Thursday, March 30, 2023

Ajaya, by Anand Neelkanthan—Review

Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, by Anand Neelkanthan

A screed and a rant, but not a book or a story.

This is a book written with the sole purpose of inciting outrage, and therefore, publicity, and therefore sales. 

Is this an alternate retelling of the Mahabharat? No. It reads more like the outpouring of a mind that sees discrimination everywhere and consequently projects it on to the characters in his book. The molester of a woman, the instigator, the one who cheered are the heroes and protagonists. Tells something, tells all, doesn’t it, and then some more, about the book and its author? 

The author confidently tells us that "Vedvyasa never portrayed Krishna as God or avatar in his original version, Jaya." Never mind that thousands of years of tradition and two hundred years of furious German Indology have been unable to unearth Vyasa’s Jaya, and yet the author is confident that he knows what Vyasa wrote in Jaya and what is a later interpolation. 

The author modifies the Bhagavad Gita as a conversation between Balarama and Krishna, both avatars of Narayana. This is perhaps a minor quibble. But the author writes that he is "a seeker", and yet introduces Dhaumya as an "ambitious and unscrupulous priest", that Bhishma "forcibly carries off" Gandhari, and "merit, not caste, rules" in Jarasandha's kingdom. This is the same Jarasandha who intended to kill one-hundred kings he had captured so he could become the great kings of all. Or that Karna "is insulted by Draupadi". The Mahabharata does not say so. The Mahabharata also tells us that Karna participated in Draupadi's swyamwara and lost. That he was stopped from participating is a later interpolation. That much is an established fact. That the author may want to rely on a later misrepresentation is his artistic freedom, but to conflate the text with someone else's fabrication is puzzling.

The author invents caste oppression and conflates it with jaati, parroting the word 'caste' every so often like a metronome. But that is also unsurprising if one writes with a colonized quill. Duryodhana’s father calls him both Suyodhana and Duryodhana, and yet Suyodhana is a slur that the Pandavas used? Should every Kaurava name that begins with "Du" becomes "Su", then? Surprise that the author didn't rename Dushyanta as Sushyanta, and Durvasa doesn't become Survasa. 

In Vyasa's Mahabharata, neither did Draupadi insult Karna, nor did she mock Duryodhana. Yet the author invents these sligths to justify Draupadi's insult and attempted molestation by Duryodhana, Karna, and Duhshasana. In other words, the author is telling us, "She deserved it."

As for the writing, it's a polemic, it's a screed, it's propaganda. It is not a novel, it is not a recreation, it is not a retelling other than the "tell" that exists in show-don't-tell. Example, "... he hated the sheer hypocrisy of his cousin". OK, we now know all we need to know. The book could have ended with the Author's Note. There was no need for hundreds of pages of rambling invective. As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

It’s much easier to desecrate an epic than to compose something original and creative, isn’t it? Even within the canvas of an alternative retelling there exists scope to do an imaginative and creative retelling. This book never aims for that, whether by design or because of the author's limited skills. After a few pages it becomes painfully clear the author has set his eyes on gaining acceptance within a particular ideological clique. 

Perhaps there is some genuine talent hidden beneath those layers of polemic, ideological ranting, playing to the gallery of readers who want their titillation through the abuse of women, but this book does not bring out the writer; only the inveighing of a disturbed, frustrated mind who sought, and got, pelf and fame by pandering to the haters in society.

© 2023, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.