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Asura: Tale of the Vanquished

Been trading Asura: Tale of the Vanquished these last few days. About 3/4th done now.

The book began well and it is still a good read, but I have been bored for a while. “Asura” is an interesting book. It tells the story of Ravana (the villain if the Hindu epic “Ramayana”) and I am generally a fan of stories told from the perspective of the villain. Two reasons for this: 1) History is always rewritten by the victor so heroes and villains as we know them are simply versions of history passed on to us as written by the victors – whoever won became the hero; and 2) I like to look at things from a different perspective and also understand the psyche of a “villain”, and what better way than read a story told from the villain’s point of view.

Malayalam author M.T. Vasudevan’s “Ramdamoozham” (“Second Turn” in English) is a look at the Mahabharata from the point of view of Bhima. That is an odd but interesting choice in that the author didn’t use the voice of the villain of the story, but uses that of Bhima – the second brother of the Pandavas – and so it is from the point of view of someone in the victors came, and yet due to the psyche M.T imbues in Bhima is of an outsider, an odd one out of this camp. Which makes it all the more interesting, and “Second Turn” is indeed an amazing book. The book is fascinating not only for the way the events are retold but also for the character of Bhima. One imagines Bhima to be a lumbering fatty force – all physical, no emotions – but in M.T.’s reimagining Bhima has a turbulent force raging inside. He is a whirlpool of emotions and conflicts and his story, even independent of the backdrop of the Mahabharata is engaging. (Which reminds me of what Christopher Nolan had to say about his Batman trilogy. He said that he imagined the character and stories as a regular story, not some superhero movie, and that’s why they have more story and backdrop to them than regular superhero movies. I agree).

Back to “Asura”, I knew from the Amazon blurb that this was from Ravana’s point of view and that’s why I bought the book. It began well too. The first few chapters were very well written and I was hugely excited about the book. The author (Anand Neelakantan) turned the whole Deva-Asura mythology around and presented the Devas historically as an invading race that conquered the original inhabitants of India & Lanka (the Asuras), drove them out, suppressed them, and bought with them various creepy social practices like the caste system, religious practices, rise of Brahmins & their Gods, and so on. This was a good twist and is probably true too. I am not well versed in Indian history but a lot of the things he presents as faults of Devas are things I too have wondered as a kid (I am a mythology fan and as a kid have devoured religious stories). The Devas aren’t all straight forward and righteous as one would expect, but no one questions it because usually a divine explanation and backstory is given justifying why in the particular case the Devas behaved unfairly. This sounded sneaky, and I was pleased to see “Asura” pull on various such examples to show Asuras as simple minded tribal folk whom the Devas defeated through unfair means and trickery. I loved those bits and I was excited for it. The book also pulls the curtain behind many stories and removes the symbolism to present a regular version of events as they could have been. Very nice!

Moving on, I loved the way the author handled Ravana too. Initially it felt like one of these underworld movies. Ravana is the poor man from the streets, wanting to rise up and become the next Don. He is taken in by an ageing Don (the Asura king Mahabali) and trained. Soon he leaves the ageing Don because he is young and ambitious and possibly more ruthless (think Emraan Hashmi in contrast to Ajay Devg in “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai”) and his plan is to start by capturing Lanka, ruled by his half brother Kubera, and proceed from there.

I think I liked the book up to this part. After that I lost touch with the character of Ravana. A lot of his decisions and actions didn’t resonate with me and I couldn’t see the reasoning behind them. There’s a character called Bhadra – not sure real or imaginary – through whose voice nearly half the book is said. He seems to be a “Forrest Gump” sort of person – present at all crucial events – and usually more than just being present is an active participant in them. For reasons unknown Ravana doesn’t trust him and this mistrust leads to all sorts of problems for both Ravana and Bhadra during the takeover of Lanka. In fact, trust seems to be an issue with this version of Ravana. He doesn’t trust helpful loyal servants like Bhadra, in spite of the latter proving his trust many times, is constantly unsure of his wiser advisers like Prahastha, yet at the same time blindly listens to his brothers and sister – which eventually leads to him being cheated by Vibhishana (and nearly dethroned by Shoorpanakha’s lover) thus losing his life and war. That bit seemed odd. Why was Ravana like this? Was he merely being human – which I think was the author’s intention – or was it just setting things up to match the mythology and perhaps keep the story on track to his defeat?

Back to Bhadra, I couldn’t empathise much with him either. He seemed interesting initially, but when you have a character that is constantly misused by others (Ravana and royalty) and he doesn’t seem to get the point, you lose interest in him. At least I did. Added to that he seemed to have a habit of hating Ravana but constantly falling at his feet and proclaiming himself to be a loyal servant. Didn’t make sense.

The biggest mess of all was the twist that Sita is in fact Ravana’s daughter. That was neat and smart, I liked that. Due to circumstances Sita had to be abandoned as a kid to be found by Janaka, and as she was married to a Deva chap and Devas as we know are jerks (from the story, and also because as readers we can relate to the idea from Hindu customs and rituals towards women) she has to he saved. Makes sense. To add urgency to the situation, her husband gives up everything and goes into exile, so as a loving father Ravana has to bring her over to Lanka. However, the way he does this is what does not make sense. Rather than approach her and talk about this, he kidnaps her! And then never mentions this to her ever – thus incurring her anger – and keeps wondering why she hates him and what has he done to deserve this! That didn’t make sense to me. Moreover, as Bhadra comments once, this is a personal matter of the King. Why incur war and suffering for his people over this!?

Up to the point where I have read (3/4 the book) Ravana is yet to tell Sita about him. In a fit of emotion he announces to the whole world of this, but she is yet to know and neither has anyone told her! Unbelievable. Just that one action could have changed things, but it can’t be.

Owing to reasons like these I lost touch with Ravana. As Ravana eloquently states somewhere, he is only a Man, not a God, and has made mistakes and lived like a Man – which I agree with – and I am guessing that was the author’s intention too in presenting him like that. But I couldn’t get a feel for the character, couldn’t resonate with him, and so lost connection. In the case of “Second Turn” I remember being sucked into Bhima’s mind and thoughts, there was no similar feeling here. Which is sad, because the character started off extremely well.

Many other parts of the book are good. Like I said, the whole idea of presenting Devas and their customs without any symbolism or justification but simply as what they are plainly – showing us how it is not straightforward “holy” as one might believe – was good. The war between Rama and Ravana was presented not just as a war between these two, but as a war for the soul and future of India. If Asuras had won India would have been different! No caste system, no silly Brahminical rituals, no way of practicing religion and praying to Gods as one does now… Everything would be vastly different! I liked that. I associated with that, it felt real and likely, and it put the war in a whole new light for me. I rooted for the Asuras and saw the war as something like an Independence war. Excellent presentation by the author!

I still have a quarter of the book to go through. Hopefully I will wrap it up in a day or two. Apparently the author has one more book in the pipeline – a retelling of the Mahabharatha from Duryodhna, Karna, etc point of view – to be released in two parts. I will probably buy it, but won’t expect much. The author has interesting things to say, just that the character development falls short for me.

Update (the next day): The book never seems to end! Nearly 95% into it now and Ravana has long died, but now the author has gone on a tangent about caste system! I agree with what he is trying to say, and I like the way he is exposing the Deva way of things including how they cheat to win (killing Ravana, Maghanada, Kumbakarna, and so on) but going on long after Ravana has died isn’t what I expected from the book. Which in a way is my qualm with the book, I think. It isn’t just about Ravana – while I expected a book that’s personal about Ravana this one doesn’t get to that level and seems to aim for more than just Ravana. And that’s starting to bore more and more …