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The Baahubali universe expands in Anand Neelakantan’s ‘Queen of Mahishmathi’

Epics are usually about heroes. But despite the usual ensemble cast, it is a heroine who dominates this story.

From the prolific pen of bestselling mythological fiction author, Anand Neelakantan, comes Queen of Mahishmathi, a 550-odd-page blockbuster, with 84 chapters and a cast of 47 characters: kings, queens, princes, rebels, slaves, a dwarf here, a eunuch there, a spiritual guru, a devadasi, a madman, a pirate, villains galore and a particularly terrifying species of predatory bird known as ‘Garuda pakshi’.

What makes this work even more awesome is that it is the concluding book of a trilogy (The Rise of Sivagami and Chaturanga were the first two titles) that was a by-product generated by the epic action films, Baahubali: 1 and 2.

The books thus expand the universe of the films by creating backstories for some important characters. There are no impediments in this marriage of true minds as SS Rajamouli, the director, clearly saw in Neelakantan the ideal candidate for a fruitful relationship.

Think about it: How often does a film director’s magnum opus procreate triplets in a novelist’s imagination?

So, a prequel is what this trilogy must be called. Though the term is 20th century, the concept is as old as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both epics have a galaxy of strong, popular characters whose individual story arcs, interpolated and interconnected, have seeded forests of local versions. Neelakantan, known for his ingenuity and atypical storytelling, has centred his earlier books (Asura: Tale of the Vanquished, the Ajaya series, Vanara: The Legend of Vali, Sugreeva and Tara) around some of these characters—with consummate success. This prequel trilogy draws its strength from the epic narrative structure, pooled with the author’s experience in screenplay writing for TV serials. Indeed, in true episodic style, it reads more like an assembly of well-written dramatic scenes from future screen versions.

Mahishmathi could be Hastinapur, but it isn’t. Instead, it is the appropriation of a name—from an ancient kingdom believed to have been on the banks of the Narmada. It is undefined, almost fantastical, sitting somewhere in the southern part of the subcontinent, replete with forests, waterfalls, secret caves, heavily guarded mines packed with rare gems, a dress code that vaguely belongs to 8th-9th century, as well as story tropes that are eternal and totally familiar, such as a powerful king with two sons who are rivals for a girl.

In time, the underlying rivalry between princes Bijjaladeva and Mahadeva will pass on to their sons who will fight an epic war for the throne and display the derring-do of epic heroes. Times change, but the stories that enthral us don’t. As befitting epic characters, the people in these pages are larger than life, neither good nor evil, but having shades of both. Jealousy, lust, revenge, greed, a hunger for power, drive them through a labyrinthine plot that seems to grow organically.

However, there are differences.Epics are usually about heroes. But despite the usual ensemble cast, it is a heroine who dominates this story. Sivagami, who, as we saw in the movies, is a powerful character, married to the disabled, side-lined older prince, Bijjaladeva.

Though he could pass for Dhritarashtra, she is no dutiful Gandhari. In this book, that goes into Sivagami’s  origins, we learn more about the experiences that have shaped her into a strong, respected regent who can also be a vengeful mother-in-law. A second character with a compelling on-screen presence, whose story is elucidated here, is Katappa, the Bhishma-like loyal protector of the Mahishmathi throne.

Indeed, Neelakantan’s writing has added interesting, contemporary layers to the portrayals of all characters. Sample these words from a spiritual guru.

‘We are all immortals. Only the body withers away. I am not this body. You are not your body. You are deeper than that, I am deeper than that. In another plane there is neither you nor me.’ In this plane, however, there is the Baahubali franchise and its continuing success, which this work happily assures.

‘Moustache’ book review: Stunning tales of the tash

A struggle for identity, the courage to stand up to the oppressor, violence and more pepper the pages of this unique story.

Malayalam author S Hareesh’s oeuvre, comprising three short story collections and two screenplays, has earned him several prestigious awards. However, Moustache, his first novel, is a tour de force of jaw-dropping authenticity. In page after page, the word becomes the world. The language creates a magnetic field that pulls everything in—the landscape, its stories and the reader. Set in Kuttanad, a low-lying delta region formed by five rivers that flow into the longest lake in India, the story is about the strange otherworldliness of a watery panorama and all that breathes within. This includes humans, of every ilk, and the power play that governs their lives.

