Anand Neelkantan’s Asura is an untold tale of Ravana. I don’t think it has been attempted so far. I have read many interpretations of Ramayana from Sita’s and Hanuman’s point of view. They were archaically following the same template laid down by Valmiki, Tulsidas and Kambar. Asura was a revelation. It makes you gasp and think. In this humanized version there are no gods, demons with magical powers. Devas and Asuras become clans as do Vanaras. Ravana is not an exalted personage with ten heads but an ambitious, hot-blooded warrior who wants to rule.
I loved the speech that Ravana gives to Mahabali. If you did not read the book, you might just read that speech and everything about this book would make sense. Now that there are no Gods, Vishnu and Shiva just become long-gone great kings whose deeds gave them the God-status. The tale of Vishnu vanquishing Mahabali is probably one of the best human-like explanations that can be given to an impossible event.
Ravana is as human as anybody can be. Brash, arrogant, egoistic, yet a lone voice comes up in his mind, questioning his motives and actions. If that was not enough, you have Bhadra, a soldier, confidante, and a common man who is at hand during all momentous events of the story to give his point of view. He is with Ravana through all the high and low moments of his life, yet his life does not improve a wee bit. This brings home the fact that no matter what happens to the kings, good or bad, the situation of an ordinary common man remains the same. He is still looted, ignored, and exploited.
I went through the book at a snail’s pace during the first four or five chapters. The pace of the story picks up once Ravana captures his step-brother’s kingdom Lanka. Ravana’s passion for Vedavathi, become a fool’s love for a widowed Brahmin girl and her subsequent suicide almost believable, so much so that you really feel sorry for Ravana and wish that she had accepted him!
Kumbakarna becomes a drug addict so that accounts for his sleep! I won’t reveal Ravana’s reasons for kidnapping Sita it might just spoil the surprise. But I can however say that the book is so well researched that no tale, no myth nor any version of Ramayana has been left unread by the author.
Rama, Sugreeva or Hanuman are not exalted in any way in this book. Rama becomes a weak, vacillating character who finally succumbs to society’s pressure and sends his wife into exile. Juxtapose this with Ravana’s treatment of Mandodari who is violated by the Vanara hoardes, you will see who the hero is.
The language and narrative is simple in this book though the story is told from two different people’s perspective. The characterization of Ravana and Bhadra have been portrayed beautifully. This book deals with alternate myths so if you have not read or heard about the various versions of Ramayana, you might be inspired to do so.
The book is tad too long. Though language is simple, there were typos and errors that the editor should have taken care of. Bhadra’s portions should have been reduced especially in the beginning. I almost gave up on the book because all that I was reading was Bhadra’s monologues.
Though the character of Bhadra lends an alternate voice to the whole story, I wish this book had only Ravana as the narrator. And Ravana’s reasons for kidnaping Sita is almost honourable in this book so much so that you might just end up sympathizing with him. I wish that he had kept the ‘lust’ angle as the main reason for kidnapping and had attempted to justify the same.
PS: There have been many rants about the portrayal of brahmins in this book but the story comes from the point of view of Ravana and Bhadra, so what else can we expect from characters such as these?
PPS: Do not read the book if you are a hardcore Rama or Hanuman lover. It might hurt your sentiments.
Overall Rating: 3.5/5