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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The legend of Shiva

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.


Aakash said...

Dear Suvroda,

I must confess that I don't like the book. But that said, I must also say that I have read only parts of it and at different times, hoping to be won over.
As an editor, the mistakes put me off; but yes, I've read far worse. What I couldn't digest was the book's insistence on simplifying history, and at times, even veering towards, if I may use the term, a Hindutva perspective. That is the author's prerogative, and I must add that I couldn't quite agree with the perspective in The Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford, which I hugely enjoyed.
That said, one cannot undermine the significance of this book for Indian publishing. For one, it told publishers, largely populated till now with Western-educated 'intellectuals', who operated within a clique, that there was another India, waiting for a different kind of publishing. Second, it warned them that anyone with resources could bypass them altogether, and therefore this group could not be ignored any more.
As publishers watch with bated breath where all this will lead to, there is reason for hope among book lovers as publishers take them more seriously. Contrarily, as the consumption basket increases in size, there is also the danger of low-quality fare being served.
For those interested in historical fiction, you may try books like Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold and Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo.
But then, Sir, you were aware of the book's flaws; and your intentions go beyond the book. It is the unshakable faith of a teacher--who time and again has seen learning take a back seat to mindless cramming--seeing a glimmer of hope.

With regards,


Shilpi said...

I read the first chapter on the net, and I'm hoping I'll be able to read the first book by the coming week sometime, and from what you said it sounds like a strange (curious) spin-off on Shiva. I’m rather doubly intrigued because Shiva as a God came across as being rather terribly interesting since last year (round about the same time) and very strongly this year too... even though he’d always come across like the 'rock star' among the Holy trinity: dancer, drunk, yogi, loner, tamer, householder, God of sex, destruction and creation, and with the Third Eye....rather a curious combination if one thinks of it actually, and then as you told me, he's also known as Pashupati and Neelkantha. Your words about this book by Amish made me visit the Shiva Puranas again (because I lost steam last year and nothing really pervaded my reading consciousness) and I'm waiting for another book on the Shiva legends before I get around to reading this melded one penned by Amish. Your musings on this book reminded me of one book, which I read quite some years ago called Ka by Roberto Calasso (one good thing that an ex-friend introduced me to) and it was finely spun and terribly interesting from what I remember of the book as he pulled together all these different Indian legends and myths and wrote this seamless no-beginning-no-end book (although it must have had a very clear beginning as the title spells out…).

I can't help wishing too that more Indians, and more Indians who can write and think would spin tales out from the terribly rich and varied pots that we have in India. It seems like such a terrible shame that fantasy, legends, myths and history aren't brought back through popular literature...if I could have, I'd have probably written a tale on Meerabai years ago. It has now become only a wispy rearing horse ghost of a memory (thankfully enough).

I do wish though that writers wouldn't take too many liberties with both 'history and received legends' or at least make it very clear from the tale itself why both are being mutated or transformed, otherwise it just seems that they don't know what they're talking about (and they end up confusing me who knows very little of both) – unless it’s a tale like that Years of Rice and Salt (I think you might like reading this one although I’m not absolutely sure).

Sad that so many horrifying Indianisms and slips in language would be there in this book...but then maybe even editors (leave alone popular writers) know very little English these days. I get the heebies just editing or carefully looking through my own written work so I’m not throwing stones but still…

You made me look up Dara Sikoh (I’d completely and absolutely forgotten who he was). I don’t know why Parashurama killed his mother (and found nothing on google either), and reminded me (not that I need reminding on this one) why I can’t stand Rama (Krishna is much more interesting even if somewhat “inscrutable” as you point out in your Mahabharata post). Got nothing to say about brain surgery or about thought transference through radio waves (why radio waves? And how?)…but maybe life-prolonging elixirs might not be too far-fetched…I mean maybe they just led healthier lives back then (partly kidding on this one).
But who is Rudra? I thought Rudra was another name for Shiva, and that he’s also the storm and wind God…? Got to know this piece last year sometime and was feeling rather pleased…but is he some other character then?

Thank you for writing this one. Made me very gleeful when I found it suddenly in the morning today. I'll let you know once I read the books, and maybe write another massive comment.

Rajdeep said...

Very interesting post.

Since I have no chance of getting hold of the book here, I'll have to be content reading your post only.

Thank you always.

Shilpi said...

