Let me begin this review by congratulating Anand Neelkantan for attempting to give a voice to those who have been derided as evil, selfish and self-centered for centuries. Ajaya is the story of Duryodhana, the evil crown prince of Mahabharata. All our life we have heard about the atrocities that this prince committed against his own cousin and the great war that he started. With this book, the author has attempted to present the Mahabharata from Duryodhana’s point of view.
The book begins with the destruction of Gandhara and introduction of Shakuni and Gandhari. Bhishma wages a war on their land to get Gandhari as a bride for his blind nephew. Incensed with rage and pain, Shakuni swears vengeance even at a tender age.
And then the story proceeds to introduce Suyodhana (his birth name that got distorted to Duryodhana according to local legends) and his siblings and the indomitable Bheema and his brothers. Shakuni is seen indulging in some plot against the Kurus, while Vidura the wise, tries to warn Bhishma about it.
Shakuni has a major influence on Suyodhana’s life and Gandhari fears for her son’s reputation. She begs Shakuni to leave her son alone. Suyodhana is shown as an inquisitive child, who questions everything and is seen flaunting the rigid caste rules at all times. Kripacharya is the court tutor for the princes but he is a drunkard. His sister is married to Drona, the ambitious weapons tutor who becomes the teacher of the Kuru Princes.
In this version, Drona openly supports Pandavas and is insulting towards Suyodhana and his brothers. His own son, Ashwatama gravitates towards Suyodhana and Sushasana. Shakuni hatches a plot to kill Bheema and the blame falls on poor Suyodhana. Drona refuses to teach Ekalavya and Karna because of their caste and Suyodhana is seen as a man who always looks at the bigger picture rather than the hundred myriad details such as caste rules, that form it.
Kunti calls a trial to blame Suyodhana for Bheema’s disappearance and Suyodhana is almost pronounced guilty. Balarama comes to tutor Suyodhana along with Subhadra, and they fall in love. Karna is tutored by Kripa to act and talk like a brahmin so that he can fool Parashurama into teaching him arms (Parushuram taught only Brahmins and Kshatriyas). This somehow made weird sense but really couldn’t imagine Kripa as a drunkard.
Karna comes back as Dharmaveer but his lies about his true parentage puts his guru Parashuram in coma. He also meets a Yavana, who is trading in hind and hitches a ride in his ship. Could this be kala yavana who was supposed to have raided Mathura?
Drona arranges for a show of arms to showcase the training that the kuru princes have received. Karna joins the fray and is insulted. Suyodhana immediately crowns him as the King of Anga and they become friends for life. For some reason, Shubadra sees this as a slight to Arjuna and breaks her engagement with Suyodhana!
Drona wants to bring King Drupada to heel, so he asks Suyodhana to wage a war against him. Suyodhana is appalled and instead gets tributes from Drupada and much appreciation for his statesmanship. But Drona is not pleased. He sends in Arjuna and his brothers to do the deed. Drupada and his sons are insulted and Drona annexes half of his kingdom and Drupada is angry with Suyodhana.
Bhishma himself asks Vidhura to build a palace for the Pandavas in Vanarvrata and the Pandavas move there. But all blame is heaped on Suyodhana. Shakuni pays Purochana to build it with lac and plots to assassinate the brothers. Eklavya’s aunt and nephews are trapped into coming to the palace to eat and drink as the Pandavas come to know of the plot and they are sacrificed for a higher goal.
Draupadi’s swayamwara disgusts Suyodhana because he finds the practice barbaric. Balarama admires Jarasandha while Krishna pledges his support to the Pandavas. Draupadi is married off to five brothers and everybody is disgusted by it, including the bride.
Bhishma hands over Kandava to the five brothers, hoping that they would put down the rebel Naga leader Takshaka. And Suyodhana gets insulted by Draupadi at the Mayasabha. He agrees to the game of dice because he doesn’t want hundreds killed in a war that would avenge his insult. And the book ends with the roll of dice and Yudhistra losing his kingdom, brothers and his wife.
