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The Old Story and the New Outlook – Book Review of Asura by Anand Neelakantan

Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan

By Ashwini Kumar Rath

Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
Indian mythology provides a wholesome yet intricate insights into geo-political, economic and social dynamics of our past. It is also the only source to narrate, deliberate and imagine our rich history in the absence of any written document available as per modern historical discourse. In fact, these mythological characters have been analysed through ages to draw various shades of human including that of victors and vanquished. The “Asura – Tale of the Vanquished” by the debutant author Anand Neelakantan tells the story of the rise and fall of Ravan, the Asura king.

While his past animated before Ravan who was lying in the battlefield after being fatally injured by arrows from the Deva king Rama, his fellow Asura man, Bhadra, played the real protagonist who viewed everything from a different perspective. Ravan lived his life with a big dream, saw the dream being realized to a large extent and later getting shattered after the birth of his eldest child and beloved daughter Sita. On the other hand, the commoner Bhadra found his master in Ravan to take revenge on Deva people who had destroyed his family in a raid into his small village in South India. However, his relationship with his master started with an intrinsic confusion and suspicion. The love and hate relationship continued through the very end as Ravan utilized Bhadra’s assistance in the time of need and ignored him otherwise.

Three boys and a girl with a Brahmin father and Sudra mother moved on in their lives to be very different human beings. The elder son became the saviour of Asura race, and finally fell to Rama to give way to Brahmin supremacy and establishment of Deva (barbarian) order of society. In a magnificent effort, the author has described the subtle differences of stratified societies of Deva people and organic society of Asura populace. Going back to the four children, the second son Kumbha lost himself in wine and drugs; and had almost complete loyalty towards family and the elder brother.

Bibhishan, the third son, was different, the true Brahminical offshoot of his father. His striking differences with Ravan and general Asura traditions became evident as time passed by. The separation was ugly and complete when he joined Rama on the mainland in South India with a majority of Asura army while going on a task to negotiate with Devas and Vanaras on behalf of his eldest brother. He epitomised the struggle between Devas and Asuras, followers of Shiva and Vishnu, and above all, between Brahminical social order and Asura way of socio-political and economic life.

Shoorpanakha, the lone sister of Ravan, was the source of weakness for Ravan. He worried about her well-being along with their mother’s while he was fighting his way forward during his initial years in Indian forest and before taking over Lanka from his half-brother Kubera, the merchant king (the god of wealth in mythologies). The rude shock came when he knew about her secretive love affair with Vidyutjihva, the rebel leader espousing democratic values, freedom and equality in Lanka. The marriage was consented and the brother-in-law was absorbed into the royal dispensation though treachery came from him later when Ravan was away from capital. After Ravan conquered Lanka back and had Vidyutjihva assassinated through Bhadra in the mid of night when the rebel was with Mala (Bhadra’s sweetheart and would-be wife), the widowed sister brought shame to Ravan due to her hedonic fantasy overdrive before being punished by Rama’s younger brother Lakshman.

Mandodari, the wife of Ravan and an intelligent and educated lady, kept a low profile throughout her life dominated earlier by her father’s wish and later by her husband’s whimsical character in spite of her upbringing in Mayan family (Mayans were famous for their science, technology and architecture) and the claimed openness of the Asura society. In fact, her father was responsible for reviving the flying bird Pushpak apart from designing the city-scape and temples for his son-in-law. The fates of both the father and the daughter were not good towards the end. Especially, the lady was subjected to utter humiliation through the way of Deva social affairs (after Asura kingdom fell to Rama) when her head was trounced and was veiled by white saree as the widow of Ravan.

The story gained its momentum as the events turned in quick succession after Sita was adopted by Janak after she, as a baby, was shunned by Ravan’s ministers due to a bad omen that she would play the destroyer of his father and Asura race. Ravan was then under arrest by King Kirthiveerarjuna as he fell unconscious while doing a daredevil act of swimming in fast flowing river Narmada to impress a Deva widow Vedavati. It all happened when Ravan was on the last leg of his military campaign against the kings of India, and was unaware of Sita’s fate until he returned home after a humiliating truce with Kirthiveerarjuna. The Asura princess with Deva upbringing married to Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, a dirty ignorable city in the north, whose predecessor King Anarnya was killed by Ravan. The Asura king wanted to bring back his daughter when he learnt about her forest dweller status after Rama relinquished the throne of Ayodhya and the news of insult to the sister Shoorpanakha by Rama’s brother. After all, Deva people didn’t treat women with dignity! Rest, the popular drama played leading to Ravan being killed, and his daughter being treated with indignity and repeated purity tests. The story continued until the execution of Lakshmana by his own brother following dirty politics of ruling Brahmin class, and the unremarkable death of King Rama. Bhadra played the villain enacting the mythological story of dhobi, and took the soft revenge for his dead master.

The narration has a few fundamental flaws like how Bhadra described the young Mala as a fair-skinned whore compared to the dark-skinned mother of Athikaya (accidental child of Ravan), later though both were the same woman. The acts and outlook of the Asura people in the narration do not make justice to a claim of a cultured society nor provide realistic insight into the so-called great Asura traditions. In spite of these and a few typos, the fertile imagination of the debutant author provides a refreshing perspective of the age-old characters and the mythological story. The author takes the reader through the complex history of ancient India, its juicy tales with a meaningful narration, and gives these a rational outlook.