Thursday, 22 January 2015

Book Review - The Guardians Of The Halahala

I have just finished reading the first book in what is billed as the "Vikramaditya Trilogy" - The Guardians of the Halahala.

[Pronunciation hint: It's Vikramaaditya, i.e., with a long vowel in the middle.]

Mythological fiction at its best

The author is Shatrujeet Nath, whose earlier spy novel The Karachi Deception I had enjoyed very much. So I fully expected this one to be good, and I was not disappointed.

Different genre, same quality

Nath joins a distinguished line of modern Indian authors who are delving into the rich store of Indian mythology to inspire their works of fiction. Amish Tripathi's Shiva Trilogy is perhaps the best-known in this genre so far, but my bookshelf is being rapidly populated by a host of similar others, and Nath's Vikramaditya Trilogy promises to be one of the classiest.

The premise of the Vikramaditya Trilogy is intriguing. It combines two well-known myths, one being the churning of the Ocean of Milk by the eternal rivals, the devas ("lesser" gods) and the asuras (demons), and other being the exploits of the wise and valorous king Vikramaditya of Vetala (or Betaal) fame.

The churning of the Ocean of Milk is a cultural meme that resonates throughout the Indic world, as this statue at Bangkok airport testifies - but more on the Indic stuff later!

Generations of Indian children have grown up shivering at the creepy tales of the storytelling Betaal or Vetala (a ghoul that possesses corpses) and the brave and wise king Vikramaditya

Most Indians know the story of how the devas and asuras once reluctantly cooperated, using the giant snake Vasuki as a rope and mount Meru as a pestle (with Lord Vishnu in the form of a tortoise supporting the pestle) to churn the Ocean of Milk in their quest for Amrit, the nectar of immortality. But before the Amrit appears, a host of other objects and beings emerges from the Ocean, the first of which is the deadly poison Halahala that threatens to kill them all. Enter Lord Shiva, who eliminates the danger by simply swallowing the Halahala, after which the churning resumes.

Nath introduces a bit of mischief into the proceedings by revealing that not all of the Halahala was consumed by Shiva. A little bit of the poison, enough to fuel a weapon of mass destruction, had been stolen by one of the asuras and hidden inside a dagger before Shiva could arrive on the scene. True, Shiva seizes the dagger from the asura and keeps it away from the squabbling rivals, but there comes a time when he wants to return to his meditations and looks for a trustworthy and neutral party who can keep the dagger safe. The unfortunate one Shiva chooses is of course our hero King Vikramaditya, a mere mortal but endowed with all the heroic qualities one would require to stand up to both the devas and the asuras.

Nath neatly melds the historical king Chandragupta "Vikramaditya", who kept the Huns and Sakas at bay, with the mythical hero of the "Vikram and Betal" stories.

The historical Chandragupta titled "Vikramaditya", presented to us by Amar Chitra Katha comics

So in The Guardians of the Halahala ("guardians" being a reference to King Vikramaditya and his loyal warriors), the king has to ward off not only his conventional nomadic enemies the Hunas and the Sakas, but also his two new celestial foes. An uneven contest? Well, that's what makes the story interesting! Vikramaditya and his merry men (and women, for Nath is no chauvinistic male author) have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to meet the challenge, not to mention pluck.

Nath maintains a lively pace, switching from one scene to another and back again to provide a simultaneously progressing narrative covering many characters in many settings. This is a story in which many things happen, and at the same time, so it's important for the reader to be treated to a slice of each scene before the narration moves on.

The story could be confusing to readers without a good background into Indian history, mythology and a familiarity with Sanskritic names.

There is a nice Tolkienesque map at the beginning of the book showing all the kingdoms referred to in the story. The difference is that Tolkien's Middle-Earth was pure fiction; Nath's Sindhuvarta is based on historical reality.

