When I first picked up Asura – Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelkantan, I was moved by the title. This was because I have always found Ramayana to be very uninteresting compared to the Mahabharata. It’s all black or white; Gods are Gods, demons are demons. Rama the dutiful ideal son, ideal king, ideal husband (some would say otherwise and I stand with these)… Ravana the evil unrepentent Rakshasa (demon). The fight versus good and evil; and of course, evil doesn’t stand a chance. Strictly for the books, but there it is. It felt good overall, save for the ending that has been made popular – the thing about Sita being asked to prove her chastity, Rama abandoning his pregnant wife, asking his younger brother Lakshmana to take her away. Unsavoury, of course, and untrue, as many say. Well, true or not, the story does take forward the morals and societal norms prevalent in those times and endorses the same. Which is why I was drawn to Asura.
Some hope tingled somewhere of finding an alternative to Valmiki’s story, fiction or not. You must have already guessed that I have no particular affection for Rama the good and no particular disaffection or judgment for Ravana the evil. It was all a story to me and I do identify with Sita’s plight after the ordeal she went through as every
modern woman would but I understand that the book is a product of a man’s world and that I am living too, in a man’s world. And therefore, picking up Asura was not an exercise in being biased on either side. Ramayana is a good read the first time, and I was hoping something along those lines from Asura as well. That’s all. Basic expectations of a general reader.
I can’t say how historically accurate and faithful the Ramayana is, so there was no such expectation from a work of fiction based on the Ramayana either. But, I did expect some logic, excuse me, for that expectation proved unreasonable as I went along with the book. This book is 600 pages of class apathy, wallowing in self-pity, denial, guilt, and worse, poor prose, terrible grammar, little or no drama, pathetic imagination, and basically inflated book reviews everywhere! It made me realise that maybe when VS Naipaul made a certain comment about Indian writers, he had a point; a part of that point might go to this work. Although I’d rather die than side with the man. He still has a point!
Now, spoiler alert**: Anand Neelkantan, I doubt, is an author with logical scruples. You see, according to Asura, Rama’s wife Sita is actually an Asura princess, the daughter of the high and mighty Ravana. Yes, read carefully: Sita is Ravana’s daughter. And this Ravana, who killed his sister Soorpanakha’s husband because he was conspiring a rebellion in his kingdom, slapped his own mother in front of his courtiers, absolutely humiliated his own father, a learned Brahmin, always trampled upon a commoner Bhadra who was instrumental in helping Ravana every step of the way… that Ravana who abducted a Deva widow on one of his military exploits, that Ravana who raped a maid in his palace while his wife was next door, fathered an illegitimate son he never cared for or properly acknowledged… always humiliated his own Prime Minister and other senior ministers, he made a concession for his one daughter Sita. The daughter whom he had left behind when she was a baby, overcome by the thirst for power and lusting afte a Deva widow Vedvathi. This daughter he suddenly thinks of when time has come for her to be married. He wants to bring her back because he thinks Devas are backward people, treating women like lowly animals, while instead Sita should have the riches of the world and should live as an Asura princess, choose her own mate rather than be handed over to a prince as if she were some prize money in a contest where men had to string Shiva’s bow.
This, while we read about Ravana’s own contempt for his widowed sister (widowed also thanks to his overreach), who is said to take men as suited her whim and fancy. So much for talking about uncultured Devas when Ravana himself treats women like shit. Shit is the word my friends, for he hits his mother, insults her, insults his sister, rapes a maid when his wife Queen Mandodari refuses sexual access, rapes his maid and fathers child with her, never caring about her fate. There are references to the debauched lifestyle of all Asuras all over his kingdom and somehow every Asura fears being taken over by the Devas, losing their great culture to a civilisation that veils its women, that uses and abuses its women. I simply don’t ever get the sense that Asura kingdom was any different from a Deva kingdom. And this Ravana abducts his daughter Sita to save her from Rama, when he knows nothing about the man! He is concerned she has to spend a life of exile in the forest – coming from the man who left this baby daughter unattended in the Asura military camp when he was busy running after a widow?
There are unending laments against the Devas’ Brahmanical culture seeping into Lanka, with their rules on untouchability and class segregation. But then, Bhadra, an Asura commoner, to whom would go the credit of helping Ravana dethrone his cousin Kubera in order to usurp the kingdom of Lanka, cries time and again, often tears of blood and sheer despondency, of the class war. He was treated as a cur and so were people belonging to his class by the ruling class of Asuras who held all the power. I wonder how was this any different from the Brahmanical cult in the Northern plains of India. What exactly were the Asuras so proud of!?
I did not encounter one single character who had even the most basic wit, intelligence, competence, knowledge, basically any aspect of personality other than selfishness, greed, fear, pity. Not even Ravana. Of course not Rama. There’s hardly 4-5 paragraphs dedicated to Rama, the opponent who vanquished the protagonist. The writing style is bereft of any imagination whatsoever.
Ravana as we know from stories so far, was a great devotee of Lord Shiva, who had bestowed upon him many boons; Ravana was a learned man, he was a great musical exponent, he was extremely knowledgeable. He was shrewd and was good at administration. None of these qualities come out in the story. In Asura, Ravana’s world was full of anger and resentment when he was growing up, he was an angry and irreverent student in adolescence, he was an angry and desperate leader of his band of Asuras seeking to seize power from Kubera, an angry, stupid, misguided, ruler wallowing in self-pity and seriously lacking in self-esteem, an egotist who took decisions not to impart justice but to humiliate his senior ministers by overturning their decisions and by undermining his council of ministers at the first opportunity, a selfish, lowly-minded brother, son, and husband, basically a sorry, ungrateful leader whose attitude made him deserving of the fall he took thanks to Rama and his band of monkeys.
Asura basically turns into the story of Bhadra, a common Asura man. A farmer who loses his family to a babaric horde of a Deva conqueror, vows revenge and grovels in front of the despicable Asura start-up, Ravana, despite hating him from the very beginning. The story is interspersed with comments that may have come from simple opinion pieces of any modern day newspaper, all standing by the commoner whose face is Bhadra. All sad, depressing harangues with not a modicum of linguistic or dramatic flair.
Logic, passion, skill, is all wanting. Now suddenly even that fantastical version of Ramayana where the earth opens up miraculously to reclaim its daughter Sita, is rendered far more interesting. Asura is for me 15 days of my life I’ll never get back!