Book Review – The Guardians of the Halahala by Shatrujeet Nath

The evergreen genre of historical fantasy can survive for eternity on the treasury of Indian literature right from the lore of scriptures to the untapped folklore. Every story has something unique to offer and every retelling explores an untold perspective of the said legend.

Guardians of Halahala is a culmination of the infinite perspectives of Indic lore and a masterful storytelling by the author Shatrujeet Nath. The book being the first of the Vikramaditya trilogy came as a suggestion by my editor when we had started editing the final draft of my debut fiction Abhaya. Her conviction that Shatrujeet’s handling of a multi-character driven epic would have a lot to offer to the newbie writers made me go for the book. This would be one of those reviews where I would also focus on what an aspiring writer can learn from the novel.

The author weaves a tale that extensively draws storylines and characters from history, folklore as well as the Puranas. Those who are particular about compliance to historicity might have a lot of reservations about the contents of the novel. But beyond the debates of historicity, the story has enough and more to offer to a reader who loves the craft of story-telling.

Unlike many novels of the genre which start with an adolescent protagonist struggling to find his or her purpose, Guardians of Haalahala starts at the pinnacle of the protagonist’s achievements. Emperor Vikramaditya’s Rajasuya could have been the finale of an adventure ridden tale of the most beloved king of the bards. But the author chose to delve into the fresh set of intrigues that follow a man’s ascent to ultimate power. It is like the author wants to send a strong message about how retaining the stability of an empire is much trickier than the ascent to the position of an emperor. The readers get a taste of the multiple forces that can neutralize the so-called power.

We are introduced to multi-layered characters who weave their own sub-threads of the story and I felt myself liking each of them immensely. Those who we only know as the patronized, luxury-pampered poets like Kalidasa also appear with jaw-droppingly different personalities.

The plot revolves around the dagger of ‘immense value’ that could potentially destroy the universe that Lord Shiva entrusts Vikramaditya to protect. The cause attracts newer enemies of supernatural nature, adding to the already existing invasion threat by the dreaded Hunas. Adding to these, there are a variety of riveting political intrigues that keep the pages turning.the-guardians-of-the-halahala-original-imaefctgqaazuhza

The language is another aspect worth dwelling upon. While the gripping plot pushes the reader’s gaze towards what happens next, the savory poetical descriptions add to the flesh of the novel. I really loved the bit where Vikramaditya and his half-brother Vararuchi have a Veena ‘jugalbandi’ which immediately brought to life, the diya lit palace of Vikramaditya in front of my eyes. In retrospect, the Veena scene wasn’t crucial to the plot, but it mirrored the cultural image of the times, the multifaceted skills of the kings as well as the delicateness of the complicated relationships.

As a reader, I look forward to social commentary and in my opinion, that is what differentiates a folklore from an enduring legend. But storytellers have a hard job of introducing social commentaries without slowing down the plot. Often it has to be an added dimension to the core plot, the character structures and the relationships between them. I liked the face-off shown between the supernatural ‘healing’ and actual scientific medicine (of those days) in the spat between Shukracharya and Dhanvantari.

Like any good trilogy, the plot goes only deeper as the book ends and left me waiting for the second book of the series, The conspiracy at Meru. Above all, this is the kind of writing craft I would love to learn and practice – intertwining an independent and intriguing plot with the Puranic concepts.

There is little that I can complain about the book except for minor technical detail. One is the interchangeable usage of terms Rakshasas and Asuras (which even ancient authors and poets have done). I always believed that ‘Rakshasa’ was a derogatory term used for Asuras who are otherwise not very differentiable from the Suras. But then, the premises either way is debatable. Another thing is a couple of formatting errors I came across which Jaico Publishers need to take care of. There was a paragraph repeated and some needless line spaces and a rare typo here and there. I don’t know if that is just in the kindle version. Given the excellent writing craft, the proofreaders need to pay more attention to it.

My Rating 4.5/5

Do buy the book from Amazon

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Book Review – Kaal Trilogy by Sangeeta Bahadur

I had picked up the Book One (Jaal) of the Kaal Trilogy in a serendipitous moment in a Bangalore based book store. As I read through I realized that it was more than a novel (in present day fiction standards). Reading Jaal was a total experience in itself. The totally new universe created by the author with its own Pantheon of divinity, super natural beings, mystics and the ever lively characters make for an intriguing and yet a pleasing read. I should mention that this series is definitely not for a racy reader and it demands a greater attention span from the reader while returning a unique experience.

