Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Book Review: “The Immortals of Meluha” by Amish Tripathi
A story set in 1900 BC which revolves around Lord Shiva wouldn’t be my usual cup of tea. I bought the The Immortals of Meluha solely because it’s been on the bestsellers chart for so long and I was curious to know why.
I don’t claim to be an expert either on Indian history or India’s epics and myths, but I have a basic idea of all of these. None of this helped while me reading the The Immortals of Meluha which re-writes India's ancient history in a very innovative manner. To start with, Lord Shiva, the hero of the novel, is shown to be a marijuana smoking immigrant from Tibet and an excellent fighter to boot. Meluha, the land of the Suryavanshi people, sends a team of soldiers to persuade Shiva and his tribe, the Gunas, to move to Meluha. Why do they do so? Because they are looking for a savior and Shiva with his blue throat is the Neelkanth. Why does the almost-perfect Meluha need a savior? Because it faces a threat from the lazy and evil Chandravanshi people, who occupy the neighbouring country Swadweep. The Swadweepans are aided by the evil Nagas.
Tripathi’s creation Meluha covers the entire North-West of the Indian subcontinent, stretching from Gujarat in the South to Kashmir and Afghanistan in the North, Punjab in the East and Sindh in the West. Swadweep is composed of the North East, with Bengal, Assam and most of the Gangetic plain. In the Immortals of Meluha, one keeps meeting people and places that sound familiar. There’s a famous city in Meluha called Harriyappa and another called Mohan Jo Daro, on the banks of the mighty Indus. Mohan Jo Daro apparently means “Platform of Mohan”, and is named after the great philosopher-priest Lord Mohan.
Tripathi tells us that Lord Manu is considered to be the progenitor of civilisation by all the people of “India”. Yes, Tripathi frequently uses the word “India” for the land called Sapt Sindhu, which holds Meluha and Swadweep. Apparently Lord Manu lived 8500 years before the story’s timeline (1900 BC). He was a prince in a land south of the Narmada, called “Sangamtamil.” We are told that Sangamtamil was the richest and most powerful country in the world. Lord Manu’s family, the Pandyas, had ruled that land for many generations. By Lord Manu’s time, the Kings of Sangamtamil had lost their old code of honour. 'Having fallen on corrupt ways, they spent their days in the pleasures of their fabulous wealth rather than being focussed on their duties and their spiritual life. Then a terrible calamity occurred. The seas rose and destroyed their entire civilisation.' Lord Manu had expected the calamity and he led a few followers to the northern higher lands in a fleet of ships. After reaching safety, Lord Many gave up his princely robes and became a priest. Tripathi tells us that the term for priests in India, “pandit”, is a derivation of Lord Manu’s family name “Pandya”! As a result of the flooding which destroyed Sangamtamil, various minor streams north of the Narmada became massive rivers – namely the Indus, Saraswati, Yamuna, Ganga, Sarayu and Brahmaputra. Lord Manu forbid anyone from going south of the Narmada where, at the time of this story, only the evil Nagas live. The land north of the Narmada came to be called Sapt Sindhu (since it had seven rivers).
Nagas, we are told by Tripathi, are a cursed people born with hideous deformities because of the sins of their previous births. Deformities like extra hands or horribly misshapen faces. They have tremendous strength and skills which makes them useful fighters. They are not allowed to live in Sapt Sindhu.
Many, many centuries before Shiva arrived on the scene, when Lord Brahma was in charge of affairs, people could become Brahmins only through a competitive examination process. Later caste became rigid and hereditary. It was Lord Ram who straightened things out. He introduced the Maika system, which reminded me of Plato’s proposals (never implemented) regarding communal living where children are to be brought up in common nurseries. Under the Maika system, all pregnant Meluhan women must travel to a camp when they are ready to deliver babies. Children are brought up in the Maika without knowing who their parents are. At the age of 15, a comprehensive exam is held, on the basis of which castes are allocated. After such allocation, there is one more year of training, this time, caste specific. Children are then adopted by parents from the caste allocated to them at the Maika. We get to know that under this fantastic system, over time, the percentage of high castes actually went up. At the time of this story, the Maika system continues to flourish, with the only difference being that the rulers and nobles have stopped putting their children in the Maika. In addition to the Maika, Lord Ram also created the Rajya Sabha, the ruling council, consisting of all Brahmins and Kshatriyas of a specific rank.
Meluhan women are free and have all rights. The prime minister of Meluha is a women, as is the doctor who tends to Shiva and his people as they arrive in Srinagar from Tibet. Sati seems to embody the ideal Meluhan woman, bold, fearless and beautiful. Some women even make it as Kshatriyas through the Maika system.