I can't help respond to Aakash's comment. As far as I can see, the publishing industry isn't interested - and not one whit - in publishing a writer of outstanding merit. And almost any writer who does get published has already got the right connections and knows the right people and moves around with the movers and shakers in the publishing world or has the moolah and lots of it - and then it doesn't matter whether the writer can write or has anything to say. When Nandan Nilekani is touted as a 'leading visionary' by a publishing house, and when Jhumpa Lahiri gets the Pulitzer and is gushed over - there's very little to be said about current publishing standards anyway. I dare say if any Indian publisher had the sense and the sensibility and was really waiting with bated breath to publish worthwhile writing, the blog-writer would have been a very much published writer more than twenty years ago...and then there would have been published books - fiction and non-fiction - which would have taken one's breath away or made one breathe....So one can only wonder and lament in silence about what one has missed and be utterly grateful about the internet, blogger and google...and one prays that the blogwriter keeps writing and hammering away in spite of all else......

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Don't get hot under the collar, Shilpi! Aakash is a favourite old boy, and we agree on far more things than disagree. He also knows how to disagree courteously and sensibly - which is all I ask. He and I were talking over the phone a while ago, and he's promised to send me more historical fiction that I'd like. And though he works in the publishing industry, he certainly doesn't hold a brief for them: he has often lamented that they frequently miss real talent. That doesn't mean he'd have to like any book simply because I liked it! (and anyway, I have said myself that I don't regard Amish as a great writer as yet, only I find the subject matter fascinating...). But yes, thank God for the internet, and google, and blogger. And let's look forward to the day when self-publication will regularly meet with much more success than it does now!

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

I have read 'The Immortals of Meluha' and I am yet to read 'Secret of the Nagas' (although I have read all about the plot from websites). I liked the idea of the book and the way the author has blended history and myths, but I agree with you that the language is indeed a dampener. And even while presenting myths, there are a few loose ends. Also, wasn't the Harappan Civilisation proto-Dravidian? Here, Amish depicts them to be a part of the Aryans, with the concept of Ram and Brahma, the Sanskrit language and other Aryan images. Can one toy with history in such a manner? Another thing that I didn't like was ending the book in a cliffhanger. Surely, the author must know what has happened and it looked like a cheap ploy to entice readers for the next part.
However, I did like how the every detail regarding Shiva has been explained in the narrative-- the trident and the catchphrase 'har har Mahadev'. I am waiting to read the next two parts.
Thanks and with regards,

P.S: Has 'Oath of the Vayuputras' already been released? The website of Shiva trilogy says that it is scheduled to release at the end of 2012.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I think we have the same sort of misgivings about the plot, Sayantika! And you are right: I was misinformed. The third book has not been released yet. So I guess, I, like a lot of other people, will have to wait.

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

This may be an unrelated comment, but I would put in here nevertheless.
I am not quite aware of the publishing pipeline. Is it not the editors job to make the english sound more professional? I remember having sent in a comment to Outlook when I was in class 9th, but what got published there was very different and better from what I had written in.



Suvro Chatterjee said...

Ah, Navin, as my young friends Aakash and Arani can tell you, much of the editing in India is done in an unspeakably hurried and slipshod manner these days, and that too often by people who, despite their academic qualifications, just don't know any better...in my father's day teachers asked pupils to read a certain Calcutta-based newspaper to pick up good English. These days I use the same newspaper to train my boys and girls how to pick out howlers!

Sayan Datta said...

It is a very happy coincidence for me that you have decided to write about historical fiction. I read 'By the Tungabhadra' which is an English translation of the Bengali novel 'Tungabhadrar teere' by Saradindu Bandhyopadhyay, just a couple of weeks ago and immensely enjoyed it. I have already read 'The Immortals of Meluha' which I picked up at a nearby bookstore a few months ago. This is a genre I have only begun to appreciate. Both books have left me hungry for more. Which is why I feel obliged to thank both Shilpi di and Aakash da for the names of the books they have provided in their respective comments? Albeit unwittingly, they have been greatly helpful.

As far as the book under discussion is concerned, I found it fast paced and the descriptions vivid. I remember being intrigued by the idea of 'somras' as a scientific possibility especially because there are examples in our mythology of people being granted boons which allowed them to live on for thousands of years (Dhruva comes to mind immediately. He was blessed by Lord Vishnu that he would rule his kingdom for 36,000 years before going to Dhruvaloka, which is beyond the range of life and death).

I too wish that more of those who can write will delve into our rich mythological and historical heritage and come up with quality work. This is a great chance for those like me who ignored history in childhood to relearn it; which is why I would prefer that the authors do not deviate too much from the actual facts.

