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Book Review - Ajaya: Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan

Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan by Anand Neelakantan published by Platinum Press (Leadstart Publishing) brings a unique perspective to the story of Mahabharata. In his introductory note, Neelakantan sets the premise of his work and is compellingly convincing in his characterization of Suyodhana, more (in)famously referred to as Duryodhana in popular lore, when he draws the reader’s attention to his unwavering determination to fight for his belief, his bravery and his strong personality. Neelakantan calls out incidents such as Suyodhana’s willingness to challenge the prevailing caste system by making Karna the king of Anga; his feelings for Ekalavya; his gallantry in taking on the Pandavas. At the same time, Neelakantan depicts him as a fallible human being, in sharp contrast with his cousins.

Neelakantan’s storytelling is lucid and he creates powerful imagery. Right from the ‘visually rich’ and dramatic entry of Bhishma into the palace of Gandhara to walk away with the princess Gandhari who was to be married off later to Dhritarashtra, Prince of Hastinapura, to the depiction of varied landscapes in the different parts of the country that the characters inhabit, and the minute details of everyday life in the palace and its vicinity, Neelakantan weaves images that stay with the reader long after the last page of the book has been turned. The story progresses as a fast-paced thriller. The sections narrating Ekalavya’s escape from the Nagas, or Karna’s escape from the Chera King in the South and later from Dwaraka are fast page-turners. The chapter on Jara’s transformation and his adoption of Dharma, the dog, is particularly delightful.

The power of Neelakantan’s narrative helps the reader get into the psyche of his characters effortlessly. 

Suyodhana comes across as the child next door – playful, stubborn, inquisitive, emotional and sometimes scared of the unmatched physical prowess of Bhima. He questions the prevailing caste system and its implications with the world view befitting his age. He does not hesitate to befriend Ekalavya, a Nishada and still later, Karna, a Suta. 

Neelakantan hand-holds the reader to the world of Ekalavya and Jara, as well as, to that of Karna, with equal flair. The reader dreams with these young boys and feels their pains and frustrations. Neelakantan’s mastery is evident in the sections where he describes Ekalavya’s deep anguish when he realized his aunt had been burnt to death along with his cousins in the House of Lac. 
In the garb of the familiar tale of the Mahabharata, Ajaya is a powerful comment on the prevailing caste system. Neelakantan provides a view of the Brahmin domination of the Southern states under Parashurama and the reign of the Kshatriyas in Hastinapura, with the Nishadas, Nagas, Kiratas, Sutas and other castes relegated to lives of acute poverty and misery. 

We do come across Brahmins like Kripa and Carvaka with their liberal and radical views, but they serve as glorious exceptions. Readers are bound to relate to their liberal views on the caste system or the varnashrama. The chapter where Kripa explains his interpretation of the varnashrama to Karna and encourages him to travel south to train as a warrior under Parashurama in the guise of a Brahmin is wonderfully written. The same can be said about the chapter where Balaram encourages Karna in a similar fashion. 

Neelakantan effectively depicts how the prevailing caste system encourages people, who are denied food, education and basic rights, to take up arms against the establishment. We see Naga leaders like Takshaka gaining in mass popularity and leading attacks against Hastinapura. The chapter where Bhishma explains the phenomenon to Bidura, born of a cleaning maid and frequently ridiculed by the likes of Drona himself, and yet sounds utterly helpless, is brilliantly written. 

The reader can relate the circumstances to present day political scenarios and Neelakantan successfully underlines the relevance of the great epic down the ages. We can relate to the co-existence of poverty and squalour with the pomp and grandeur of big cities like Hastinapur. We can relate to the elite and the Government encouraging the foreigners to talk about the culture and the architectural splendours of the country instead of focusing on real issues facing the people.

Finally, a special word of mention for the sections in the book where Neelakantan describes Suyodhana’s love for Subhadra and Karna’s for Draupadi – both doomed to remain unfulfilled thanks to evil designs and prevailing caste system. My heart went out for these souls in love.

Suyodhana embodies every man whose decisions in relationships and at work are ruled by emotions and who often ends up being dealt the wrong hand by destiny.
Neelakantan does not, for once, sound preachy and his prowess as a master storyteller shines through the book. Ajaya is a fast paced read, almost like a contemporary thriller, and I cannot wait to pick up the sequel. The dice, indeed, has fallen.

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