Yes, caste tension is central to the story. It is, in fact, the story.In the first half of the 20th century, at the time the events unfold, there is a hereditary ruler in place, presiding over a feudal society. Brahmins at the top. Then come, with varying degrees of social power, landowners, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, woodworkers, oil sellers, barbers, fisherfolk—each possessive about their ways of living. Way, way down are the utterly powerless, the Dalits—the Pulayans and the Chovans. Landless labourers, toddy tappers, in the large numbers needed for farming, they are not paid in wages but given a paltry share of the crop. It’s never enough and Vavachan, the hero of the novel, a Pulayan- Christian lad from a family of six children, spends daylight foraging, sleeps hungry, dreams of a full stomach. There is nothing else.

Vavachan’s life changes when a drama company, staging a play, looks around for someone with a moustache for the part of a policeman and finds no one suitable other than Vavachan. ‘Like all men of the Pulayan caste, he was coal-black, as though he would turn water black if he entered the river, as though, if like a dark spirit, he jumped up and touched the sky, black rain would fall.’ Despite fears that the audience will boo if a low caste is made a policeman, the role becomes his and the thick, strong facial hair is reshaped to create the moustache. The scene requires no dialogue, but when the policeman appears the audience is electrified. ‘Those who sat in the front rows felt that their age-old fear of mythical, discarnate beings of darkness, such as the Rakshas and the Makkan, had finally taken physical form and appeared before them.’ He utters just one word, ‘Da…!’ and they flee en masse.

S Hareesh
Performance over, Vavachan is reluctant to part with the moustache and this the upper castes deem an insult. A manhunt is launched. Vavachan scarpers, melting into the landscape, hiding in the waterways. His moustache grows, gaining a supernatural persona of its own. ‘A school of rosy-red minnows swam through his moustache without making a single ripple in the water. Pregnant fish quietly considered the suitability of its denseness to lay their eggs, assuming that it was the tangled roots of canal-side trees.’ Like the magical moustache, the story, abandoning all notions of a conventional narrative arc, sprouts in all directions, presenting a primal world of animals, fish, plants, birds, spirits, desires. The vision has a childlike freshness to it, but that is misleading.

Beneath the lush beauty of the language lie tales of violence, of unspeakable cruelty. A woman is raped. And then gang-raped. Another dies, alone, of snake bite. Dirges flow through these pages. In the irony of it all, there is the profound loneliness of the moustache as it struggles to rescue its life, to evade oblivion. ‘Each of us is made of the stories that are told of us. If we look carefully, we can see the train of murmuring stories following each person like the royal mantle follows the advancing king. Some people are not flesh and blood, but fully made up of stories.’

Though challenging, this novel, skilfully translated by Jayasree Kalathil, is a most rewarding read.

Best Indian reads of 2020

Top 10 fiction (in order of releasing dates)

  • Low by Jeet Thayil: Arriving in Mumbai, clutching a box containing his wife’s ashes for immersion in the sea, Dominic Ullis, in search of oblivion, embarks on a weekend spree involving cocaine, meow meow and a colourful cast of characters. Though essentially a grief narrative, this is an extraordinarily alive, dynamic and a delightfully absurd read.

Read more at: Best Indian reads of 2020

Written for Deccan Herald

The secret of a good life

A shyamkarni horse

Craving is intrinsic to human nature. If you don’t wish to be enslaved by it, you have to root it out.’

Chapter 5: Yayati and Shukracharya. (From Bride of the Forest)

To live a happy, fulfilled life one needs a zest for living. While this is a good thing, an excess of it, lust, is bad. This is what the story of King Yayati tells us. 

Yayati was an early ancestor of the Kauravas and Pandavas. He appears in the Puranas and the Mahabharat. His tale has never lost its appeal for the questions it raises, such as: Are health, wealth and prosperity enough for a fulfilling life?  If not, how can one become truly happy? While these are perennial questions, every generation must find the answers through its own experiences.