Jaal starts with a cosmic situation where the pantheon of the universe is faced with the peril of facing the wrath of Aushij, the wayward God of Maya. Arihant, the protagonist is the nemesis to Aushij chosen by the Gods. But his destiny comes along with a mixed path of obstacles, assassins , devoted friends, enigmatic mentors and breathtaking confrontations. Jaal is about the journey of Arihant as he begins to discover that the idyllic life of his cosy village was not what he was meant for and leaves everything dear to him behind to find the answer to his questions.

The reader is also presented with the political dynamics of the continent of Hastipeeth where righteous and the wicked are on a constant strife. The exiled Queen Vagdatta, the devoted friend Brihadrath and the enigmatic Vakrini stand out of the rest. There are the sages who work in tandem with the pantheon for the good of the universe. There are intriguing mythical beings, each of them adding his or her own bit to the greater cause. And the spectacular highlight of Jaal is the revelation of the Supreme Goddess. Without spoilers, I can say that I was reminded of the Saundarya Lahari and Mahishasuramardini hymns where contrasting aspects of Adi Shakti reveal themselves

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Jaal left me waiting for Vikraal, the second of the series which finally came out in March. The Author Sangeeta Bahadur has made the wait worth it. I could feel the characters growing as the story plot evolved. Arihant grows honing his acquired mystic skills. We find him experiencing new phases of life as he finds the love of his heart. With Jaal, the first book giving sufficient clue for the romantic story that would ensue, I was waiting for it to happen in Vikraal. I expect the reader to be pleasantly surprised as here, the woman is the first to profess her love. Aagneyi’s character comes of as something worth admiration on multiple fronts. Revealing anything more might just spoil the fun.

The plot of Vikraal sees the various kingdoms of the continent Hastipeeth becoming aware of the impending conflict between Arihant and Aushij. Adventures and surprises (some pleasant and some not so pleasant) are a part and parcel of Arihant’s journey. We also get to see more of Raudra, the high priestess and warrior on the side of Aushij with her side of the story, intriguing, touching and yet something which stokes fear.

Two parts of the book that can awe the reader from a philosophical point of view are the commentary about Vikaaras or what we know as the six internal enemies and the conversation that Arihant has with another mystic entity about discovering his own self. Philosophically, this is a treat to the reader. The name Arihant started to make more sense as I read more about these internal enemies. The physical journey of Arihant would then seem to each of us like our own virtual journey combating our weaknesses in search of the ‘self’ each of us is.

Vikraal1The greatest aspect that sets the series apart from the rest is the rich descriptive language. It is something which transports the reader into that universe and experience the story. At the same time I fear the description could hamper the pace of the story, especially in nail biting situations of combat and battle. I found it a bit challenging to stay focused when the story shifted to multiple perspectives of each of the many kingdoms. But I think multiple perspectives are key to what become epics. At places I also found the language a bit too modern for the look and feel of the universe of Kaal. (Might be just my perspective)

Vikraal ends on an almost tragic note while leaving a faint hope for something miraculous to happen in the third book Mahakaal. As a reader I found myself praying for that ‘moment’ and am waiting for Mahakaal to come out soon! Buck up Sangeeta, you have loads of readers waiting I am sure!

You can buy Jaal and Vikraal from Amazon.

Scion of Ikshvaku: An Engrossing And Moving Read

This was written for Swarajya Magazine and published in June 2015

There are few books that leave you sleepless when half-read. Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish Tripathi was one such a retelling of Ramayana. It goes without mentioning that the epic of Ramayana has undoubtedly captured the imagination of poets over millennia all across the Indian subcontinent, with versions travelling as far as Indonesia. Each retelling carried a fresh perspective with each poet trying to drive a contemporary message. Hailing from the southern part of the country, I can say Sri Ramachandra is one name taken by one and all in every instance of extreme emotion. His is the first cradle story an average child hears from his or her parents/grandparents or it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that celebrating Ramayana begins right from the womb.

Scion of Ikshvaku was surely one of the much-awaited books this year and, fortunately, the Kindle version was available overseas too. For those who know the structure of Ramayana, this book covers the Bala Kanda, Ayodhya Kanda and most of Aranya Kanda. The opening chapter ofSitaapaharan grips your attention and gets you hooked as the story flashes to the beginning of Ramayana. Amish has taken care to detail the prevalent socio-political dynamics of Sapta Sindhu in those days and the inevitable dangers of an apparently unwise belief of looking down on trade activity by the Kings.

