“When I look back I saw my mother, a hunch backed figure in tattered clothes, hugging my ugly sister. She was the most beautiful baby for us, but when I saw her with the sense of fairness my mother instilled in us, I had to reluctantly agree with my father’s belief that my sister was the ugliest creature he had ever seen.”
Ravana’s harsh analysis in Asura- Tale of the Vanquished, The story of Ravana and His People, is the kind of questions that should also arise when reading the Indian epic Ramayana. For, far too long, the same old versions extolling piety and devotion have flooded the literary and visual space, without any exploration of character motives, class struggles or any feeling other than blind devotion, filial piety and bombastic feudal speeches.
Here we follow Bhadra, a lowly commoner of Lanka, whose access to palace intrigues are limited and coloured. Themes of power, caste and class are explored without tokenism. Here is a version that presents slices of the personal demons, struggles and dilemmas that Ravana would have encountered as he rose to power and snarls to hang on to it. The fact that the author is South Indian (which is generally where wannabe and real historians place Ravana’s Lanka along with Ceylon) adds credibility to the landscape and cultures. A brilliant read for lovers of the epic.
Does Knowledge and Power Rest Easy?
Ravana knows, understands and fully realizes the ripple effect his struggle for power and resultant consolidation will bring about in trying to rule an independent race of people. Yet he strives. The ultimate futility of the mission should be apparent to someone of his intellect. But that does not paralyze his actions. Very often it is the case that such undertakings are driven by ego, passion and stupidity. Knowledge and wisdom tend to water down these emotions. Still history has shown us that there are wise men who have risen to the top and ruled large empires.
Indians are a confounding lot. They are culture chameleons. They can argue, agree and speak intelligently about anything, especially culture, leaving the listener impressed with their profundity. But, India is regressing. There is no doubt about that. Laws are enforced that solidify discrimination against the LGBT community, food fascism in the name of anti-cow slaughtering and even a drive to legitimize Hindu supremacy. For example, there is a perceptible shift in attitudes of people, of the mythical Lanka of this book, the state of Kerala.
Kerala has a sinuous history. Feudalism, revolution, literacy and radicalization. Not all is bad though. There is a resurgent art scene and returning NRMs (Non-Resident Malayali) bring a transmuted culture back to their motherland. But being a literate lot, they rationalize and politicize everything. It would take a Ravana to rule the land. Someone with questionable tactics.