Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review - Asura: The Tale Of the Vanquished

Ravana sees himself as the epitome of a complete human being; So, Rama may be seen as God but Ravana is the more complete man.’ Thus proclaims Anand Neelakantan’s take on Ravana’s story, Asura: The Tale of the Vanquished. I’m hooked by these lines right in the beginning that describe why Ravana was perceived as a Dasamukha, what the ten ‘faces’ denote. I am extremely impressed with the point of view and thoroughly excited about listening to the other side of the story, giving the fallen a chance to voice their reason. And then I go on to read a fantastic book that cements my secret vote for Ravana, justifying the benefit of the doubt that I have reserved for him all along. Right? You couldn’t be more wrong.  

While the idea of shifting the point of view from the popular to the villainous is completely laudable, the book reads like a punishment save for the 1st chapter that details Ravana’s final moments of contemplation. I am not happy hacking away at this one, but I wish to be fair to the reviewing process.

This review contains spoilers. If you would prefer not to know what happens, I suggest you read the book before you get to this.

What did not work for me:

1 – Editing
Terrible to the say the least and virtually absent at too many instances. If I were to dig deep, I’d have to quote about 95% of the sentences used in the book for bad grammar and sentence formation. My copy is marked up in ink from start to finish and not in a good way. There’s a sentence in this book that describes someone’s growth as ‘matured into a mature minister of finance.’ If this doesn’t rest my case, no issues, I can still give you a hundred more.

2 – Language and Narration
While an interesting plot cannot survive on its own, shrewd and tight editing has a strong chance at salvaging the best parts of what’s available. This novel has biting wit running through its pages that makes for some seriously enjoyable moments. But the narration & language in particular begin to sound jarring beyond a point due to switching tenses and it gets outright annoying, the editing not holding up the least bit. What takes off to a glorious start, left me cheated and disgusted, by the nonchalant attention paid to details or logic, I can’t quite decide.

3 – Stereotypes
Any point of view finds leverage in a fact, creating a protagonist or an antagonist to support. The author grounds his story on the unfair treatment meted out to Asuras by the Brahmins of earlier society, eventually phasing them out and making outcasts of them all. While this is a strong reason for rebellion, one you can logically assume Ravana to revolt against, the plausibility holds good only for a while beyond which it just becomes an open Brahmin-bashing fest, without backing arguments. The equivalent of Hulk saying ‘Hulk mad. Hulk don’t know why.’ Assuming you are okay with the bashing and maybe hope that the Asuras would have a solid system that works for them, you can argue for, you’d be sadly disappointed. Throughout the book, the Asuras, and that includes the protagonist Ravana, claim nothing but disgust for their clan of men and women who drink, dine and sleep around all the time and basically agree that they are not worthy of redemption. They remain that way until the end, Bhadra being the stellar prototype. What are we expected to support here exactly?

4 – Characters
I cannot sufficiently describe how disappointing this novel was without detailing why the different characters portrayed did nothing to earn my respect, but considering I’d run the risk of writing a novella out of it, let me try to be precise.

A – Bhadra: Never have I come across a more disgusting man in stories that I have read. This one’s a spineless, pride less, jobless drunkard specializing in debauchery and the lowliest form of unfaithfulness, to his king, to the women in his life, a man with zero ethics and a terribly confusing portrayal from beginning to end. He has a back story where he loses his wife and daughter to a Deva raid, and how I wish he’s been killed too. He suddenly proclaims Ravana as his king, literally behaves like a dog with him, then jumps ship, then comes back again, drinks, sleeps around, kills men, plots against Ravana, goes back to being faithful to Ravana, curses him, always has access to the palace, falls at Ravana’s feet and declares his undying love for him and finally kicks Ravana’s bones from his funeral pyre into the sea. What the f***?
And like I already mentioned, he is the classic example of how every single Asura behaves in this book. Bhadra never moves a muscle to find work, chastises the king for treating him like a beggar and then scrambles with other beggars to retrieve silver coins from the ditch to buy drinks. What was the author thinking?

