Despite the burden of detail, the pace of this novel never lapses into a lull
The epics continue to inspire writing that frequently dares to deviate and look at mythology from fresh perspectives. The Mahabharat, in particular, appears to be an eternal favourite going by the number of interpretations it has spawned over time. Likewise, of the phalanx of deities, Krishna proves to be as charismatic as Ram, if not more, when it comes to firing the imagination of writers.
The newest entrant to the league of mythology-inspired novels is The Aryavarta Chronicles Book 1: Govinda by debutant novelist Krishna Udayasankar. There is a grand touch to the appearance of the novel and the cover immediately arrests the eye. A glittering gold sceptre set against stormy skies and a foaming sea amply illustrates the nature of things to come. The novel opens dramatically with a princess fleeing across a parched landscape. She runs into a personable stranger who rescues her from sure death, befriends her for a night and guides her to her river-side destination. And thus, the stage is set for a complex chain of events.
Krishna Udayasankar’s Govinda is far removed from the cult figure of the philandering cowherd prince swathed in silks and surrounded by a bevy of beauties. Instead, the author’s protagonist is a mixture of paradoxes — inscrutable, scheming, layered, noble and secretive with no one — not even his beloved Panchali — ever sure of his motives. His head and heart, also, do not always appear to work in tandem. Panchali, in contrast, is forthright, valorous and clear-thinking, upholding truth, justice and the value of human life above all else. She is an ardent feminist (probably one of the earliest recorded ones) who thinks nothing of questioning, challenging and defying every man-made rule in the book. Her persona is probably the reason why, unlike in other popular works, polyandry is not Panchali’s lot in this particular novel. The author shapes the princess with an artist’s care, attributing Panchali with the cream of human virtues. All of which makes one wonder whether the book could well have been named after the heroine.
The characters, with their varied nuances, make up this tome as much as the plots. No individual is truly black or white in this intimidating landscape; every person comes with his/her share of refreshing flaws. Dharma as the self-doubting heir to the throne; Partha burning with desire for his brother’s wife and Panchali pining for Govinda even though happily married to Dharma are all too recognisable as are the overdressed grim Grandsire Bhisma and the upright conscience-keeper of Aryavarta, Dwaipayana.
Krishna Udayasankar writes engagingly and well; the pace of the novel never lapsing into a lull despite the burden of details it carries. A great deal of research has obviously gone into writing a mythological novel of such magnitude but, mercifully, at no time is the prose dry or pedantic nor does the information overload risk overwhelming the story. All of which requires a degree of dexterity on the part of any author.
There is a tendency towards the excessive when describing the physical grandeur of palaces and edifices of the various kingdoms; a kitschy Bollywood-ish ostentation that risks robbing the text of credibility. However, trade, economy, craft, commerce, wars and weddings (a fair share of them politically motivated) and the weave of their symbiotic relationships forming the political mesh of the times are ably conveyed. Shifting geographies and power games are depicted with meticulous care and, in etching Aryavarta, its life, times and inhabitants, the author depicts the society of a bygone era.
History is never an absolute truth and every person has the right to view it the way he/she chooses to. The author chooses to view the past through glasses tinted with a vivid imagination and deserves credit for undertaking such a humungous project for a debut. Of the lead players, Panchali — simultaneously a woman and a warrior, a princess and a philosopher, an able strategist and an eternal seeker of truth and justice — stands head and shoulders above the crowd. Frequently manipulated and crowded in by the men in her life, she succeeds in emerging her own woman, and woman of tremendous substance at that! Her character novel is sure to delight hardened feminists for generations to come. Govinda Shauri, on the other hand, is shorn of his usual finery, comes across as an astute politician and a man of almost supernatural prowess. Suspense, vendetta, plots, counter-plots, gory scenes of torture and even a graphically described hallucinatory sequence is sure to give an adrenalin rush to those in need of one. The novel ends with a coronation ceremony being carried out to murmurs of dissent, and the stage is thus very satisfactorily set for a sequel.
The Aryavarta Chronicles; Krishna Udayasankar, Hachette India, Rs.350.