Writing mythology is a double-edged sword, and it takes an author of no little skill to choose the right edge to employ at the right time. Done wrong, the book could feel like nothing but a mundane re-telling of an extremely well-known story. Done right, however, and you have a chance to delve into some of the deepest and most complex characters ever put on paper.
Thankfully, Amish is an author who errs on the side of the latter. The Shiva Trilogy was one of the best pieces of work by an Indian author I have come across. This was not because of the language was beautiful or the story went flawlessly. Both these factors left something to be desired, accustomed as we are to the fluency of British and American authors. However, both language and plot being adequate, Amish truly excelled at his characters. Through the Shiva Trilogy, the characters really stood out in their complexity, actions and motives. It is exactly what made the Mahabharat – in my opinion, the greatest epic of them all – stand out and endure across ages and generations. It stands the test of time because each character in the Mahabharat is a shade of human nature, and human nature is eternal. The Shiva Trilogy was great because of these precise reasons. The reader remains engaged in the characters, even when the plot went on a different, sometimes unrequired tangent or dragged for some reason or another.
Amish added humanity and complexity to characters who were, till now, considered Gods. He managed to create a world where all the divinity of our mythology was grounded in science and logic, and this is what helped the man penetrate a generation that hardly reads and craves, above all, logic. He managed to get an entire generation in India started on good books, and for that alone, I cannot grudge him anything.
The Ramayana, however, poses an entirely different set of challenges. Where Shankar was always known to us as a God (and an exceptionally powerful one at that), Ram was always known to us a human being, virtuous and flawed at the same time. There has been no shortage of literature and fiction published in his name, all telling the same famous tale from different perspectives. For Amish to add a new dimension to a character so well explored was never a simple task. I would not say he succeeded at it completely, though the attempt is pretty good. The first book in the series, Scion Of Ikshvaku, was more or less a direct retelling of the Ramayana, though Amish did connect it to the larger universe he is building through elements such the Nagas, Somras, the tribes of Vishnu and Mahadev etc. However, the plot and the characters themselves were nothing new, and I found myself reading yet another version of a story India knows in its very genes.
The second book, for me, fell completely flat. While Sita is a character who often takes a backseat in the original epic, Amish had the chance to really dive into her character and decode her. However, given that he was using a multi-linear style of storytelling, I felt that Ram and Sita ended up meeting too soon, and the story from then on, became a repetition of the first book. Barring a few plot twists scattered here and there, Amish did not really offer anything new. Which is why I was, despite fears that this is a story beyond the skill of the author to add depth to, was excited for Raavan.
Raavan is a character who, for most of the epic, operates independently of Ram and Sita. He is always present on the periphery as a monster, but does not interfere in their affairs till that fateful day where their destinies finally meet. This gave Amish a chance to tell the story from a rare perspective, and give voice to a character who is possibly one of the complex beings in Indian mythology. So complex, in fact, that he would fit perfectly into the Mahabharat, which I always find to be a much more complex and grey tale as compared to the relatively black and white Ramayana. Raavan, the great king and the monster, the devil who desired to be God, the impulsive romantic who was cold and calculating, hoarder of wealth and yet generous, presented Amish with the chance to revive the series and for the first time, add a fresh perspective and substantial depth to it. Amish succeeds in this. And he succeeds beautifully.
Raavan is not a perfect book. Not by miles. There are too many points in the book which feel like a Bollywood movie or an Ekta Kapoor soap, replete with melodrama, a tragic love story and even a semblance of rebirth which would make any director worth his salt proud. These elements feel somewhat out of place in a world which is so grounded in politics, economics and all the manipulations therein. The narrative drags in some parts and the book could definitely have been 50 pages tighter. But all of this does not stop Raavan from being an engrossing and captivating read, and once again, Amish achieves this primarily through characterization.
Right till the end, it is the characters which keep you, the reader, hooked to the plot. The paradoxical Raavan, the conflicted Kumbhakaran and even minor characters with a lot of more depth than you would have suspected them of having if you’ve read the Ramayana are what keep the book going. Having a complex anti-hero like Raavan definitely makes the book more interesting than both the previous ones in the series, and pays off in unexpected ways which lend emotional and philosophical weight to the book. Speaking of philosophy, the book has chapters which delve into discussions around Dharma. The book could have done without these discourses, but Amish has plotted them well and weaved them into the overarching story subtly enough that these exchanges act to drive the plot and even develop the characters. For a book rooted in Indian mythology, this is crucial, since so much of the morality we associate with actions come from our interpretation of what dharma is. And, fortunately or unfortunately, our dharma is much more flexible than a character like Ram would make it out to be.
Raavan – Enemy of Aryavarta is ultimately one of the better books you’ll read coming from Indian authors and one of the best ones around Indian mythology. It takes a well-known epic and builds it into a world where it feels at home and grounded in logic. It takes familiar ground and attempts to pave new roads into it. It takes effort to give complexity and weight to a character who could have easily become a generic villain, but instead acts to give him motive and shades of grey. Amish could definitely improve further with respect to fluency of plot and pacing, but he has already come a long way since his first book. Raavan is definitely worth a read, even as a stand-alone book given the character and the themes it potentially discusses.
Reviewed by: Aniruddha Rege