Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Book Review: The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 2: Kaurava by Krishna Udayasankar

Just over a year ago, when I finished reading Govinda, the first book from Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles, I knew that I would not be able to resist the rest of the Chronicles. A few days ago, Flipkart delivered Kaurava, Book 2 and I jumped right in, only to emerge with an expression and feelings akin to a man who has had the soup and starters at an excellent restaurant and can’t wait for the main courses to arrive.

Just as in Book 1, Govinda Shauri plays a key role in Kaurava, as the story develops and leads to the big war. The characters are all very much human and very much real and Udayasankar’s de-deified version of the Mahabharata is a delight to read. The tussle between the Firewrights and the Firstborns continues in Kaurava. We get to know more of folks such as Syoddhan (Duryoddhan), Dussasan, Vidura, Asvattama, Jayadrath, Vasusena, Shikandin, Dhrstyadymn (Dhrishtadyumna), Dharma Yudhisthir, Bhim, Partha (Arjun), Panchali etc. in mortal avatars, warts and all. As Udayasankar presses on with her tale, the most well-known bits of the Mahabharata are re-arranged and presented to the reader in believable and realistic hues, which only adds to the credibility of the narrative. I’m sure everyone has heard of how Yudhisthir was forced to play a game of dice with Duryoddhan by the wily Shakuni and cheated of his kingdom. In Udayasankar’s Chronicles, there is no cheating and it is Yudhisthir, a compulsive gambler, who pushes Duryoddhan to play for very high stakes.

Udayasankar goes into Yudhisthir’s persona in such detail and depth and with such ruthlessness than at times I felt she goes overboard. Udayasankar tells us that Yudhisthir was a man inebriated with morality, the satisfaction of being right and good, backed up by brothers who would obey him come hell or high water. Yudhisthir definitely wasn’t the last man in the world to fall in love with virtue and truth, treating them as an end in themselves. Many have accused famous saints like Gandhi of such obsession with truth and morality, bordering on narcissistic martyrdom. In all probability, Yudhisthir wasn’t the first either. A man who believes that it was his destiny to rule, Yudhisthir gambles with the hope that providence would allow him to win an empire with a throw of the die so that he might claim to deserve the title of Emperor. One doesn’t have a choice but to hate Udayasankar’s Dharma, so much so that when, towards the end of the book, Chief Virat of Matsya slaps Yudhisthir, one feels good about it. On the other hand, Duryoddhan comes across as a likeable and nice guy, the sort one could go out for a drink with. Unlike Yudhisthir, Duryoddhan does not enjoy the luxury of having obedient younger brothers, waiting to do his bidding.

But the best sculpted character in Udayasankar’s Kaurava is Panchali. Not only is she human and earthy, with a mind of her own, her values and ideas would easily fit into today’s world. Let down by her first love Govinda and her unworthy husbands, Panchali suffers at the hands of Dussasan after Yudhisthir gambles her away and none of her other husbands stand up for her. However she stoutly resists her violation and declares that Yudhisthir never had the right to gamble her away. Kind-hearted Duryoddhan offers her an escape route when he proclaims that Panchali could go free if one of Yudhisthir’s younger brothers would endorse her claim and agree that Yudhisthir never had the right to stake her. None of the four cowards come forward. Let me not give away more, other than say that Udayasankar’s handling of the game of dice episode is a masterpiece by itself. Udayasankar pours concrete over Panchali’s character as an independent woman with her description of Panchali’s encounter with Keechak.

Asvattama, Shikandin and Dhrstyadymn come across as likeable characters, and I found Udayasankar’s depiction of Asvattama to be particularly fascinating, partly because I knew very little about him till now. Dhritarashtra is not a one-dimensional blind man as the Chopra father-son duo had me believe till now. In Udayasankar’s hands, Dhritarashtra is not so nice and so very interesting.

There are folk who believe that Jesus Christ visited Kashmir. I am not sure if Udayasankar is one of them, but she does take Govinda to Greece where he imbibes Greek thought and contributes some ideas of his own. Krishna is supposed to have trained as a Firewright, as have many of the important characters and Udayasankar takes pains to show how many of the good guys are Firewrights, even as they side with the Firstborn and hunt down the few surviving Firewrights. The explanation about the role played by Firewrights and why they are hunted down by Govinda and others is woven throughout the book, sometimes at the expense of the main story. Towards the end, Govinda divulges a big secret regarding the tussle between the Firstborn and Firewrights and to me it came as an anti-climax.

Kaurava is a thriller, the pace of the book much quicker than that of Govinda. There are fights galore and plots and sub-plots. To use a Churchillian expression, they fight in the forests, on the beaches, on the seas, in their workshops and in the desert. I am not sure if the settings and descriptions for the various fights and battles in Kaurava have been “borrowed” from other sources or if Udayasankar made them up herself. In any event, they are excellent and if ever Udayasankar wants to re-invent herself as a scriptwriter for Hollywood war movies, she would have no problems at all.

The only negative I can think of (other than the excessive downgrading of Yudhisthir and the ending which I didn’t like all that much) is that I found at least a couple of typos and I don’t remember seeing any in Govinda, Book 1.

On the whole, Kaurava is an excellent book, a must read for everyone who has read Govinda. I will not be surprised if Udayasankar’s Mahabharata goes down in history as one of the best ever interpretations. I can’t wait for Book 3, which will hopefully have the big war, at least its commencement – I wish I could preorder it right away.

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