Meluha is so very technologically advanced. New immigrant Shiva is awestruck to find that its cities are built on elevated platforms. Shiva’s bathroom has ‘a magical device on the wall to increase the flow of water’ and a ‘strange cake like substance that the Meluhans said was a soap to rub the body clean.’ Meluhans live for hundreds of years, because they drink Somras, which is mass produced at a place called Mount Mandar. The Meluhans have numerous plantations for the Sanjeevani tree, since it is a crucial ingredient in Somras. Tripathi’s description of the manufacturing process for Somras reminded me of a nuclear reactor. We are told that manufacturing Somras generates a lot of heat and that a lot of water is needed during the processing to keep the mixture stable.
At Shiva’s wedding, water from the Saraswati is shown to be diverted into a channel which is shaped liked a Swastika. Filters inject a red dye into the water as it enters the channel and just as efficiently remove it as it flows out. We are told that Swastika means ‘that which is associated with well-being.’
First of a trilogy, The Immortals of Meluha’s plot is very basic and revolves around the tussle between Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis who are numerically superior to the Suravanshis and resort to cowardly “terrorist” attacks to weaken Meluha. Suryavanshis always fight by the rules. They would never stab in the back or strike below the knees. Somras, made available to all Meluhans, is what makes Meluha strong. The Chandravanshis too have knowledge of Somras, but they are unable to mass-produce it. Many decades before Shiva’s arrival, the Chandravanshis had managed to cause the Saraswati to dry up, leading to war, which the Meluhans had won. You see, the most important ingredient for Somras is the water from Saraswati, which comes from the confluence of two mighty rives, the Sutlej and the Yamuna. So the Chandravanshis diverted the course of the Yamuna (Tripathi doesn’t tell us how, but assures us that it can be done) so that instead of flowing south, it started flowing east to meet the Ganga. The Suryavanshis went to war with Swadweep over this and routed the Chandravanshis. Yamuna’s course was restored. The terms offered to Swadweep were liberal, too liberal, we are told. When Shiva arrives, the Saraswati is still drying up and the Meluhans aren’t sure why. Swadweepans outnumber Meluhans who keep having fewer and fewer children as their life-style keeps improving. Tripathi’s comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of the Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis, the liberal use of the word ‘terrorist’ and derision at the easy terms offered to Swadweep after its defeat, reminded me of the India and Pakistan rivalry and the Islamic terrorist angle.
Shiva irons out the few creases that exist in near-perfect Meluha. The Vikrama system, which even Lord Ram had endorsed, is the main object of Shiva’s fury. Vikramas are those who suffer ill-fate in life, such as having a still born baby. Sati is a vikrama and can’t attend yagnas. When she does, a nasty man called Tarak objects, forcing Sati to challenge him to an "agniparksha", which merely means a duel within a ring of fire, to be fought till one fighter dies. Does Sati survive her agniparisksha? Do read this book to find out.
Tripathi’s descriptions of the various fights Shiva gets embroiled in are good, but not that good. Almost all of them take place when Chandravanshis launch cowardly terrorist attacks with the help of Nagas. After an explosion destroys Mount Mandar (the place where Somras is mass manufactured), the Suryavanshis declare war on Swadweep. Swadweep has a large army which is a million strong, though many of its soldiers are conscripted. The Meluhan army is only a hundred thousand strong, but it is fully professional and Kshyatriya to the last volunteer. Further, Meluha’s advanced war machines cannot be taken across the rugged border. Shiva suggests new tactics and weapons. The first is a human ram, composed of men forming a tortoise like shell using their shields. This one’s taken straight from the Roman army’s field manual or maybe the Romans who came later copied it from Meluha. Then Shiva designs the trishul, which Tripathi tells us has the effect of three spears. War elephants are ruled out as being too unruly – you never know whether they will charge forwards or backwards. And finally Shiva comes up with a brilliant idea – archers! Archers who can rain a shower of arrows on the enemy! The Meluhans had apparently stopped using bows and arrows as they developed more advanced technology, but they see merit in Shiva’s idea, since they cannot take their long range catapults to Swadweep.
Shiva allows a Vikrama called Drapaku (who used to be a highly decorated soldier before bad-luck made him a Vikrama) to form a contingent of Vikrama soldiers to fight the Chandravanshis. Not everyone is happy, but Shiva’s order has to be obeyed. Once the battle beings, Meluhan soldiers are about to be caught in a pincer between two wings of the numerically superior Swadweepans. A battle akin to that at Thermopylae takes place Drapaku marches off with 5000 men who then hold the Chandravanshis off in a narrow defile. Most of the 5000 men die.
Shiva is not shown to have any supernatural powers, through towards the end one sees him deflect arrows with his sword. For the main battle with the Chandravanshis, Shiva has the Meluhan army arranged in a bow formation. Before the battle begins, Shiva explains to the already-egalitarian Suryavanshi soldiers that 'Har Har Mahadev' means each and every Suryavanshi is a Mahadev. This war cry further energizes the Suryavanshis who destroy the Swadweepans and sweep into Ayodhya, their capital city.
