Title: Ajaya: Roll of the Dice (Epic of the Kaurava Clan - Book I)
Author: Anand Neelakantan
Publisher: Platinum Press
While I had found this experience of the Mahabharat interesting, I read it as just another story, rife with intrigue and scandal and drama and heightened emotions. I could not understand why it had to be singled out as India’s greatest epic. That situation changed when I read Ajaya, a retelling of the popular tale through the eyes of the oldest Kaurava prince, Duryodhana.
Exposed only to the popular version of the epic, I found myself quickly warming to this tale. I felt that it summarily answered a lot of the questions that the more popular version had raised in me. Why would parents give their own children names, prefixed by the derogatory, Du (or bad), as opposed to the auspicious Su (or good)?
Incidentally, the eldest Kaurava prince was named Suyodhana by his parents, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. It was the Pandavas who corrupted his name to Duryodhana. Neelakantan attempts to establish that Suyodhan was a just man who fought for the underdog. It was history that vilified him because he stood up against the Pandavas.
Sometimes the best way to understand something is to turn it on its head.
The Pandavas are not the heroes here, in a refreshing change from the Mahabharat. Nor are the Kauravas, for that matter. Suyodhana is the one that carries this re-telling on his shoulders.
Understanding the story from the perspective of Suyodhana helped me to see the Mahabharat as a story of a malignant foreigner with a treacherous insider to aid him.
Seeing the Mahabharat shorn of divinity helped me to see the India it hid within itself.
The world of Neelakantan’s Hastinapura is stripped of gods and claims of divinity. The Pandavas are born of Kunti’s alliances with various people, all very human, a practice that had social sanction for the purpose of ensuring an heir, particularly when the husband was impotent.
History is, after all, a point of view, with no allowances for neutrality. And so, in this re-telling, Bhima is a lout who derives pleasure from hurting those weaker than him. Kunti and Yudhisthira are selfish egoists, whose concept of dharma and right action is centred on their own interests and what is good for them. While Drona is a guru whose pettiness gets the better of him.
What was seen as the skill of the greatest archer, Arjuna, becomes here the cruelty of a mean man who cares little for the life of the bird, and later a dog, that he shoots to display his prowess at archery.
Krishna’s extreme aversion to the commingling of the castes is also brought to the fore here. As is his willingness to resort to manipulation to maintain the status quo.
The majestic sweep of the Mahabharat is laid out on display, with events beginning with Suyodhana as a 10-year-old boy cowering with fear at the bullying he often faces at the hands of his younger but stronger cousin, Bhima.
The viewpoint is mostly third-person omniscient, told from the perspective of Suyodhana, and occasionally from those of Karna and Ekalavya. Here stories of Ekalavya and the rebel Nagas are intertwined with the main story of the Hastinapur cousins, whose intense rivalry is the mainstay of the Mahabharat.
The machinations of Shakuni, Gandhari’s brother, the manipulations of Bhargava Parashuraman, who aims to bring about a theocracy of priests and the cunningness of Kunti and her coterie of priests all add to the intrigue. Defying their vision is Kripa, whose broadminded interpretation of religion and maverick nature is set against his love for liquor and desire for money.
The struggles of Karna, Ekalavya and the mythologically unknown Jara, who hails from the lowest of the low castes, become symbolic of the oppression that India’s low castes suffered for centuries and the vain attempts they have made to improve their lot.
Amid these characters, all too flawed, Suyodhana stands out for his nobility of character, his generous heart and his acceptance of his own mistakes.
I admire Neelakantan’s skill in re-telling an epic in a contrary voice, the voice of one who has always been seen as one of the two arch villains of Indian mythology.
Neelakantan’s sarcasm, particularly when he talks about the poor and their situation, is remarkable. At one time, Shakuni, pleased with the success of his efforts to destroy India, says, “How long could India resist her enemies, with such a heartless caste system, useless rituals, corrupt rulers, irresponsible citizens and a religion that denied the real world for the sake of imaginary happiness?” The thoughts are as real today as they were back then.
The author’s sense of irony paints the story in a contemporary light. Here he shows us that even slums can boast of ancient history and lineage. The great Indian attitude of taking pride in our culture, even as we flaunt an abysmal lack of civic sense or ethical governance, is also on display here.
There are some things that remain unchanged to this day and Neelakantan’s descriptions of them makes you stop short. The hunger where a boy will pounce upon a mango pit that has been sucked dry.
Hastinapura becomes a microcosm for our nation, and our penchant for gloating over our heritage, oblivious to the fact that in some places we have caused its sheen to be eroded. Reading Ajaya helped me realise that it is not for nothing that they call the Mahabharat the greatest Indian epic.
My attitude towards the characters that people the great epic changed, as I understood the flaws within each one of them.
I felt sorry for Bhishma, forced to take a vow of celibacy to satisfy his father’s lust, unwittingly unleashing the Mahabharata by his chivalric unwillingness to put a little boy, Shakuni, to death.
I could understand Shakuni’s hatred of the land that had belittled his own on the battlefront.
I could also understand the insecurities of Gandhari as she becomes a war-bride to a sightless man, and her reasons for using the blindfold to close herself to her new reality.
Neelakantan’s skillful prose brings the Mahabharat to life. His descriptions of Ekalavya’s single minded determination to become a great archer, the intrigues at court, the machinations of Shakuni, among other events, are vivid and help you to wipe out the imagery of that other more popular Mahabharat from your mind.
If, like Gandhari, you can close your eyes to the many punctuation and spelling errors that dot several pages of this novel, you will be rewarded with a book that is certainly worth reading.
I can’t wait for the second part of the series.
(I received a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways.)