In a nutshell, the story is this: Yayati breaks a promise given to an all-powerful Brahmin, Shukracharya. As the word of a king should never be broken, his punishment is immediate and terrible. He is cursed with extreme old age. To become ill and decrepit overnight, when you are at the height of your physical and mental powers and your prosperity, is an especially raw deal. Yayati longs for the good life he enjoyed and pleads with Shukra to take back the curse, but is told that once issued, a curse cannot be revoked. However, its effect can be lessened: if Yayati can get one among his sons to agree to live out the curse instead of him, he can continue to enjoy the pleasures that a royal lifestyle offered. 

Now, Yayati has five sons and he goes to each one with the aim of exchanging his old age for youth. But the first four refuse the barter and only the youngest, Puru, a mere boy, agrees to it. Overnight Puru becomes a frail white-haired old man, and Yayati is young again. He carries on as before, indulging his love of a good life by enjoying every pleasure he can think of, but ultimately, as is the case with all addictions, finds that the hunger of a pleasure seeker is insatiable. The pursuit of happiness through satisfying sensual desires is a fruitless quest. The further one chases such happiness, the more elusive it gets. It’s a bit like being trapped in a labyrinth. This is because becoming attached to the feelings he enjoys, a pleasure seeker’s commitment is, basically, only to himself. When selfishness and greed become part of his disposition, he is doomed to remain trapped forever. To lead a richer life, one has to move away from one’s cravings, reach outwards and find other ways, such as work that engages your body, mind and soul, or a worthwhile cause to which you can devote your efforts. While it’s important to know what you want out of life, it’s essential to know what you have to offer it, that is uniquely yours to give. 


Season of joy

The sun is the gateway to the path of the gods Mahabharata

An enduring image from the Mahabharata is that of the mortally wounded patriarch Bhishma Pitamaha lying on a bed of arrows, waiting for precisely this date – 14th January – to die.  Blessed with the boon of selecting the time of death, he chose Makara Sankranti,  a highly auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, because death on this day would grant him moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth.

On Makara Sankranti, the sun enters (Sankranti) the sign of Capricorn (Makara) and begins its northward journey, Uttarayan. For us earthlings, it means that our days will now be increasingly long and warm. While northerners celebrate the end of winter, in the south, especially Tamil Nadu, this day is marked for an important harvest festival, Pongal, when an offering of cooked rice is made to the sun.

The overflowing of the cooking pot, representing an inexhaustible vessel, is considered a sign of good luck, and it, too, finds an echo in the epic: When the Pandavas began their thirteen-year-exile, their circumstances were considerably reduced. Understanding this, Surya presented Yudhisthir with an Akshaya Patra, a cooking pot that would assure him an endless supply of food,  as he was still obligated to feed all visitors.

Yaska, a 5th BCE grammarian, classified the chief Vedic deities as three: Agni whose place is on the earth, Vayu or Indra, whose place is in the air, and Surya, who occupies the sky. While worship of the first two gods has somewhat declined, worshipping the Sun is a tradition that has continued to present times, as evidenced by the chanting of the sacred Gayatri mantra in which the deity is referred to as Savitr, ‘the one that rises and sets’.

Among the sun’s 1008 names is Bharga ( Evolver). ‘This Evolver is the soul of all that exists in the three worlds, whether animate or inanimate. There is nothing apart from it.’ As the source of life and light – physical, mental spiritual – the sun is the nearest image we have of divinity.

Mothers & Others

Your son will have your glory, but will he have your name? By what name will he be called?’

The look he sent me was full of irony. ‘Would it be wrong if he was called by your name – as Kaunteya?’

How little you know of this world!’ I said, bitterly.

(source: The Kaunteyas – pg 62)

Kaunteya (singular) is a matronymic, a personal name derived from the name of the mother, grandmother or a female ancestor. It means ‘Kunti’s son’ – just as Pandava means ‘Pandu’s son’ – and is equally applicable to the four sons born of Kunti.

