History is but a retelling of events by the victor; it is never an impartial narrative by a neutral third person. Hence, the victor is the good guy and the vanquished, the bad guy. But what we readers forget is that nothing is only good or only bad...there is no black and white...only shades of grey. And no, I am not talking about the Fifty Shades of Grey here ;)
It was for this reason that I had bought Asura by a new author, Anand Neelakantan, because it retold the story of the Ramayan from the viewpoint of the vanquished, the king of Asuras, Ravana! And I loved that book (will review that soon). So when Anand Neelakantan came out with his second book, Ajaya, I HAD to buy it. While Jaya is the story of the victors, the Pandavas, AJAYA is the story of the ones who lost the great war...the Kauravas.
As you all must be knowing by now, I am a bit (okay, quite a lot) obsessed by Ancient Indian history and especially our epics. To be more precise, the Mahabharat. The one epic that is filled with intrigue, conspiracy and loads of sadness...and yet, it is my favourite story. In fact, I have already thought up my dream cast if I ever got to make a movie on the Mahabharat (full post here). The synopsis on the back cover of this book ensured that I wouldn't waste a moment before reading it.
While this book deals with the events that occured several millenia ago, the narrative is very contemporary....and very compelling. Each character is well sketched out with their strengths and weaknesses shown well. Neelakantan shows that good and bad in the human nature are two sides of the same coin. So what is traditionally shown as the strength of the Pandavas, is depicted here as their drawback. Sounds confusing, but I won't go into details here since I do not want to give away anything of the story...a story that almost all Indians know. But do they?
The friendship between Suyodhana (the real name of Duryodhan) and Ashwathama and then later with Karna is shown very beautifully. The conflict-filled father-son relationship that Drona shares with his son, Drona's affection for Arjun, the cold war between Kunti and Gandhari and the weariness of Bhishma with these household politics are described really well.
One thing that deserves special mention here is that Neelakantan has shown the decline in the status of women as well as people of the lower castes as it occurs during the course of the epic, right from the time Satyavati, a fisherwoman, became the Kuru Queen, to Draupadi, who despite being a princess, had no say in who she could marry. And after marriage, could not protest against being made a wife of five brothers! This was something that, as a student of Ancient Indian Culture, I studied in college. In this book, he has made it very personal, he has shown the characters, being affected and that is very touching.
Also, he has removed all the "magic" and "mystery" from the epics, so you have Kalia and Vasuki who are real people belonging to the Naga tribe rather than snakes. The Pandavas being the sons of "God" is also questioned, and answered convincingly, here.
I really can't talk much about the characters because it would spoil the reading pleasure for you. Nor will I say anything about the plot because, who doesn't know the plot of the Mahabharat. Yea, the makers of the Mahabharat serial on Star Plus don't know it well but let me not get into that. (Those people haven't even read the basic Amar Chitra Katha version of the Mahabharat apparently! Bhishma putting out the fire at the Varnavata lac palace...really???)
All I will say is, if you like the Mahabharat, you MUST read this book. With an open mind. Even if you aren't fascinated by the epics, read this because it is a fascinating book. It is the other side to the coin that we have been seeing since thousands of years. And the reason for that is that History is chronicled by the winners. Now read what the ones who didn't win have to say......