Writer- Ashok K Banker
Publisher- Westland Books
My Rating- 4.5/ 5 ( highly readable, recommended)It isn't not easy for an author or any artist, for that matter to surpass his or her earlier acclaimed work. The sword of his own success looms ominously over his subsequent work. Ashok Banker with his new book, "The Seeds of War" ran with this challenge. The tension is much real as was proposed by the noted author Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Love, Pray on her much loved lecture on TED. Any writer embarking on a series of story inevitably runs this risk. It is easy to imagine the worries that must be tugging at Ashok Banker's heart when he would have set himself on the task of writing the second of Mahabharata series. It is unnerving even for the reader who picks another book of an author whose earlier book one has loved, and I did pick this book with great fear and trepidation. Ashok Banker sure deserves blatant praise for having surpassed his last book with this charmer.
His having tried his hand at successful Ramayana series would not be a guarantee of a Mahabharata series, latter being, much more humane, much more complex even in the original. That the original itself by Ved Vyasa is so seeped with real human emotions, and the inherent strength and frailty of human minds would have rendered any attempt to re-write or re-interpret the venerated tome a daunting task. A deep-down, philosophical analysis of the characters of Mahabharata by Gurcharan Singh in his treatise "The Difficulty of Being Good" which I read some time back and still treasure in my mind, further increased the sense of trepidation and anxiety with which I had picked this book.
I wasn't necessarily worried about the quality of writing, having read and reviewed "The Forest of Stories" earlier. I wasn't anyways worried about a rock-pop commercialised treatment of Indian mythology, which is something that Banker has always remained guarded against. I had intensely and thoroughly disliked the much-famed Meluha series, which urbanised and modernised the Shiva mythology. The dislike was not due to some religious reasons but merely because of literary murder of a high quality epic which I thought it to be. Follow up series came into being, building on commercial success, and I refused to pick another book of the series, I respected the rights of the author, but respected my rights as a reader even more. To be fair to Ashok, he forewarns the reader thus in the introduction itself, when he says, 'it is not a sci-fi rendition. It is not a futuristic version.' Seemingly aware what his book is likely to compete on the bookshelves in the book stores.
In terms of analysis and research, maybe it might not equal to Gurcharan's book, but in terms of flair, beauty and exquisite words-play it is quite a readable book. In fact it is an amazingly refreshing book. The words go on a long-winding poetic path which is in keeping with the norms set by the original which it seeks to re-tell and which keeps you enamoured by the sheet beauty.
The book wakes up in the intriguing world of mythology, telling the story of our lives, which as the author tells is a part of seventh of the fourteenth cycle which will eventually destroy itself to oblivion before giving way to the eighth cycle. Each cycle was to begin with one of the fourteen Manus, ours being Vaisvata Manu. I never knew that before, and that makes it interesting as I am already set and willing to walk on the path beckoned by Ashok Banker.
And who on the Earth knew that Yama was the nephew to Indra, from the first page onwards, you are on the journey to discover things most of us never knew of, no matter how aware we believed ourselves to be of mythological facts. These small discoveries makes the journey very interesting. This story of origin is way better than the Darwin's.
The step back which Ashok takes into the story of Bharat, with the ancestry of Yayati, his father briefly covered, though brief, is enough to kindle the the anxiety which will be enough to lift you up in a kind of hot-air ballon on a sojourn above the mythological landscape which lies below you.
While we all know the story of the Great War, multiple version of which has been told to us many times in the past, but what went before the war is usually too quickly run through, with very less attention. As the name suggests, The Seeds of War, is largely referring to that epoch when the stage was being set on which the Great War drama called the Mahabharata was to be eventually played.
The stories woven in intrigue and unbelievable magic, is built around the basic fabric of human emotions, as one finds in the interesting, episode of Kacha's killing and eventual restoration of life to him and to his guru, The Shukracharya. What stays with you as a lingering after taste is not the magical sanjivani which could bring dead to life, what stays with you the father's love for his daughter, Devayani, which makes him forego concerns of his own life to save his daughter's love. The grace and dignity with which Shukracharya handles the knowledge of the fact that Kacha was the son is his most formidable adversary, Brihaspati, leaves us, blunted with a graceless society of now, longing for the world gone by. The episode ends with the first prohibition in the human history.
One laments in his heart at the heart wrenching episode when Kacha readies to leave the Ashram having learnt the art of bringing the dead to life, in the face of moving pleas of Devayani to marry her. But with a swift change of the scene, brings to fore the strength of the spurned woman as she curses Kacha to forget all that he learnt in the fictional period of a thousand years. That sure was not a world where women had not choice, they did have the choice and did fight to exercise it with a vengeance which we are in today's world cannot even fathom. The fiery freedom of the women comes into full blossom in Paksha Two, with unknown and unquestioned motherhood of Sharmishtha. It was Puru, the illegitimate child borne by Sharmishtha, who was to later be the pioneer of things which were to shape the future of India.
The story has very interesting and engaging account of largely unknown story of a very basic human greed and failing when Yayati cursed to sudden old age seeks to exchange it with the youth of his son Yadu. Yadu refuse and so do all other sons, all but Puru, who loses his youth and gains the kingdom. I could not help think could this be a symbolic story. A story in which the father, a corrupt and indisciplined king, on the edge of the precipice of old age but still refusing to let go of his ways, had to give up the reigns of running of his kingdom to the young Puru, who had to make the difficult choice of losing the fancies and fantasies of youth for the sake of getting the country run well, and thereby growing beyond age and gaining a well deserved rule.
The floral speeches and long-winded sentences notwithstanding, much in line with the tone and tenor of the story which it attempts to re-tell, the perspective has modern relevance, and true to the story, Indra comes out to be a mean, non-serious king with greatness thrust on him as he curses Yayati post death to suffer between the world of Gods and men. This fall though sad in itself brings in a great philosophical debate between the fallen king and Ashtak, the righteous one, philosophical high point of a wonderful story.
This is one section which I would suggest readers looking for meaning of life to read many times. That is what mythology exists for. Though we have lost time or interest for the mythological stories in our dumb submission to the unkind pursuit of commercial objectives as sole purpose of life. There are great lessons hid in the layers of interpretation, which these mythological stories carry for each of us to learn for and utilise for improving our lives, even in this century.
It is very rare to find intellectuals of the day to dig out those pearls of wisdom from beneath the charming mythological stories, and when you find an opportunity to find one, it would behoove well for us not to let such an opportunity pass us by, unexamined. This book is one such opportunity, to understand life well, through a story well written. Highly