We know that Kunti is the birth mother of the elder three Pandavas: Yudhisthira, Bheem and Arjuna. But what these three brothers do not know is that they have another sibling by the same mother. In ancient times, a matronymic was used when referring to the son of an unwed mother (as is the case with Karna), or when the mother was a powerful figure in her own right, such as a queen. Thus, in the epic, each of the twin sons of Kunti’s co-wife, Queen Madri, is referred to as Madreya (Madreyas in plural). Likewise, the five sons of Draupadi are called Draupadeyas.

Another matronymic in the epic is Partha.Though it is used mostly for Arjun, it can apply just as well to Karna, Yudhisthira and Bheem. (In recent times, the well known Bengali author poet and playwright, Buddhadeb Bose wrote a popular play Pratham Partha, which is about Karna.) Partha means ‘Pritha’s son’, Pritha being Kunti’s birth name before she was given away in fosterage to Kuntibhoja. In those days, queens were often known by the name of the kingdom that they came from, so Pritha became Kunti.


Good Girls Don’t

“Girls in our family are taught to run a household, trained to be good, dutiful wives in the future but you have encouraged her to study the Shastras because she has a sharp mind – that was what you said. How does a sharp mind reveal itself but through a sharp tongue? In a woman is that a virtue or a vice?”

(source: pg 28-29, The Kaunteyas)

One of the criticisms made about modern TV soaps is about the regressive depiction of women – evil saas, submissive bahu – that reinforces gender stereotyping. However, screen actors act according to a script, the episode is watched by an unknown audience. Oral storytelling performances require performers to be more sensitive to their audiences. Coming from this milieu, the world as depicted in the Mahabharata, is also complex and nuanced, particularly in its depiction of women.

We know the Mahabharata as a tale of enmity between two branches of the same family that ends in a terrible war. Rivalry is a recurrent theme in the epic. For instance, the unspoken sibling rivalry between Dhritarashtra and Pandu mutates, in the next generation, into the deadly enmity between their children.

A subplot of the story is the intense competition between the two best archers of that time, Karna and Arjun. In the sweep of the narrative, it is sometimes overlooked that they, too, are half brothers. The fact that they, themselves, are unaware of the kinship adds piquancy and pathos to the tale. Until the eve of the war, the relationship is known only to their mother Kunti.

What compels her to maintain this secret almost right to the bitter end? Why does she choose to reveal it at a critical point in the story? What are the lifelong consequences that she suffers for keeping this secret? Finally, what role does the secret play in shaping the larger events of the Mahabharata? These are intriguing questions that lead us towards insights into the feminine world of the epic, as well as to a deeper understanding of patriarchal society. Most of all, the questions allow us to enter the mind of an important but elusive character from the epic and see its events from her perspective.


Family Sagas: Our Never Ending Love

“Men’s stories are the bones of a bygone age, sanctified as relics, preserved in stone. Women’s stories are written in water. Passed in silence from mother to daughter. About things perishable: flesh, blood, feelings, tears. Suffering. Endurance is a sign of womanliness. But what men overlook is that endurance is a crucible, it changes the existing state.”

(source: Prologue, The Kaunteyas)

The serial Yeh rishta kya kehlata hai just aired its 2,267th episode. Dallas and Dynasty may have inspired Indian screenwriters to script convoluted family sagas, but our own indigenous tradition for such fare is very old.

Long before the writing of the Mahabharata began, over 2000 years ago, it was already a well-known tale that had thrived for centuries. Storytellers performed it before audiences, but it was probably a talking point in every household. Why? Because it is about family. One of the methods used to keep multiple generations of listeners engaged was to constantly re-frame the narrative; every possible character, situation and plot twist was included in the mix so that eventually a famous (tag) line said: What is here may be found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.

The Mahabharata is regarded as itihasa, that some translate as ‘history’. But history, strictly speaking, has no lessons to offer; it is for the student of history to decide what s/he wants to make of it. An epic like the Mahabharata is a different matter: the concept of time that applies to history is irrelevant. Also, its sheer size and variety, offering profit and pleasure, makes it accessible to a wider range of people.

Oral storytelling is more nuanced because it is sensitive to a ‘live’ audience. The Mahabharata, originating in this tradition, carries within it multiple meanings, stories and ways of telling them. It has, and it will for generations to come, inspire us to seek or renew these meanings, stories and storytelling styles. That is the secret of its enduring appeal.