This is perhaps the first time I’m actually writing a book review. That the book is so bad, is what spurred me on to actually writing this review. As a reader, when I pick up a book to read, I expect it to be interesting, engaging and internally consistent. Sadly, this one is none of the above. Having read Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, I expected a much better book from Anand Neelakantan. It’s always interesting to read the story from the point of view of the underdog and the story of Ravana, the Asura king is no exception. It is this curiosity that made me buy the book. But, this book is so disappointing at so many levels, that I don’t know where to start.
The plot & storyline
The success of a good writer is in sticking to the accepted plot of the traditional telling and still managing to convey a radically different viewpoint. This is what books like Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Ajaya by the very same author manage to do. Those books do not radically change the plot of the traditional telling in an attempt to justify the doings of the antagonist. This is Asura’s primary failure. It overlooks basic attributes of Ravana’s character in Valmiki’s Ramayana to paint an entirely different picture of who he is. The writer conveniently sidesteps Ravana’s parentage, his knowledge of the Vedas, his love for music and his devotion to Shiva. Instead, Ravana is portrayed as a rejected half-caste, suffering in poverty and burning with the ambition to become the feared Emperor of Lanka. Towards the end of the book, the author tries to make some amends by mentioning, in passing, the codification of musical notes and Ravana’s expertise in playing the Rudraveena. Unfortunately, the mention is too brief and unsatisfying to add depth to Ravana’s character.
Secondly, this entire sub-plot of Sita actually being Ravana’s daughter seems to exist in the book solely to justify her abduction by Ravana. Given the context and the narrative, this sub-plot falls flat on its face, failing to really rouse the reader to internalising that relationship. At one point, Ravana seems almost apologetic that Sita is his daughter, unwilling to disclose the true nature of that relationship to Sita herself. To me, Ravana did not make a very convincing father.
As for internal consistency, the writer seems to be in love with the idea of the oppressed dark-skinned masses belonging to the Dravidian Asura race. First of all, the Valmiki Ramayana barely distinguishes the good and the bad on the basis of skin colour. Rama, the hero, is dark-skinned, as is his wife. Ravana, the principal antagonist is fair-skinned. The heroes and the villains in the traditional telling possess an entire range of complexions between these extremes. Somehow, this portrayal of an Indian apartheid just does not cut it.
For any good book, a good narrative is essential, as is a good editor. Neelakantan seems to have lost out, not because his editor was bad, but because he doesn’t seem to have one. Sentences are long-winded and repetitive. The narrative is complicated for no reason. And to make things worse, grammar and spelling errors abound. If I’m paying 300 bucks to buy a book, I’d at least expect basic typos to be corrected.
Then, there is this character called Bhadra. What purpose does he serve really? All he does is lament his own fate, rant about the rape and murder of his first wife and child, and the rape and impregnation of his second. When he’s not doing that, he is grovelling at Ravana’s feet despite the fact that it was Ravana who actually raped his second wife. Why exactly do we need him in the book? The alternating points of view are actually tiring to read and add absolutely no depth or value to the story.
Practically every character is frustratingly unidimensional. Ravana is arrogant and foolish, rejecting all so-called Deva traditions, and not really upholding too many Asura ones either. Then pray, why is he our hero? Vibhishana is a coward and a traitor with no redeeming factor. Rama is a coward too, not to mention suspecting his wife of infidelity. Kumbhakarna is a drunkard, addicted to opium to boot. Sita is, well, either dumb or a complete idiot. I can’t quite decide which one. Bhadra shouldn’t actually exist in this book, for he has no role. What more can I say?
For the first time in many years, I actually skipped about 50 pages of a book in an attempt to just finish the book. If you want to really read a good book on mythology, don’t pick this one. Palace of Illusions is a better choice. Or Karna’s Wife. Or even Valmiki Ramayana.