Sir, I just want to ask one question before I end my comment. Quite recently, I attempted to read Shamba by Samaresh Basu in Bengali but gave up after a few pages because I found the language too difficult. Do you know whether an English translation is available? Can you suggest other books on a similar theme?

Sayan Datta

soumilee ghosh said...

Dear sir,
I like your post very much you have very nicely pointed out the mistakes that Amish had made while writing this book. I ask your permission to copy this post for my English language project in which I have to write a book review.

P.S- that was a joke please don't get angry....

JD said...

Dear Sir,
I have read both the books. It was quite a read; Shiva mordernized! Liberal mixing of history & Indian myth has been used by the author. Well, my personal opinion is that he has done quite a job! The story-line is gripping, and few age-old philosophies have been rightly dealt with.

For example, it is stated that the root cause of all evil is desire... however, without desire there can be no creation!
Well, paradoxical it is, but again, every coin has two sides.

I am also waiting for "The Oath of the Vayuputras", and hope that the tale is brought to a thrilling and thought evoking climax.

However, I was also reflecting how would a teenager who has not gone through the original literature/history of India, maybe would start fantasizing that these were the actual happenings!

People hardly go through those grand literature nowadays... I was wondering who would differentiate for them the actual version of history/literature and the mordernized thrill evoking version!

Joydeep Mukherjee
2002 Batch

Dodo said...

Dear Sir..
I am really confused about this book...I really doubt about this god realted matter..Well i have not at all read anything in this topic....but still i am confused....

Shilpi said...

I'm back again to scribble a few lines (just started reading the second one in snatches).

I think that in terms of style he can't become better. If that's how he writes being as old as he is, he probably can't do much about it, and he doesn't know English very well so one reads and winces with the language and what you describe as his "English-medium-schoolboy slang and expletive-loaded patois". He can't really write very well but he has a story lit by the spark of an imagination. In fact, I find it remarkable that even though he's such a bad writer, stylistically speaking (and gets too enmeshed in some of the physical details of places, which neither add anything nor are beautiful in terms of description) - he still went ahead and wrote his tale. I'll say that Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy (I can't think of any other Indian women writers from current times who've made any waves) could have taken some tips on what 'imagination' means.

Some points that come to my head:
1. I liked the tale in terms of the characters he chose, and the way Shiva comes across as a mix of a laid-back and an intense character, and somewhat of a lonely un, and a consummate dancer too. He could have been made more complex but still, the characters chosen for his tale are rather interesting and are sketched well.

2. This is one of the rare books I've read (in fact, I can't think of any others but then I haven't read much) in which not just one, but both the primary female characters are portrayed as mature, strong, independent, admirable, attractive, sensible, and interesting and in different ways - almost, I'd say, opposite ways. This was something rather terribly unusual and something that came as a gust of fresh air.

3. I did genuinely enjoy some of the conversations and the descriptions of people. They raised a chuckle from my end, and some sudden descriptions were vivid and the conversations short, clever, and amusing.

4. I did think that the good and evil bit could have come across a little more subtly or somehow written differently. It did seem strange to me that Shiva didn't realize right away that there was something terribly awry in the Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi clash, and he's on the wrong track again. But maybe I can see what I do because it's a book I was reading, and I did have a fairly good idea of the context too given what you wrote and told me to read before I read the book...I think that that good/evil in ourselves was a nice touch.

My sense of history and myths are too warped anyway for me to comment on these bits but I have been frowning over two bits especially: one, you've already mentioned - I had to roll my eyes about the way Ram is hailed. I'll take somebody else from the Indian pantheon of gods. The second one, a question, I'll raise another time. The third one - The Naga Lord bit I think I can sense...I don't know whether I'm right but I'll feel like a smug and clever detective if even I'm on the somewhat right trail. Thank you most awfully for talking about this series. I had to let go of the Siva puranas though. Maybe someday you'll narrate the stories and/or interesting bits.

P.S: I'll comment on some/couple of posts too. I'm still reflecting over them in different ways...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sorry for being late in replying, Dodo.

As for being confused without having read anything on the subject, why don't you start with these books? They are only restating the very ancient Hindu idea that again and again in times of deepest crisis God is born in human form to 'deliver us from evil'. Combine with that the very deep-rooted Indian penchant for myth making and you will begin to understand how easily, given centuries, a man who was born exceptionally gifted and left behind a legacy of many great achievements, is gradually transformed in the public psyche into a god. The best known historical example, of course, is the Buddha, who only called himself an 'enlightened' teacher, but whose idols millions have been worshipping for almost 2,000 years now? So why not Shiva?