 1- Roll of the Dice
Anand Neelakantan in his author’s note says that-
Ajaya is an attempt to view the Mahabharata from the side that lost the war. It is a narrative of the others- the defeated, insulted, trampled upon– who fought without expecting divine intervention believing in the justice of their cause. Duryodhana is described as a brutally honest prince, brave and self willed, willing to fight for what he believed in.
I personally feel that it would be an injustice to label this work as a retelling of the Mahabharata, not only to the author but also to the epic itself. The original epic is so much ingrained in our psyche that it still stays where it should and nothing can change that, though there have been many versions of it written down the ages, the essence has never suffered. The Mahabharata is a complete chronicle of human fallibilities. There is nothing that we see around us which is left uncovered. And ultimately it has given us the greatest message of the purpose of our human existence and the paths to achieve it – ‘The Bhagavad Gita’.
So I thought that the best way I can do justice to this book of Anand Neelakantan was to shut out making comparisons and to read it as a story that would stand on its own. I was fresh after seeing all the three seasons of the ‘Game of Thrones’ when I started reading ‘Ajaya’ and as I continued reading it I wondered why it should not be made into India’s own version of the English TV serial for it is equally engrossing. Anand Neelakantan is a great story teller and has produced a very interesting book. It is obvious that he has done extensive research and has intelligently interpreted them to write his story. He has written a story culled out of the characters in the original epic with some additions and deletions. It is therefore not a critique of the Mahabharatha though some readers may interpret it as such. Having said that, I will add I enjoyed reading the book as I had while viewing the ‘Game of Thrones’. All in all it is a good read.
Though I empathise with the author when he says that he “felt impelled to narrate the stories of the vanquished and the damned; and give life to those silent heroes who have been overlooked in our uncritical acceptance of conventional renderings of our epics” it is evident that the plot is culled out from our own historical and contemporary happenings. The author’s strong and at times scathing views on the caste system comes to the fore. One of the significant passages on page 26, where Vyasa replies to Dhaumya when asked what right does a Shudra have to quote the scriptures “Why don’t you say what you mean, young man? I am a Shudra. Moreover I was born out of wedlock. I am the illegitimate child of a dark-skinned fisherwoman and the scholarly Brahmin, Parashara, who did not think twice about my caste when imparting knowledge of the scriptures to me.” Vyasa continues “I have added to my father’s teachings by virtue of the knowledge gained through my travels and discourses with saints and scholars throughout the land. None of these savants ever asked me what my caste was” This is a longish passage and perhaps one of the best I liked in the book.
But one thing intrigues me – why should the author continue referring to the empire as India when no such word existed at that time. In all fairness it should have been referred to as Bharata if he wanted to make it relate to the period of the book, but may be his intention was to make the reader connect with the contemporary scenario.
Another important page in the book is 69, where Acharya Kripa explains to Karna about what the Vedas say about the caste system. While this is something which we have time again read in our epics and scriptures, I reproduce the last portion of Kripa’s exhortation –
“Whatever the silly Priests say, nowhere in any of our scriptures is it written that any one way of finding God is better than all the others. They do not even say that finding God is better than not doing so. The Vedic mind wonders about the mysteries of creation and the universe, but it does not speak in the voice of absolute truth. The Vedas merely hold the wonder of Man regarding the universe in which he lives.”
One should appreciate Anand Neelakantan for bringing out such gems in the form of a dialogue in a simple way intelligible to the reader. But personally I find that his repeated references to the caste system in nearly every page, makes you wonder whether this is the central theme of the story. Only he can answer for some readers may not find it too palatable.
In page 119 the author describes the two faces of Hastinapura – one of luxurious villas, broad, tree shaded avenues, golden temples, swanky shops that sold diamonds and silks and noblemen and beautiful women and the other a world of filth, where the streets coiled in on themselves like leeches; the open drains overflowed and the narrow pavements served as garbage dumps. This was the dark underbelly of India’s cities, where the majority lived. The other was just a charade, as hollow and fake as the promises made by the rulers to the ruled. Doesn’t this sound as a very contemporary scene? I guess we all live in Hastinapuras now.
Similarly the chapter 10 on Nagas reminds one of the Naxalite movement and to cap it, “Victory to the people’s revolution” cried Kaliya on page 133 does resonate with the slogans which we had become very familiar with during our growing years.
But there is a lyrical quality in the author’s narration throughout the book, to give an example, the chapter 13 starts with on page 171 – The air was hot and humid, but that did not take anything away from the bewitching beauty of the surroundings. To the east, majestic blue mountains kissed the skies and verdant valleys slept in their misty quilt. On a narrow strip of land, myriad colours bloomed, as if nature was celebrating her fecundity. Tall coconut palms stood like sentinels beside the winding rivers and enchanting backwaters. A deep-green sea caressed the sun-kissed beaches, while a gentle breeze played hide- and- seek in the cool shade of gigantic trees. Obviously this is the author’s own land.
I find the southern empires of the Cheras, Cholas, Pallavas and other such references in the book and this makes you wonder what they were doing at the time of the Mahabharata.
At the end of the book in his short notes there is one sentence that says it all- the truth remains that all writers use imagery that is accepted and understood by contemporary society. I have also viewed this book from that angle. The author says that the advice received from his father was not to approach the Mahabaharata just as a story, for it contains hidden symbolism. That exactly is the point as I said in the beginning itself that the Mahabharata is a chronicle of all the human fallibilities. Ajaya is a story well told and this is only part 1 ending with the game of dice where the Pandavas lose everything. I look forward to the part 2 of the book with interest mainly to see how the author treats the role of Krishna and the ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ in his story, for this could be tricky.
I cannot agree that this is from the Kaurava viewpoint. It is not, for it is only a story about Kauravas with Suyodhana as the hero told by Anand Neelakantan and that’s it.
Two interesting acknowledgements of the author I would like to mention here – 1) To my country and my people, for tolerating different points of view and for the richness of our history and mythology and 2) To Vedavyasa, the patron of all Indian writers, the greatest writer to have walked this earth. Yes that is the greatness of this country and that is why the Mahabharata cannot be rewritten.
In summing up I should say that this book is well crafted, well written and an easy and interesting read, even though it is about 450 pages (and mind you this is only Part 1). The book stands on its own merits.