Despite strong recommendation, I almost passed up this book at Odyssey the other day. You see, I have a problem with book recommendations. The last time I listened to someone, the book turned out to be a waste of my precious 300 rupees! So, I took every book on the list Praveen sent me with a pinch of salt. I picked each up, carefully read the blurb, then a couple of pages and then decided to buy…or not! But my! What a book this one turned out to be! It’s after a very long time that a book has delighted me the way this one has managed to. So much so that I have actually decided to write a review! This is perhaps the first time I am writing a review of a book, since book reviews have always reminded me of that horrible time in school when the librarian would insist we write one for the books we borrowed during the weekly library hour. I hated the chore and invariably copied the blurb down, like everyone else, even if I had actually read the book. But this time, reviewing is straight from the heart.
The story starts at the Mansarovar lake at the foot of Mount Kailash, and depicts Shiva staring thoughtfully at the orange sky. The first few pages, his conversations with his best friend Bhadra, his confusion about the right path, his determination to do his best, whatever that might lead to…all of these immediately appeal to your senses. Actually, the idea of a God being nothing more than a common human with common flaws, is quite delightful. I have spoken of my discomfort with the deification of Ram before, but in this book there is nothing of the perfection that we tend to so commonly associate with a God. If anything, Shiva is a normal man, not even a perfect one. He is an average Indian male with his share of insecurities, his problems, his fears… yes, his love for Sati, his desire to get her, and even his mischievous sense of humour, often laced with a subtle sexuality (oh! the scandal!) and a clear-thinking, rational mind. As a reader, I couldn’t help falling in love with him simply because he is so normal. As someone who is tired of perfection in Gods, this book was a total delight! The first of a trilogy, you don’t see Shiva as the God of Gods. You see him as a man, a passionate lover, a perfect dancer, a fierce warrior, an expert swordsman and a fair and honest human being. In fact, he even has a troubled past: as someone who ran away from a call for help!
The second character that appeals in the book is, undoubtedly, Sati. Forced to be an outcast for no fault of hers, she silently bears her fate with a certain stoicism. But, there is nothing resigned about her demeanour. She struggles to contain her attraction to, and eventually love for Shiva. She fights to retain the delicate balance between passion and duty. She is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, well-read, compassionate, a consummate dancer and an expert warrior in her own right. Anything Shiva can do, Sati can do better! Except, as the legend goes, dance. There is even a reference to the legend with Shiva offering to teach Sati dance.
Then there are the Chandravanshis, painted from the outset as a vile race, ready to consort even with the wretched, sub-human Nagas for victory. The vision we have of them at the end of the book, however, is completely different. They are the very antithesis of the Suryavanshis: their motto being: Shringar, Saundarya, Swatantrata as against Satya, Dharma, Maan of the Suryavanshis. The passion of the Chandravanshis, their temperamental nature, their confidence about their sexuality; all of these contrast sharply with the somewhat prudish, rule-obsessed and extremely disciplined Suryavanshis. Together, they form the Yin and the Yang, the heart and the mind, the masculine and the feminine. Each of the characters, while drawing heavily on mythology, is also a complete human in his/her right. Each has his flaws, his problems, his strength and his weaknesses. And the author stays faithful to the original myth, while still managing to make his characters look believable.
The book is definitely a page-turner, written as it is, in the manner of a thriller. No high-brow stuff, thank you very much. The author sticks to simple English and does not try to cater to an elite audience. This simplicity of narration is perhaps the strength of the book. It managed to catch your attention without descending to the level of pulp fiction. He manages to tackle the complex concepts of divinity and duality, of Dvaita and Advaita in simple terms. Our hero comes across as someone who believes in action rather than in obtuse philosophy, while still appearing extremely intelligent. In fact, in several instances, Shiva ribs the Suryavanshis and their priests, asking if they never talk in simple terms, if they always believe in talking in riddles!
The plot is simple, and the author seems to have made a conscious effort to keep it that way, shedding all the flab that mythological stories inevitably accumulate over the years. There is a sense of coherence in the plot, even for someone who grew up listening to the sanitized, TamBrahm version of Hinduism where every God had to be perfect and where there was no room for vices such as anger, fear, desire, or lust. Also, there is a certain lightness about the tone of narration and you chuckle with a quiet delight when the Chandravanshi king responds to the Suryavanshi request to hand over the terrorists in a letter through an emissary. “Please accept my deep condolences for the dastardly attack on Mount Mandar,” he says. Denying that he has any role to play in the attacks, he offers every help possible to investigate the case and help in bringing the criminals to justice. At this point, you are so sure that the vile Chandravanshis are the terrorists, that you can’t help remember our neighbours’ being charitable and offering to investigate the Mumbai attacks!
If you like Indian mythology, but are not so religious or dogmatic that you would object to humanizing a God, you should probably read this book. At the end of the book, you may not be as devoted a follower of Shiva as you used to be, but you will certainly see in him a friend, a philosopher, a fantastic dancer and perhaps even a man as near to perfection as one is likely to find in a real world! Definitely recommended, even if it is only as light reading.