Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Cricket, Romance and Thrills make the right cocktail this summer!

Cricket is the only game I played in school. Over several years, this is the game that instilled in me discipline and perseverance. It taught me what it means to play with and for your team. It taught me what it means to compete fairly. Lessons that were to benefit me immensely in later years in my corporate life.
Cricket is also the only game that kept me glued to the television screen for hours. Growing up through the eighties and nineties, I watched my heroes on the field snatch unexpected victory from the jaws of imminent defeat, or, lose gracefully in the true spirit of the game, only to rise from the ashes in the next match. And my scrapbooks with their pictures kept piling up.
My interest was not limited only to their antics on the field. I wanted to know them as human beings and not just as larger-than-life heroes. This curiosity drew me to sports magazines and memoirs of cricketers, which, needless to say, I devoured with relish. I would also spend hours watching their intervie…

Book Review - The Fault in Our Stars

'The Fault in Our Stars' is the first John Green book I read. And I am now going to read ALL his books. This book was a revelation. Because, when I picked up the book, I had braced myself for yet another global phenomenon, immensely popular romance now-made-into-a-Hollywood-blockbuster (soon to be re-made in India, I hear), but essentially 'Sympathy Lit' (which I am told is now almost a guaranteed recipe for success in that genre). And I was SO WRONG! Yes, there are diseases, there is misery, there are moments when I choked up, but Green takes this completely irreverent tone,his characters crack genuinely funny jokes about themselves and their physical challenges, and in general, they have fun! More than a love story with, well an inevitable tragic ending, this is a story of hope, and this is about how life should be lived to the fullest. As I read through the funny vivacious escapades of the couple, one with cancer affecting her lungs, and the other having lost a leg…

Kolkata: The anatomy of a city in Agni Mitra thrillers

The first Agni Mitra thriller ‘In the Shadows of Death’ ( starts with a portrayal of Park Street on a rainy evening, which goes as below: 

“Those who had run for cover under the shades included men and women who had been working late in the many offices in the neighbourhood, street children who would otherwise flock around foreigners staying in one of the plush hotels in the area, pimps who carried albums loaded with pictures of call-girls and would get in the way of men roaming around alone in Park Street, and hookers who roamed the streets or waited patiently for hours on end in desolate corners of the roads or in the bus stops in their loud make-up and hopeful eyes, waiting to be picked up and driven to cheap hotels around the place. The incongruous mix of people who stood next to each other, skin to skin, in the bus stops or under the ledges of the showrooms of global brands that lined the road, made Agni smile to himself every time he crossed them. That one s…