Monday, June 4, 2012

Asura by Anand Neelkantan - A Review

"...Soon, the civilization that we reclaimed, the ideals of equality for all men, the beautiful cities and palaces, the majestic temples and royal highways, the ports where merchant ships waited for finest spices and cloths, the art and theater, will all be crushed under the feet of a Deva tyrant.You are lucky. You won't be there when the great Asura dream vanishes without a trace. You will not be there when the Brahmins will be the brain; Deva warrior the limbs; and crooked men like Kubera, the torso of our grand society. A society our little brother wishes to build on our corpses. Brother, you have gone beyond the misfortune of mere mortals and dark deeds of blue-skinned gods and their monkey men. I  might soon follow you. My only fear is, when I meet you again, will I be able to look you in the eye?"
(Lamentations of a broken elder brother, Ravana, upon seeing the corpse of his younger brother, Kumbhakarana; from Asura by Anand Neelkantan)

I had written long back, in this space itself, as to why I felt a little queasy with the diabolical picture of Ravana as is painted on the nascent canvass of our minds since early childhood. The demonic character of Ravana is not an image with which only the Hindu brethren of our nation associate; it has also become a representative proverb for sinister traits used amply by anyone who has come in touch with the great Hindu epic- Ramayana. If we read Ramayana as a mere piece of literature, we will understand the dexterity of the quill of Valmiki, who used very basic literary tool- that of creating a universally condemnable negative character in the form of Ravana, so that Rama becomes an even more glorious and ideal (maryadapurushottam) hero-warrior-king. How many of us, I ask again, had been taught of the immensely erudite aspect of Dashanana's character? Did we know that Ravana was a devout believer, an artist par excellence, and an accomplished pandit at many sciences?

I had expressed a wish then that I wanted to read something which could fit under the title - Ravanayana- a retelling of stories from Ravana's perspective. Asura- Tale of The Vanquished, reached my doorstep as a book desiring to fulfill that very wont of mine. Did it, however, succeed? Hard to say at the outset.

Asura, as is mentioned on the front cover itself, is a tale of Ravana and his people. This legendary 'rakshasa' also had a story behind him- his childhood, his dreams, his mistakes, his love, his failures, his triumphs, his regrets, his affections, his insecurities, and much else. In this ambitious novel, Anand Neelkantan, the author, has tried to humanize the legendary devil, but perhaps, has over done it a little.

Asura begins at the scene of death of Ravana, and then and there, the reader is introduced to the author's unabashed flair at describing gory details of death and destruction, capable of wrecking havoc with the weak hearted. In flashes of a life of glory and regrets, Ravana relives his entire journey, from being a half Asura offspring of a stringent Brahmin, to the King of the mightiest Asura empire on the earth. It is an interesting terrain which Ravana traverses, first to his glory, and then to his demise at the hands of Rama- the anti hero in this case.

A welcome and interesting addition to the narrative was a co-protagonist in the form of Bhadra. Essentially, Asura is an attempt to reflect upon the life of Ravana, as well as his subjects. Bhadra is a deftly created character who represents Ravana's people. He begins by being a loyal supporter in the grand vision of his master's attempt to conquer the world, but ends up disenchanted, disillusioned and on the very fringes of the society.

You will find a lot of riveting twists and turns in the plot which will make you question your traditional knowledge of the epic, and make the story progress ahead with the kind of masala you would associate with family sagas of the 60s and 70s. A particularly interesting fact about this book, its most prominent win factor, is how Anand Neelkantan has absolutely shifted the balance of right and wrong in this book- the kind of notions we grow up with. The proverbial heroes, the Gods have been reduced to the image of tyrants, plunderers, hypocrites and lousy rulers. For the one thing the author definitely deserves a strong pat on the back is how he makes us empathize with Ravana, how he gives us a peak in the fragile human yet virtuous ruler he attempts to become, so much so, that by the end you start feeling that the war between Rama and Ravana was not as easily a contest of good versus bad, or right versus wrong. Good-bad, right- wrong are all subjective concepts, largely asserting themselves based on the prism we choose to look through.

Traditional ideals are so firmly entrenched in our minds, that any attempt to challenge them is considered a sacrilege, a blasphemy. Yet, in this piece of fiction, the author has beautifully captured the other side of the coin, the story which is sacrificed to make another sound moral and justified. At places in the narrative, which alternates between Ravana and Bhadra (I, honestly, enjoyed Bhadra's portions more), you will find discourses whose inferences could be superimposed on modern governance concepts. The language is easy, casual, direct, detailed, and openly violent at places. You will read very little of Ramayana in here, so the storyline continues to intrigue and refuses to let you foray into guesswork.

I only felt the novel was a little too long. It is an ambitious project and hence deserves to occupy those many pages, but somewhere, as a reader, it fails to hold your full attention. I was left with a wish to see Ravana explored from different dimensions also- his artistic or academic side. As mentioned earlier, he is depicted as an insecure and fragile entity, which compromises on the booming Asura personality of his we are used to. Despite having done a good job, the potential of the concept, I believe has not been explored in full. For fans of mythological fiction, this book is a decent read, with its plus as well as its negatives. It is not Ravana, as much as, I believe, Bhadra who will make his home in your mind. Now that might be a good or a bad thing, but my wish to read a book comprehensively detailing the personality of Ravana with due glorification largely remains unfulfilled still.

2 and 1/2 stars on 5 for me.


  1. hey dee,reading ur blogs after such a long tym,glad to b back,i have alot of catching up to do,fantastic that u have reviewed so many books,ab padna start karunga..:D

    1. Karo karo! And consult me for some fantastic books! I have a flood of them at home :)