The two legendary epics, The Ramayana and Mahabharata, of ancient India have always had their special thrones of honour, both in people’s hearts as well as literary culture and ethical values that form the building blocks of our religion. As they are invincible sectors of literature, they along with the rest of Hindu mythology stand as inspiration for thousands of writers across the plains of our country. Whichever way you turn or whatever novel you ruffle the pages through, you will find the imprint of mythology in one form or the other. There isn’t a character out there that doesn’t bear resemblance to at least one from it. When the situation is irrevocable, it is only natural writers love to experiment with the actual characters forming the base, mixing and matching incidents and scenarios with boggling creativity.
We had the outstanding Immortals of Meluha series by Amish Tripathi giving us a verbal treat like that.
Now author Anand Neelakantan contributes an interesting member to this unique club, Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan. We all know the story of Mahabharata and how the childhood battles between the five Pandavas and one hundred Kauravas stewed and boiled to end up in a massacre blood bath on the plains of Kurukshetra. The entire race of the noble kings of India came to an end at the end of the Dwapara Yuga and gave birth to the Kali Yuga. Lord Krishna, the ninth avatar of Lord Vishnu, was born into the Dwapara Yuga to restore truth, justice and righteousness back into the crumbling universe by using his clever wit and the aid of the Pandavas, out of whom Arjuna was his main comrade-in-arms. Duryodhana and the rest of his Kaurava brothers are the main foes in the epic, who are always seen to come up with a different way to bring their five cousins down and kill them so Duryodhana could ascend the throne of Hastinapura, which he believes is rightfully his own.
But he can’t be all evil, can he? Is there some humanity nestling in some remote corner of his heart? Why did he befriend Karna and love him like a brother? What’s with him and his ignorance to elderly advice? Did they actually irritate his different views on life? Despite the way he treated his cousins and their wife, was there some light in him that could show him a good man, after all? In Ajaya, that is the theme. The story of the Mahabharata is seen through his eyes and therefore is addressed as Suyodhana, in contrast to the intimidating title Duryodhana given by everyone else.
As someone who worships Arjuna and his brothers and has sought refuge within Lord Krishna, I wasn’t ready to accept the fact Duryodhana has in any way some kindness or generosity or any form of human nature within him. He ordered his brother to drag the wife of his cousin brothers like an animal into a crowded courtroom, jeered at her to come sit on his lap, and demanded that she be stripped naked. That’s enough for me to wish I could invent a time machine, go back into that scene, grab someone’s sword and slash him.
But Ajaya’s portrayal of Duryodhana was crafted with a fascinating flavour. It gives us a deeper insight into how his treacherous uncle manipulates him and certain scenes we accuse him as the main culprit has remarkable twists. I loved how the author starred Ekalavya and Jara as imperative roles in the story. Caste system has always been an infuriating factor, yesterday as well as today. Competition for success is everywhere and not everyone gets what they want. Ekalavya, a poor Nishada (Nishadas are the bottom line of the Untouchables) burns with a fiery ambition to wield a bow and arrow, something only Kshatriyas, the royal race, do and his journey in life was a gripping and heart-wrenching one. He was my favourite character. There isn’t a time he doesn’t get thrashed for squandering the normal norms of his tribe, translation keep your head down and never ever think of showing your face or talent to the world. He weaved in and out of various dangers that lurked in the jungle, lost all his dear ones as well as the main catalyst to showcase his invincible prowess. And yet, he moves on, bravery and backbone his main weapon. I routed for him all the time, as well as Jara, the sweet goofy urchin who followed Ekalavya everywhere he went and after getting abandoned held onto that sliver of hope that was no one but Lord Krishna.
I loved Karna’s fight too. He took on a path similar to Ekalavya, as we all know, but his had unbearable twists of its own and the patronage to Duryodhana paved way for all sorts of situations, love and quest to respect and honour. The two had a beautiful bromance colouring the pages, similar to Arjuna and Krishna’s.
There are however some factors that give me a set back and one of them was the fact Duryodhana’s compassion went to some extreme and unbelievable levels. Yes, I liked his views on life and his depth of friendship with Karna and Ashwatthama, as well as his reverence to the people who appreciated his skills. But Duryodhana was macho. He was a badass. He really doesn’t seem to be someone who’d cringe on hitting a bird as a target for a practical archery lesson. And I’m not sure he’s really someone who’d create poetry out of nature either. That and his later acts have some clear contrast. I also found the portrayal of the Pandavas and Krishna in certain scenes to be eyebrow-raising. I especially don’t think they have strong norms to the caste system and make the worst out of it, as seen in the inauguration of Indraprastha. That is not them.
But, as they say, there are two sides of a coin. The extent to which we can uplift a character in the society can be paralleled by the extent we find the bad sides to them. This was applied to even the noble patriarch Bhishma and Kunti Devi. No one really is perfect. Ajaya was wonderfully thought out and strung together with a rich but simple language. The story stops with one of the most popular scenes of Hindu mythology and continues on with part two Rise of Kali.
Anand Neelakantan has introduced us to a whole new dimension of one of the greatest epic of the ages and I am immensely impressed with how well he plotted through all the minute stories of the epic and connected them. I was happy on finding out he is the writer for my new favourite show after Star Plus’ Mahabharat, Siya Ke Ram.
Ajaya is a must read for all Mahabharat lovers out there. Order your copy here.