I wasn’t too impressed with Tripathi’s story-telling style, which I thought dragged a bit at times. However, after the march into Ayodhya, I changed my mind. No, it was not just the sudden arrival of the Swadweepan princess Anandmayi who is beautiful, raunchily dressed and is so very different from Meluhan women in that she is so politically incorrect. Do read this book, which suddenly became much more interesting at this point, to find out more.
Tripathi uses modern day terminology while telling us his tale. For example, immigrants (such as Shiva who arrived from Tibet) are taken to a “Foreigners Office” where they are met by an “Immigration Executive” who tells them that he is to be a ‘single point of contact for all issues while you are here.’ The immigrants are kept in “quarantine”, just in case they are carrying something infectious. The doctor who examines them is a great believer in the “field-work experience programme.” Much later, we see Shiva having a "breakfast meeting" with the ruler of Meluha. At one place, a soldier is address as "private" which made me wonder if I was reading a war novel with American GIs in it.
At times, Tripathi’s modern lingo doesn’t gel with the story, which also has its share of Sanskrit. When Shiva woos Sati we hear him think ‘Say yes, dammit!’ Later when Shiva is puzzled by Sati’s reactions, he thinks ‘what the hell is going on.’ Later Shiva thinks ‘he had to impress her.’ I tried to compare the Immortals of Meluha with Ashok Banker's Ramayana series, but stopped. Banker's Ramayana series transports you to the time when Lord Ram lived. The Immortals of Meluha is set in today's world and the ambience is not very different from that of a college cultural festival.
Immortals of Meluha is not the first novel to use modern day terminology to narrate an ancient tale. Setven Pressfield’s The Afghan Campaign did the same for Alexander the Great’s campaign in the land now called Afghanistan. However, I didn’t find Tripathi to be half as good as Pressfield.
In order to enjoy Immortals of Meluha, one has to accept Tripathi’s rewriting of history Every fiction writer has the licence to do what Tripathi has done. However, some of Tripathi’s statements in the foreword to the book made me wonder if Tripathi has approached this book strictly as a work of fiction. Tripathi asks us, ‘What if Lord Shiva was not a figment of a rich imagination, but a person of flesh and blood? Like you and me. A man who rose to become godlike because of his karma. That is the premise of the Shiva Trilogy, which interprets the rich mythological heritage of ancient India, blending fiction with historical fact. This work is therefore a tribute to Lord Shiva and the lesson that his life teaches us.’ I’ll say no more, but will leave it to you to judge for yourself.
Tripathi won’t be the first (or last) author to attempt rewriting history. A couple of years ago, I read the first four books of quintet by the famous secular/left wing writer cum activist Tariq Ali who is based in the UK. All four books sought to tell the story of how Islamic Empires rose and fell in a non-Eurocentric manner. The first one, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, is set in Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Book of Saladin is about, well, Saladdin, and is narrated by Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe retained by Saladin to pen his memoirs. The Stone Woman, the third book in Ali’s Islam Quintet, is set at the turn of the twentieth century as the six hundred year old Ottoman Empire slowly flickers out. Tariq Ali’s fourth novel The Sultan of Palermo revolves around the world renowned cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi who lived in the twelfth century and served the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. All these books are fictionalised history. In The Book of Saladin, we are introduced to two crusaders, who did exist. Ali tells us that one of them attacked Mecca and desecrated it, surely a very serious charge. At one point, crusaders did harass pilgrims to Mecca, but to say a crusader attacked and desecrated Mecca is too serious a charge. Why does Ali get carried away so much? I don’t know. Maybe he felt that making crusaders look more evil and ruthless than they were would help negate the bias against Muslims in today's West.
I got the feeling that Tripathi has written India’s history, the way he would like it to have been – where there were no migrating Aryans fighting with the Dravidians, one which gives all Indians a shared and common heritage, which every modern-day Indian can be proud of. This isn’t a bad ambition, but then why didn’t Tripathi give the evil, deformed and misshapen Nagas some other name?
The second book in this trilogy has been released and I have just placed an order for it. There are number of reasons why I want to read it. You see, it is not really clear why a small contingent of Nagas and Chandravanshis have been attacking targets in Meluha. Was it simply to cause terror or were they trying to abduct someone? Also, it is possible that the explosion at Mount Mandar was the result of an accident or at the very least was not orchestrated by the ruler of Swadweep. Also, are the Chandravanshis as evil as they were initially made out to be? True, they are not as organised as the Meluhans, and each Chandravanshi is an individual, very different from each other, unlike the Meluhans who all seem to think alike. And finally, are the Nagas really that evil? We did see a group of Nagas rescue a woman from the jaws of a crocodile, even as they wrought mayhem in Meluha. Maybe there is something more to the Nagas than meets the eye.
On the whole, I would say that Tripathi is a good story teller, on par with someone like Chetan Bhagat and just like Bhagat, his stories would be even better if the narration could be improved.