Ajaya (Epic of the Kaurava clan, #1)The flavor of the season seems to be Mahabharata reteelings, and after reading a half baked highly insipid retelling by Kavita Kane in Karna's wife (read my review here https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), I picked up Ajaya, with a lot of expectation, but with also a fear that it may disappoint.
Ajaya does not disappoint. Like in Asura, Neelakantan has created a remarkable counterworld, where the voice of the villains seem right. He has made the story consistent with his worldview, and hasThe flavor of the season seems to be Mahabharata reteelings, and after reading a half baked highly insipid retelling by Kavita Kane in Karna's wife (read my review here https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), I picked up Ajaya, with a lot of expectation, but with also a fear that it may disappoint. Ajaya does not disappoint. Like in Asura, Neelakantan has created a remarkable counterworld, where the voice of the villains seem right. He has made the story consistent with his worldview, and has taken perfectly acceptable creative liberties with the story. Also, he is not interested in remaining true to the era of the story. So his characters speak in modern language, seem to sprout Marxist ideology, all of which is perfectly acceptable. He mixes timelines, and speaks of an India, when the the notion of India as a nation state did not probably exist, but that again is acceptable. Amish Tripathi did a similar thing with his Shiva trilogy, and Neelakantan has taken on a tougher job. Tripathi merely tried to humanize a god and show his heroic splendor, Neelakantan is consistently making the villains the heroes. Neelakantan succeeds better than Tripathi, because his writing is better, though not perfect, and he mostly avoids trite, filmy situations. The only problem with Ajaya is that the hero is quite anaemic. In an effort to make him a good guy, the author seems to have sacrificed all the passion of Suyodhana. Even Vyasa's Mahabharata appreciated this passion. It has been acknowledged that Duryodhana was a just and benevolent ruler. But here, he is constantly mentioned as a just man, but seldom really shown to be that. His famous charisma is evident in some scenes, like when he crowns Karna king. His sense of justice is evident when he fights on behalf of Ekalavya or he takes offense at the living conditions of the poor in Indraprastha, but the author does not let these speak for itself. He is instead constantly propped as a good guy, every other page mentions that he visits the slums and gives alms to the poor, and all these props somehow stifle the hero. We dont get the passionate, full-blooded, impetuous, benevolent and just man, which Duryodhana was even in Vyasa's Mahabharata. His love for Subadhra is evident, but the scene where he stops himself from going too far with her, even though she seems willing, is frankly laughable. It adds no value. I am not saying that Duryodhana should have gone ahead and consummated the relationship, just that the scene is one of the props to show Duryodhana is a nice guy, when actually, there are enough other scenes where it emerges quite naturally. That is the major problem with this book. The author is clearly on ths side of Duryodhana and therefore constantly tries to assert that he is a great guy. Draupadi's vastraharan is not described here at all, it is awaited in the sequel, but there are enough clues to show that Shakuni, Karna and Dushasana will take all the blame here and Duryodhana will be absolved. Some of the Karna retellings have done the same thing, absolving Karna completely of any wrongdoing. But the point is both Duryodhana and Karna had a part is Draupadi's humiliation (if not disrobing) and they acted in ways which were natural and true to their character. A retelling has to accept this fact, because this is what adds complexity to the character. Duryodhana is too impetuous to take Draupadi's laughter lying down and for Karna Draupadi's insult at the Swayamvara was probably the culmination of all the insults and missed opportunities in his life. It
is only natural that they will hit back if they have an opportunity. Neither are saints, and we dont want retellings which refuse to acknowledge these realities. Vyasa's mahabharata did acknowledge that Yudhishtra was an inveterate gambler, and his own brothers, specially Bhima and his wife constantly threw the fact at him. Arjuna even questions his valour at one point in the war, practically saying that it is upto him and Bhima to win the wars, so that Yudhishtra can rule. In fact, while Vyasa's Jaya did have a pro pandava tilt, it was definitely far more complex and gray. It is only Amar Chitra Kathas and the TV serials which established Pandavas as holier than thou. Trying to establish Duryodhana as holier than thou therefore does not really serve the purpose. I am surprised Neelakantan did this, because in Asura, both Ravana and Bhadra are complex and real characters, not the paragons of virtue. Ravana is righteous in many ways, but he is also arrogant, proud and obsessed with himself. He fought the war with Rama, for the sake of his 'daughter' Sita, and led the entire asura clan to destruction. Bhadra was a common man, struggling to make sense of life. He had his strengths and his faults. But these are minor quibbles. Overall, the book is quite commendable. There are some interesting plot angles like Karna and Parashurama and the manhunt for Karna. There are also some interesting new perspectives which will probably be explored at a later time. For instance, there is a point when Bhanumathi, when she thinks of Karna has a premonition that if there is a point when he has to choose the welfare of his friend over fame and glory, he will choose the fame and glory. This is a very interesting take on Karna's character, something with Iravati Karve has also explored in her collection of essays Yuganta. I grew up idolizing Karna, but while everyone, including Duryodhana himself lauds him for sticking to Duryodhana even against his own brothers, in what way did he stick to him. He could not give his all in the war, just like Bhishma and Drona never did. He repeatedly spared Pandava lives. He went into the war with the knowledge, nay even the desire to just die and be done with it. None of it makes him bad, they are quite human. But the point is him sticking to Duryodhana was merely symbolic. In fact Kunti's cruelest treachery against Karna was not her abandonment and subsequent non-acknowledgement. It was that by telling him the truth at the time she did, she ended up making Karna untrue to Duryodhana in his death, when he had spent most of his life being true to him. S L Bhyrappa also explores the dilemma of Karna quite well in his Parva, and the mental struggles which go on when he makes his decision/non-decision to stick with Duryodhana is quite engaging. Also, Arjuna's repeated questioning of what is Dharma and whether they are doing right is interesting, and foretells his final indecision quite well. I am sure that when the Gita is finally discussed, it will be discussed in a more critical way than the 'word of god' which it seems to have become now. In fact Amartya Sen makes an interesting point in the Argumentative Indian, that actually, the voice of the pacifist Arjuna is never suppressed in the Mahabharata. He may have fought the war, but he repeatedly had doubts,and after the war, all the Pandavas had their doubts. It is only when there is a divine origin granted to the Gita that Arjuna's perfectly valid doubts get suppressed.
I have rambled quite a lot in this review, but I really want to congratulate Neelakantan on a job well done. The book is engaging, it makes you want to know more and yes, it shares the other viewpoint quite well. I hope in part two, he makes Ajaya a genuine countertelling of Vyasa's complex Jaya and not a retelling of an Amar Chitra Katha or a B R Chopra version....more