Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of " Asura : Tale of the Vanquished"

"Asura: Tale of the Vanquished - The Story of Ravana and his people"  (Platinum Press 2013) ,  by Anand Neelakantan, was sent to me for review by Leadstart Publishing.

This has been a season for harking back to tales I heard in my childhood, more than half a century ago,  during nightly after-dinner story-sessions with my grandmother. I've just reviewed a book about Arjuna, and now this.  And what I remember very well, is my grandmother kind of nodding her head in a serious manner , and occasionally remarking that Ravana with all his kidnapping of Sita, terrorizing folks, ten heads, burning Hanuman's tail et al, was actually, a great devotee of Shiva, but destined to be the way he was.

This came back to me when I read this book.  A massive tome of 504 pages.

This book takes a fresh look at the story of Rama and Ravana from a different angle. In a way,  a book with less of Gods performing sudden miracles, and with an actual hint , that Vishnu , Shiva and Brahma , were actually mass leaders who achieved a kind of Godhood , thanks to the masses.  It talks about the Aryans and Dravidians, calling them Devas and Asuras, and the various societal changes that happen when they overrun and attack each other's kingdoms.  Very clearly, according to the author, the Devas and Asuras as conquerors, are identical in the way they ravage the  conquered , and clearly, there is nothing Godly about the name "Deva."

Ravana is portrayed as the son of a Brahmin father and Asura mother, very unfairly treated by his brother Kubera who ruled Sri lanka. Inspired by Mahabali  in his waning years, Ravana mobilizes  and inspires people around him to come together to attack and reclaim the throne  of Sri Lanka.  His ambition, and ruthless warring at one point has his kingdom extending right up to the Himalayas.   Sita, is portrayed as his daughter by Mandodari , his wife. Some prediction about Sita being detrimental to his kingdom, forces Ravana to send her away with someone, (more about him later) ,  to be done away with; which doesn't happen; Sita lives, is found by King Janaka, and this factoid joins in , like a tributary , to the Ramayana as we know it. The narrative proceeds with the kidnapping of Sita while she Ram and Lakshman are in Vanwaas, and there is her arrival in Ashokvan in Ravana's palace grounds. The attack of the Hanuman Brigade, the Setu, the arrival of Ram and Lakshman , and the ensuing detailed fighting.  Concluding in the death of Ravana, his thoughts at that point and so on.

There is however, a person called Bhadra who keeps flitting in and out of the narrative. Ravana, his ambitious behaviour, his uncaring attitude towards his common people, his emphasis on his own exalted status, his debauchery, may be constantly viewed vis-a-vis the happenings in Bhadra's life.  Having grievously suffered , and lost his entire family  in a ghastly manner at the hands of the Devas , he blindly supports Ravana in his efforts to establish a powerful Asura Empire.  He even images many of Ravana's attitudes in his own life; sudden wilful decision making unmindful of consequences, debauchery, killing at the drop of a hat, occasional  thuggery and thievery whenever required.  While Ravana , being excessively ambitious, occasionally wallows in mental dirt, Bhadra has no qualms wallowing in it physically, presumably in keeping  with , his place in that society.    And the story actually becomes the story of the Asura society, where lives of leaders and commoners are depicted with , if I may say so, excessive detail.

Some things make you wonder.  Ravana , who himself had a bit of a fair streak in his complexion thanks to his Brahmin father, wonders about why Rama looks so dark.   Given that Ravana is the emperor, he certainly has fairly bad security folks employed. Bhadra seems to not only sneak in through gates, but wander inside the palace rooms at will, doing his killing assignments .  There seems to be a style of "hanging around" in royal environments, with clearly undefined duties, with lots of bumbling staff outraging Ravana from time to time.   One admires, albeit a bit skeptically,  the incorporation of the Pushpak aeroplane as a hobby output of Ravana's engineer pa-in-law, and the story of Maricha (who accompanied Ravana for Sita kidnapping) killing a deer, and then flitting around wearing its skin to attract Sita's attention, and the subsequent effort by Rama and Lakshman to fulfil her wishes.

One admires the immensely varied imagination of the author as he tries to blend together known scripture stories, with his amazing narrative.  Nowhere  does Ravana get handicapped by his ten heads; defined as they are , as the nine human qualities that he has, as opposed to being above it all in a Godly way, and doing no wrong. It is interesting that the Deva's revel in a hierarchical societal structure where you get successively more and more untouchable as you come down the status ladder.  The author reminds us that the Asuras from the early days had what might be called a society that swore by socialism. Folks were equal, there was no single entity whose writ ran , and a committee decided on everything.

On the minus side, there is too much detailing of events, particularly in the beginning and ending sections.  The book is too lengthy, often rambles,  and could have done with some spiffy editing.  One often feels Bhadra keeps doing the same things again and again which gets tiring. The way the daily wars are described  towards the end, reminds me of cricket  matches. Detailed descriptions of daily strokeplay, end of the day's play, and the teams walking out to play the next day.

I know this is a work of fiction as it declares at the beginning in a Disclaimer. But sometimes it reminds me of how somethings are today. 

An erstwhile self-declared  socialist society giving in to the new capitalist world order. Rise of some leaders on the basis of short term impressions and successes, an entire set of so called disciples who hang on to every word, and apple-polish,  various leaders managing to commit all kinds of crimes and getting away with it, and others saving them based on their utility ;  so called leaders of socialist persuasion , amassing wealth of disproportionate levels, while ruling over a populace with sinking standards of living and civic amenities. Spouting lofty sounding words regarding women, and their treatment, while being and shielding someone who mistreats them. Different rules for different folks. Disrespecting those junior in position. Ravan would kick Bhadra, and some of his staff. Today  we see some tying shoelaces of superiors.

The entire concept of this book is very interesting. But it is entirely too long. I wish there was a frequent change of pace throughout the book. After a while one can even predict certain events in the book. 

One of the problems of books such as these which are based  on our scriptures and personages therein, is the massive cast of characters,  only a few of which last till the end of the book. Keeping track of them is very difficult.

And finally, I have a question. There seems to be an undefined  unchallenged  assumption that Devas were fair and decent looking, with a semblance of morals, where as Asuras have been described as dark, even black, disproportionate, amoral, ugly looking, drunkards, and wayward folk. Asuras of low societal standing were like Shurpanakha, ugly, vagabond, immoral and drunk; the higher status folks were  model folks, slightly fairer, like Mandodari and Sita, assuming the latter was really Ravana's daughter.
 Does Fair and Lovely also hold in celestial places and scriptures ? Or do we as Indians, continue to be greatly obsessed ?


  1. Fair and lovely is ingrained in the mindset. I thought fair symbolized beauty to most Indians. after reading your review I wonder if dark skinned people are believed to be unruly and immoral as well?

  2. Im glad to have found this post as its such an interesting one! I am always on the lookout for quality posts and articles so i suppose im lucky to have found this! I hope you will be adding more in the future...

  3. I read the book and it is seemed like well scripted fairy tale.........