It helped me to mentally translate each kingdom's name to the name of the modern Indian state to which it corresponded, so I could make sense of the geographical directions mentioned in the story. These are a sample:

Avanti (Vikramaditya's kingdom) - a region between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh
Heheya - Madhya Pradesh
Anarta - Gujarat
Matsya - Rajasthan
Vatsa - also in Uttar Pradesh
Magadha - Bihar
Vanga - Bengal
Kosala - Northern Uttar Pradesh
Kalinga - Odisha (Orissa)

As a South Indian, I was slightly disappointed that much of South India was not shown on this map at all, and the bits that did appear were largely dismissed as the "Dandaka forest", when some of the most virile kingdoms of ancient India happened to have been in the South. It was the seafaring South Indian kings, omitted from mention in the Sindhuvarta story, who spread the Indic culture to South-east Asia, through Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia all the way up to Cambodia and South Vietnam! [Ah well, some of the best historical fiction of the South Indian kingdoms has already been written. See this and this.] During the course of the story, one of the characters mentions "two kingdoms to the East", Sribhoja and Srivijaya, which hints at the extent of the ancient Indic civilisation. This is a bit of an error, though, since these are both names for the same kingdom which corresponds to part of modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps he meant to say Kamboja instead of Sribhoja, which would have referred to modern Cambodia.

The nine gems of Chandragupta Vikramaditya's court, who were mostly nerdy scholars, are here turned into doughty warriors, with two of them even becoming female. I daresay even Indians would have a tough time pronouncing some of their names (try Varahamihira and Kshapanaka).

I enjoyed the occasional flashes of Nath's subtle humour, as when Kalidasa is introduced as a giant warrior who also writes poetry on the side. It was redolent of the tough Steven Seagal character in the action movie "Under Siege" who "also cooks".

What I liked most about the book is how it turns conventional notions of morality and right and wrong on their head. Hindu mythology has always glorified the devas as the virtuous ones, and the asuras as evil beings, with Amar Chitra Katha comics contributing to the stereotyping with appropriate illustrations.

The Devas - the "good guys" are always fair-skinned, clean-shaven and handsome

The Asuras - the "bad guys" are always dark-skinned and demonic in their features

The stark difference in appearance between the devas and the asuras is implausible. Both had a common father, the sage Kashyapa. The mother of the asuras was Diti and the mother of the devas was Aditi. Diti and Aditi were sisters. How can the offspring of two sisters and a common father be so different? It's just stereotyping and quite literally the demonisation of one set of beings.

Shatrujeet Nath's portrayal is more realistic. In The Guardians of the Halahala, the devas are villainous characters, no better than the asuras. It's the humans who are the heroes. Indra, the king of the devas, comes across as a particularly odious character.

Indra - a villainous god in Shatrujeet Nath's retelling

There is no question about where the reader's sympathies lie. We root for King Vikramaditya all the way.

To be frank, the depiction of Vikramaditya isn't rousing. The dashingly heroic character of Hansa Mehta's Adventures of King Vikrama is strangely absent. Yet there is one trait of Nath's Vikramaditya that endears him to us - his loyalty and love for the wife who lies in a near-coma throughout the first book.

Nath's description of the shadowy Borderworld as "Creation caught in the transition between life and death" is brilliant and haunting, as is his portrayal of it as "the eternal realm of the undead ghouls, the gloaming separating the world of the living from the world of the dead". This is where Nath houses the Betaal (Vetala) of the old Vikram-Betaal stories, and the Betaal has a crucial role to play, after all.

Nath neatly brings together chiasmic contrasts, as in this passage.
Shukracharya held his breath, not heeding another word being spoken by the men. Asuras with four horns on their heads, shell-like bodies that were impenetrable, eyes that glowed like white moonlight...and jagged swords shaped out of bone.

Diti's seven demonic sons. The dreaded Maruts. Asura by birth, deva by allegiance.

The irony of it brought a small sneer to Shukracharya's lips. After all, he was a deva by birth, but asura by allegiance. Loyalty was everything and nothing.
The Guardians of the Halahala is a great first volume of a promising trilogy. If Shatrujeet Nath can keep up the suspenseful pace and carry the series through to a satisfying conclusion, he would have earned a leading place in the pantheon of modern Indian authors who are forging new tales from old.

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