Vyasa’s Mahabharata does not paint anybody black or white. Nobody’s folly is left exposed nor is anybody’s greatness. Yudhistra for all his goodness, is addicted to dice, Bheema is a bully, Arjuna is proud of his skill in archery, Nakula is vain about his looks and Sahadeva about his mastery in astrology. Kunti is a very shrewd woman who sacrifices Draupadi’s wishes to keep her sons united yet she is a genuine mother who loved Nakula and Sahadeva as her own even when they were not. Every character has its plus and minus points. But in Ajaya, Kunti reminded me of Petunia Dursley who is trying to protect her Dudley from wild Harry Potter!
All through her life, Kunti lives almost precariously in Hastinapura. She was a queen when she lived there with Pandu but when he dies she is just a widow with five sons whose paternity was in question. How could she be as powerful as she is described here?
I was not convinced by Drona’s attitude towards Suyodhana. Drona was employed by Bhishma to teach Kuru Princes and an ambitious man like him would never use language such as this to insult the young scions of Kuru. He was wise enough never to be involved in their battles because they would be his next masters. He sought to groom Arjuna as the finest warrior and to gain power through him. And it works for him, when Arjuna brings Drupada as a captive and he claims half of Panchala as his due. Drona always sought power through powerful friendships right from his childhood. That’s why he never chides Ashwatama for becoming friends with Suyodhana.
I can’t understand Balarama and Jarasandha’s friendship. Balarama realizes that Jarasandha was a great king when he visits Magadha. Krishna is seen as a slinky snide character who traps his brother often in the maze of words.
There are problems with the plot lines too. Bheema gets married to Hidimbi while they are in forest, in exile. In Ajaya, Bheema gets intimate with Hidimbi because Draupadi was spending a year with Yudhistra. Arjuna meets Subadra when he is in exile which was at least 5 or 6 years after they establish Indraprastha. And by then he was a much married man with Chitrangada, Uloopi as his wives.
Suyodhana and Subhadra are in love. Suyodhana makes Karna the king so Subhadra feels sorry for Arjuna who was slighted. So she breaks her engagement. This somehow beats the logic.
What didn’t work for me?
Ajaya was supposed to be Mahabharata from Duryodhana’s point of view but Anand digresses into the caste inequality and the misery of downtrodden very often. Suyodhana in Ajaya challenges caste rules at every turn. He goes among ‘untouchables’ and is a do gooder. Somehow I am unable to get my head around this fact. Mahabharata does not hide anybody’s flaws or goodness. If Duryodhana was indeed such a do-gooder then Vyasa would have mentioned it.
The high point of Duryodhana’s character was the elevation of Karna as King of Anga. But Duryodhana’s reasons were materialistic. He wanted a talented archer and warrior on his side and another important reason was to slight the Pandavas in the arena. Karna remains beholden to Duryodhana all his life. If Suyodhana was not so bothered about caste rules, why didn’t he marry Sushasana to Karna? The truth is that Duryodhana never had matrimonial alliance with his dear friend. Karna married a Suta girl and had Suta sons. Their relationship was that of a lord and vassal through and through.
Ajaya would have been phenomenal book, if Anand had indeed written it through Duryodhana’s eyes. Instead of glossing over his faults and magnifying his goodness, Anand could have presented him as he was; an egoistic, misguided Prince who never measured up to his glorious cousins.
Ajaya’s language is a tad better than Asura. The editing has improved but the second half of the book needs a tighter editing. For a mythological novel, the language is very modern; philanthropist, India, coolie, sleeper cells are a few examples. The novel is replete with these terms.
Plus Points: I liked the continuation of Indra, Vasuki, Parashuram and Bali story legends that came in Asura. Anand needs to be appreciated for taking on a bold subject.
Minus Points: I wish this had been a genuine ‘point of view’ novel through Duryodhana’s eyes.
Verdict: I would recommend this book as it is an interesting read. However the reader needs to form his own opinion by reading the original epic or its many retellings to get a balanced view of things.