B – Mandodari
One thing that has always stood out for me in the stories surrounding Ravana that I’ve heard is the love he shared with his wife, Mandodari. Don’t expect that here. Ravana’s arranged marriage is a joke, one he makes of it in the beginning, where he hates his bride and suddenly two pages later, he is in love with his wife, just like that, out of the blue! Those two hardly talk, practically yell at each other all the time and appear to be in pain when in each other’s company. He cheats on her, multiple times, even makes a kid and the relationship they share is so very disturbing you can’t help but think they need therapy. I don’t know if there’s even a point discussing this anymore but maybe I should tell you this – towards the end, all of Lanka is at war, Ravana wants to tell Sita that he is her father and Mandodari suddenly appears out of nowhere to put a hand on Ravana and tell him it’s ok. And get this, Ravana begins to undress her (the author’s words. Not mine.) And nothing works. He is sad that the passion between them is lost.
I was just stumped. I read on only because I wanted to keep my word about reviewing this book.

C – Ravana
This one will seriously turn into a full size novel if I begin listing how badly Ravana is portrayed in this book. The stories I’ve heard about him, depict him in a tyrannical light, yet mention what a fantastic ruler he was, caring about his people and building an empire out of nothing. He was a talented man, devout and principled and for want of better analogy, did things that were terrible, yet great. (Similar to Ollivander’s description of the Dark Lord’s actions in Harry Potter.) The Ravana in this book starts off as a disadvantaged teenager with ample reason to fight for his place in the world and overthrow it in the process. And just as you watch him, he turns out to be a whiny, talentless wreck, more interested in women and occasionally the arts as he claims, surrounded by people he can’t control, behaving like a teenager right upto his death, absolutely clueless about what he wants and what he should do to get there, trying to answer the why’s along the way. It’s pointless to even write about this any longer. If you have even an ounce of respect for Ravana, you’ll lose it if you read this version of what could’ve happened. I’m going to revert to my opinion of him gleaned from childhood stories, thank you very much.

5 – Logic
Logic takes ad-hoc vacations at so many points in this narrative. To name a few:

-  Maricha’s supposed skinning of a deer and fitting under its skin and jumping around like a deer
- Every single Asura army man boozes on the job, dozes on the job, sniggers at their king openly, doesn’t even bother to light candles in the durbar, never takes any threat seriously and the entire system is a huge security threat. Bhadra keeps getting into the fort as do a number of other people, there are so many traitors around and all Ravana does when he acknowledges these gaping issues is go ‘Grrr’ in his mind. Sheesh!
- Varuna, the pirate-king/ enemy suddenly gets promoted behind the scenes to Ravana’s best friend. Abracadabra!
- The Vanaras are described as a mixed caste of people, led to independence by Bali and only referred to as monkey-men due to their jungle ways. So when Hanuman holds court with Ravana and he orders for Hanuman’s ‘tail’ to be burned, literally, so that he can feel the pain when he sits, your cry of anguish isn’t all that unfair. Not back, not butt, but his ‘tail’. Sigh.
- This is the best one of them all: ‘Women were treated by Deva men as nothing more than commodities’ thinks Ravana when he attends Sita’s swayamvar and isn’t fond of the whole a –contest-for-the-princess’s-hand concept. As opposed to Asura men, including Ravana jumping at every single chance to ‘take women’ (the author’s words. Not mine.) Now isn’t that very honorable. What WAS the author thinking?

I’m going to stop here and just say it was a task getting through this book that seemed to hold such promise in the beginning. If I could sum up Ravana’s argument based on this read, it would go something like this:

Ravana: ‘Hey, what d’ya want from me man? All I wanted was to be Emperor. Can’t blame all the crap that went on around me that I didn’t know how to control. I lost interest midway, anyhow. So yeah dude, whatever. Should’ve taken up music or something.’

Rating: 1/5 for the novel idea of a different point of view.

Verdict: Enough said.

Did you like this review? Agree with the points discussed? Or not? Drop a comment. Let's compare notes :)