Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy has gripped me strongly. Book One, The Immortals of Meluha, and Book Two, The Secret of the Nagas I have read already; I am waiting to get my hands on the third book, The Oath of the Vayuputras.
In threadbare outline, it narrates how Shiva, a very gifted but minor tribal chief from somewhere near Mansarowar Lake in Tibet, comes to India almost two thousand years before Christ, falls in love, gets embroiled in pan-Indian politics, leads great armies to victory, discovers awful secrets about the eternal intertwining of Good and Evil, and lives up to the legend of a great saviour so gloriously that in his own lifetime he becomes a god in the public imagination, Neelkanth Mahadev, as other great heroes like Manu and Bharat, Rudra and Ram had done long before him. The books are racily written, and very cleverly meld and transcreate stories taken from the inexhaustible treasurehouse of classical Indian literature, with a flavour that should appeal to 21st century readers.
Judging by the sales figures, the trilogy has been quite a success. I think it deserves much more. Amish is not yet a great writer, stylistically speaking – the sooner he can learn the art of writing a tighter narrative and drop the English-medium-schoolboy slang and expletive-loaded patois as well as typical Indianisms which should have been edited out (‘lightening’ for lightning, ‘pin-drop silence’, ‘past-time’, return back, persistent confusion between its and it’s…) the better for him, if he is aiming for recognition as a writer among educated adults worldwide, that is. I have issues with some of the content, too: Ram is portrayed as a very great lawgiver and ruler of men, yet nothing at all is said about how shabbily he treated his own wife; the whole story of the Mahabharata is entirely absent, except for passing mention of the tribe of Vasudevs; it is entirely part of the author’s imagination that the whole of eastern India was simultaneously settled and civilized along with the so-called Indus Valley culture (called ‘Meluha’ here); there are unreconciled contradictions, such as why the Naga Lord of the People would hurt the mother he craved to be reunited with in a sword fight; Parashuram’s explanation for killing his mother is radically different from the way the Mahabharata tells it, and of course the Parashuram we know never cut off his sword arm as a penance for wrongdoing (can one take liberties with both history and received legends?); no explanation is offered for how the deformed Naga warrior became the loveable and placid Siddhidata of contemporary folklore. Above all there hangs the question – yes, ancient India might have been far more scientifically advanced than most of us can imagine (I have written about this before), but brain surgery and life-prolonging elixirs and thought transference via radio waves, too? Isn’t that taking things maybe a bit too far?
But Amish is certainly good, given that this is a first effort, and the subject matter deserves far more attention and cultivation. There is a long and rich tradition in the west of recreating ancient stories for modern audiences in literature and cinema: too little of the sort has yet been done in India, though the resources available are so tantalizingly rich and diverse. This is a good beginning, and if it could coax young Indians to take a new interest in their own country, her past, her achievements and her potential, it will have done a magnificent and much-needed job. Among the urban, well off, Indlish-educated, technology obsessed babalog of contemporary India (to which class, surprisingly, Amish himself belongs – he is an IIM alumnus, and has done a long stint in the insurance industry: what background could be more boring?), few people read books, fewer try writing them, and if they do, they write teenage fluff, like Chetan Bhagat. History, which has stimulated the greatest minds of all lands and ages (Churchill as well as Zuckerberg!) is so uncool to them that they can hardly scrape through school examinations, and actually believe that it is necessary to be a dud in history in order to become an engineer… they should be reading this series by the millions and become slightly less simian. Meanwhile Amish has expressed a desire to write more books taking up themes from the epics, as well as about Akbar and Dara Shukoh. I shall certainly look forward to reading them.