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A love story like no other

By December 18, 2018No Comments

Source : The New Indian Express

Part of a well-known Sanskrit hymn invokes the names of five venerated heroines from Hindu mythology, according to them the status of being able to wipe away the sins of devotees.

Part of a well-known Sanskrit hymn invokes the names of five venerated heroines from Hindu mythology, according to them the status of being able to wipe away the sins of devotees. Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari tatha, Panchkanya smarenityam mahapataka nashanam, goes this incantation—“Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti (in some versions Kunti is replaced by Sita), Tara, and Mandodari: remembering the five maidens erases the greatest of sins.”

Draupadi, Sita, Kunti and even to some extent Mandodari and Ahalya are relatively well-known, even to those not familiar with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in their entirety. But who was Tara? The wife of Baali and later of his brother Sugreeva? What more?

Anand Neelakantan, in Vanara: The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara, sets out to recreate the world of Tara. Drawing from, and embellishing, various references in different versions of the Ramayana, he builds up the love triangle of a woman and the two men who love her. Beginning in the childhood of Baali and Sugreeva, the novel follows them as they come in contact with Tara, the daughter of the Vaidya Sushena, who treats Baali after a serious injury.

With Sugreeva falling head over heels in love with Tara but Tara eventually marrying Baali instead, a vicious cycle is set in motion, a near-constant conflict of interest and desire. On the one hand, there is Baali, intent on setting up his capital, Kishkinda, as a city grand enough to rival those of the Devas and Asuras. On the other, there is Sugreeva, whose obsession with Tara, his sister-in-law, reaches frightening levels.

All of this is set against a vivid backdrop of tribes and races, of enmities and prejudices. There are rivalries and bitter conflict even within the vanaras themselves. There are surprising alliances. There is the war with Ravana and the subjugation of Lanka. And there is Tara, the central figure through whose eyes, mostly, we see this drama unfolding. An interesting, intriguing woman who is both wife and lover, daughter and mother, the one seeing her every dream shattered and the one helping her people keep their dreams alive.

A few things stand out in Vanara. One is the sheer skill at storytelling: this is an engrossing, fast-paced tale with high adventure, romance, drama and pathos. There are the characterisations, which are, especially in the case of the three lead characters, believable. Tara in particular comes across as a brilliantly three-dimensional woman. Also worth mentioning is the way the author interprets fantasy or mythological elements in a rational way; instead of the vanaras being monkeys, for instance, they are actually ‘vana nara’—‘forest people’—and the myths surrounding the origins of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara are half-joking, half-flattering imaginings, not stated fact.

If there’s a failing, it’s in the very shaky editing and proof-reading of this book. The errors—of grammar, of spelling, of usage of idioms, even of continuity—are so many and so frequent that they seriously impact one’s enjoyment of Vanara.

Quick Takes

Your favourite book of all time: Mahabharata.
Your favourite fictional character: Ravana.
advice for terrible writers: Keep reading and writing. Every writer was terrible when he or she started. Practice will help you become good, if not great, given enough time and effort.
Your favourite reading nook: My bed. I am a lazy man who will never run, if I can walk, never walk, if I can stand, never stand, if I can sit and never sit, if I can lie down and read.

‘The World Belongs to Sugreevas’

Author Anand Neelakantan tells Medha Dutta how the epic Ramayana never ceases to surprise.

What prompted you to pick this topic?
Vanaras are the most fascinating people in Ramayana. However, not much has been told about them. I had written the kernel of the story as a short fiction called Tara. The chief editor of Penguin was fascinated and encouraged me to make it into a full-fledged novel. I was apprehensive initially and had thought I had told everything I wanted to tell from Ramayana. However, the great epic never ceases to surprise. I found this epic love story take shape.

The book is already slated to be adapted into a major film in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Did you expect such a response?  

All my other books are in a wide canvas and are more suited for web series than a film. In fact, Rise of Sivagami of Baahubali series is becoming a Netflix series too. Vanara is concise and precise, with only three major characters, set in one city. It is intense and emotional and is best suited for a film. When I finished it, I was sure one day or another this would become a great film.

How difficult was the research?

Plenty of material is available in folk tales, various Ramayanas and other Puranas. With spectacular characters like Rama, Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Hanuman etc, it is natural for us to ignore other characters. But as we go deeper into Ramayana, the story of Vanaras before Rama had arrived at Kishkinda has enough depth and drama to be made as another epic. I was fortunate that I was one of the first person to stumble on this gem in Indian English.

While writing, do you identify with the characters or do you like to maintain a distance and write like a chronicler and narrator?
I am always inside the mind of my character when I write. I often become the character. His or her emotions are mine. Narrator technique in writing is a powerful tool, but I am not comfortable with it. I can’t maintain distance with my characters.

Did you expect Baahubali to leave such an impact?
All the credit goes to the ace director S S Rajamouli and his team. I was fortunate to be a part of this endeavour. I am also happy that to a great extent, I was able to match the expectations.

If you had to choose between Baali and Sugreeva, who would you choose, and why?
Sugreeva, for he is a survivor. Baali is an idealist. I sympathise with and admire Baali, but the world belongs to Sugreevas.

In Ramayana, do we tend to focus too much on Ram and end up being unfair to the other characters?
Ramayana, by name itself is the story of Rama. Hence it is only fair that it is told from Rama’s perspective. All other attempts to write the story from various other characters’ point of view are only inspired works.

What are you working on next?
The second book of Baahubali is on priority now. There is also a Malayalam novel coming soon. A self-help book on what we can learn from asuras called Asura Marga will hit the stands next year. I am also working on various TV shows and film scripting.

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