10 December 2014

Ajaya Book 1: Roll of the Dice, by Anand Neelakantan

When I got Book 1 of Ajaya from Leadstart for the review (thank you for that!), I thought it would take me forever to sit through the book. But no, I finished it one fine Saturday.

I am not too keen usually about books laced with religion, songs and pages of praise as dialogues. Especially most of them on Ramayana or Mahabharatha. I'm also not keen about books that change the storylines of epics to present alternate points of view.

This book is none of that. This one is different.

Anand Neelakantan manages to take all the superhuman, illogical & divine elements out of the storyline without affecting the storyline much, leaving us with the crux of the story. In Mahabharatha's case, that includes the strategic moves and dreams of the various players in the kingdom, and what they do about it.

The first book focuses more on the the Caste system of the time than anything else - and naturally, the main players in the scene are Duryodhana (Suyodhana, the author calls him - and there's a line of research that claims it was his actual name), Arjuna, Parashurama, Krishna, Shakuni, Vidhura, Bhishma, Jara and the Nagas, apart from two of the most inspirational stories from the epic - that of Ekalavya the talented and Karna, the King of Anga.

The storyline for Book:1 extends from the time the Kuru princes are children up until Shakuni's fateful dice game that more or less confirms the great war. The basic storyline doesn't really require any reviews, least of all from me. It's an epic that has stood the test of time, with its characters idolised in temples and pagodas across South & East Asia. That includes Duryodhana and Anand's work tries to explain the good in him and how even the best of men can err.

For he truly was, as has been my stand for quite some time now - despite his flaws. History has always belonged to the winners and the losers are demonized, deservedly or otherwise. What the Mahabharatha explains to the world is that conflicts are rarely between good and evil. They are always between two sides who wholeheartedly believe that they are on the right side. What the Mahabharatha has managed to spin off as a result is the endless number of interpretations of the various events in the story.

Anand presents the case of Duryodhana, his main character, and goes on to make him the 'hero'. As one cannot become the hero without there being a villain, the Pandavas and their supporters bear the brunt of being casteist. Book 2 and so on could present their side too, though I find it improbable that it is going to happen through the eyes of Duryodhana. The primary antagonist of the Mahabharatha is the hero who believes in righteousness, dislikes discrimination and fights for equality with whatever power he gains. To make him relate-able, the author has made him one of us, reacting to events rather than causing any of them. For example, Bhishma sends the Pandavas to Vanavrata here, not Duryodhana. Shakuni controls Purochana's building of the House of Lac here with no involvement of any Kauravas, because that would make them look bad.

I see how these are necessary deviations if the character needs to be portrayed as a hero, but did he have to be such a complete hero? I guess not. Readers can still relate to & root for someone less than a faultless hero. Only Karna has deserved that status across all interpretations of the epic, I think.

Anand has managed to win hearts with this interpretation, if the reviews I see are anything to go by. I believe he's done a fantastic job with this book overall, and he's managed to make Ajaya a better hero than Arjuna without deviating much from the original storyline, which is the major achievement for me.

And he's done this without pissing anyone off (surprising, given the portrayal of Krishna). That's quite something too.

Have you read it yet? I'm off to rate this on Goodreads now.