For those who have read his Shiva Trilogy, Amish’s creative liberty does not come as something new. Creative liberty, of course, has been something that every poet and storyteller has indulged in the literary history of India and this book is a welcome continuation of the same tradition. We see Ramachandra having a troubled childhood taking the burden of an undeserved blame and moving us with his commitment (in contrast to who we know as someone being everyone’s apple of eye).

The second thing which would strike the reader is the amount of discussion and debate over philosophies and codes. The indulgent conversations between Guru Vashishta and the four princes of Ayodhya would make one wish that the kind of education system returns to us, where each student is encouraged to voice his/her opinion and build upon the same with differing perspectives. I really liked the part where Bharata boldly points out that Ravana was a better ruler of Lanka than Dasharatha was of Koshala. “Even honourable men sometimes prove to be terrible leaders. Conversely, men of questionable character can occasionally be exactly what a nation requires” is one pragmatic quote of Bharata where he separates the desired personalities of an individual and a ruler without superimposing.

The amount of care with which relationships between Rama and his brothers have been dealt with is another endearing aspect of the book. We would adore the young Rama for his steadfastness as much as we would adore Bharata for his frank views often disagreeing with Rama and yet take delight in the unaffected fraternal bonding.

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Intriguing conversations don’t really hamper the pace of the plot. One can see the amount of effort that has gone into balancing the philosophical content with the lively nature of characters while reconstructing every detail. In the second half of the book, we are introduced to Sita, who like Sati of the Shiva trilogy is a warrior princess with steadfast beliefs. The ensuing romance of the poised characters of Sita and Rama is something one would look forward to read. The couple who are probably the most celebrated couple in our culture (The only ones who come close are Parvati and Shiva). Sita Kalyanam, the eternally celebrated event though has been retold in a thrilling manner where the newly wed couple would face the battlefield together, almost immediately after their wedding. We also see Ravana, the antithesis reconstructed with great care.

The readers should be ready for Vanavasa episode to gather new reasons other than just Kaikeyi causing it in the last moment (as told in most of the narratives). The quick pace with which Vanavaas came to a close was surprising. I was expecting a discussion or two with Rishis like Atri, Gautama and the Charvaka Jabali, who Rama meets in the original Valmiki’s version. Surprisingly, Scion of Ikshvaku does not contain Rama’s interaction with either. But the nail-biting chapter where the book ends surely makes the reader await the next book.

The book in its first part also has, what I felt, the author’s tribute to Nirbhaya, an event that made our national conscience shake with shock and burn with anger. The character Roshni (the word is of Persian origin though, which I felt was slightly out of place), the daughter of Manthara and the childhood mentor of Rama and his brothers endears herself to the reader in the short duration of the narrative. As a woman, it satisfies me that in this book at least, justice was dispensed even at the cost of the law.

In summary, the book rekindled my love for Ramayana and reminded me about my own earlier love-hate journey with Sri Rama since my teens before I settled as a seeker. Caught between singing Thyagaraja Kritis like Jagadananda Kaaraka while seething with anger about how he (supposedly) treated Sita, my past predicament would have amused Lord Rama for sure. I remember a certain blog post of mine hailing Rama got me angry messages from my feminist friends (the reasonable ones too). After a lot of books that have given a glorified platform to those against Rama or angry with Rama, a counter view from Rama’s perspective was much needed rather than the usual defence of ‘He did what the society expected of him’. This Ram Chandra series by Amish Tripathi will hopefully go a long way in bringing the reader closer to what the spirit of Rama is.

Jagadananda karakaa Jaya Janaki Prananayaka
Gaganadhipa satkulaja Rajarajeshwara
Sugunakara sura sevya bhavya daayaka Sada Sakala
(Jagadananda Kaaraka)

Hail, the one who is cause of universal bliss, the soul mate of Janaki,
The scion of the blessed dynasty of the Lord of skies, the king of kings,
The Ocean of noble characteristics, the one worshipped by gods, the bestower of divinity,
The eternal cause of bliss to all the worlds

-Saint Thyagaraja

Here is the Amazon link to buy Scion of Ikshvaku. Hindi translation can be bought here