Asura: Tale of the Vanquished; The Story of Ravana and His People, Anand Neelakantan; Leadstart Publishing, Pp 498; Rs 250.00
WHO among Indians hasn’t heard of Rama and Sita and, of course, Ravana? Millions may not have read Valmiki’s or Pampa’s Ramayana, but it is doubtful there is anyone in India, at least, who is not aware of the great epic.
Rama is worshipped as an avatar of God. Ravana is literally evil incarnate. But not for Anand Neelakantan, who thinks Rama may be seen as God, but Ravana is the most complete man. And why? If we are to believe Neelakantan, Ravana “is as good or as bad as any human being and as Nature intended man to be”, more so because he ‘exulted’ in possession of all evils such as kama, krodha, lobha, mada, moha, and matsarya or the nine base emotions of anger, pride, jealousy, happiness, sadness, fear, selfishness, passion and ambitions. Very strange logic; but Neelakantan himself is an intellectual rebel and obviously doesn’t believe in traditional Indian wisdom. He admires ten-faced Ravana as one symbolising “a man without control over his passions – eager to embrace and taste life – all of it”.
In the circumstances, this book should have been entitled ‘Ravanaayana – Ravana’s journey’. Neelakantan prefers to call it Asuraayana – the story of the Asuras. Thank god for that. For him Ravana is an asura and Rama is a deva. He would have got into trouble if he had dismissed Rama as an Aryan and Ravana as a Dravidian. This is the story of an asura who goes all out to conquer Lanka by devious means. His mother and sister arrange to get him married to Mandodari, who apparently had no special liking for him and made it pretty evident. She bears him his first child – a girl – and hold on! – she is Sita! Yes. Sita! A lovely child. Only an astrologer notes that she is an ‘ill omen’ to the entire asura race and will in years to come bring death and destruction to the race, including Ravana himself.
Meanwhile, Ravana chances to come across a deva widow and falls desperately in love with her. Her name is Vedavathi. “What was I doing with a Brahmin widow? Was it because she was a Brahmin that I was attracted towards her? Did her fair skin trigger the lust in me?” wonders Ravana. But the asura felt that both Vedavathi and Sita were a menace to them in the long term and needed to be eliminated quickly. And they persuade Bhadra, who is close to Ravana, to take both away in the jungle to be killed. Reluctantly, Bhadra undertakes the vicious assignment. Luckily for him, Vedavathi dies in a fire accident. And while Bhadra went all out to deal with the situation he leaves child Sita alone, who slips into a muddy ditch and starts crying loudly. The cry is heard by some men who had just entered the jungle. They are shocked to see a lonely child getting drowned in the wet mud and pick her up. The leader of the men happens to be King Janaka who takes the rescued child home and brings her up as his own daughter! So then Sita becomes Janaka’s daughter when, in fact, she is Ravana’s own. Neelakantan is good at story-telling and this is recounted throughout the reminiscences of Ravana and his man Bhadra.
Actually this book is a collection of their ‘reminiscences’ down the years. We learn a great deal about their past and about the tribes of the pre-Vedic period. Indra, Vayu, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva are not gods but mere tribal leaders who go on to be invested with godhood. They fight wars and thousands get killed. Some wars are lost, some won, but death is taken in its stride. Ravana too is not infrequently immersed in warfare.
The chapter on what happened then is the most touching in the entire book. Without revealing himself – and having watched Sita garland Rama as her lord and master – Ravana returns to Lanka in his Pushpaka plane. What happens years later when Rama is exiled into the forest and is accompanied by Sita and Lakshman and he becomes aware through his sister Surpanaka is only too well-known. Ravana abducts Sita and brings her to Lanka and at one-point reveals to her his identity as her real father – and this is the high watermark of the book. Ravana’s reason for abducting Sita, as he told Maricha, was to keep her safe in his palace as his beloved daughter, till Rama’s exile was over and then to hand her over to Rama to whom Ravana was even willing to donate portion of his northern empire. But he was misunderstood.
The story is recounted by Bhadra in great detail. All the great names come alive like those of Kumbhakarna, Vibhishina, Meghanada, Rudraka, Prahastha…and their separate roles, all too familiar to those who know the original Ramayana. But, says a ‘disclaimer’ by the publisher, “this is a work of pure fiction and all the characters depicted are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” and “there is no intention to imply anything else” and it is entirely a work of the author’s imagination. Imagination it certainly is, and a very rich one, too, and “does not purport to any religious or spiritual instruction or advocacy”. Fair enough.
The original Ramayana is attributed to Valmiki but since then there have been varied editions of the same story, each with its own interpretations, of events. Brilliantly conceived, this book commands attention, for its style and content.
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