Literary Review

Review: Krishna Udayasankar’s Immortal brings Asvatthama to the 21st century

Immortal; Krishna Udayasankar, Hachette, Rs. 399.  

One of the most annoying things about mythology is that it comes entangled in an unfilterable mesh of allegory and fact, unlike something that is admittedly fiction. The Mahabharata happens to be one such mythological epic that is rife with this risk, given the sheer breadth of its cast, its geographical correlatability to the modern subcontinent, and its expert straddling of reason and faith. So, we, curious cats whom indulgence in a bit of intrigue never killed, often tend to enjoy conflating its plausible allusions with verified affirmations. So do the characters in Krishna Udayasankar’s Immortal.

And when a writer of Udayasankar’s expertise in mytho-history pens a novel called Immortal, based on the famously cursed Asvatthama, we can either complain about contrived narratives or lap it up for the sheer intrigue it offers. Immortal has a pacy Dan-Brown-esque brand of storytelling, complete with pithy repartee and long-winded expositions during tense situations. The characters are rendered somewhat endearing by being powerful and vulnerable at the same time. The plot, with a cascade of historical information, keeps you on your toes with some forced twists and archetypical romantic tension. And then there is the ancient Asva himself, donning the identity of Professor Bharadvaj, fittingly a historian by profession, in the 21st century.

Here’s the premise. Asvatthama — son of Drona — a scholar-warrior and survivor of the Great Kurukshetra War, has lived on through millennia, rubbing shoulders with historical figures like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Subhash Chandra Bose and a host of others. While in most versions of the Mahabharata, Asvatthama is cursed by Krishna to eternally suffer disease with no release, Udayasankar’s version is slightly different: Asva is unable to die, yes; but his body has self-regenerative capabilities, so he never really suffers eternal decrepitude. So, he is, for all practical purposes, indestructible. He really should have no complaints.

Professor Bharadvaj is a treasure-hunting historian. His sheer experience — as a 4,000-year-old and a trained fighter-philosopher — makes him a formidable force in his line of work, but you’re not sure that, besides the ‘revelationary’ historical insights the narrative is peppered with, his knowledge is helping him find what he needs: the answer to immortality.

The book makes a valiant attempt at theorising the question of human life and its preoccupation with death. And it helps that the characters have a rational bent of mind, none too given to accepting comforting notions on faith. So, you get an analysis of immortality in terms of genetics: human beings are far too complex a species of multicellular organism to easily become immortal as a single-celled amoeba might. Google telomeres, mutagenesis, apoptosis, and enjoy.

The very insouciance that sometimes renders Asvatthama arrogant also extenuates the book’s incredible contrivances — the professor is a man of science, a steadfast sceptic who will investigate something he knows to be dogmatic and false if only to disprove it. Professor Bharadvaj’s trademark question-answer routine, like an indulgent teacher trying to let his students work out an answer for themselves, allows the author not only to cover more ground academically but also gives the reader a comforting feeling that the narrative is taking a highly logical trajectory.

But, even though Asvatthama is the first-person narrator, we are never quite sure of his motivations, since he keeps his most precious secrets close to his chest even when addressing the reader, always allusive and commentative as opposed to transparent and explicit. Perhaps the book could have used an impartial third-person narrator, who would not have the luxury of couching crucial character traits in self-important secrecy as Asvatthama does. I mean, what’s the point of having a horse as a spokesperson if it only ends up mouthing the party line?

That said, there is a lot that this book offers you to Google. Flush with science, philosophy and heritage, the book is a veritable bibliography of historical sites, mythology and academic works. The real edification actually comes after you finish the book and pick up your laptop to Wikipedia the heck out of the myriad references mentioned.

However — and this might be a spoiler — if you hope to receive an answer or any logical resolution at the end of the book, you won’t get it. The book sets up the very interesting premise of an undying man seeking a moral as well as scientific explanation to his immortality. The book takes you on quite a journey, spanning exotic spiritual locations in India and the deserts of Pakistan. But in the end, it turns out, the author doesn’t feel equipped to resolve Asvatthama’s dilemma, and simply resorts to gloss it over with some more of the genre’s typical mysterious gravitas and allusion. But while that ends up being a real let-down, as does the generic suspenseful narrative, you won’t notice it if you allow yourself to be consumed by the conundrum that Asvatthama represents: having eternal health and life, but too conflicted to enjoy it.

Immortal; Krishna Udayasankar, Hachette, Rs. 399.

mihir.b@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 6:30:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Review-Krishna-Udayasankar%E2%80%99s-Immortal-brings-Asvatthama-to-the-21st-century/article16442832.ece

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