Monday, 1 August 2011

The Immortals of Meluha- On the Making of a God

The Immortals of Meluha, which is about the making of a god, provides a strong questioning of what we have considered to be airtight, unquestionable texts for long enough. The conversations on duality and the co-existence of them, the importance of narrative in determining good and evil are all, one can accede, contemporary ideologies. This helps put mythology in the perspective of a modern thought process. There is also an interesting fusion of the past and present systems of governance- “Lord Ram... instituted a system where a Rajya Sabha, the ruling council, consisting of Brahmins and Kshatriyas of a specific rank were created. Whenever the Emperor died or took sanyas, the council would meet and elect a new Emperor from amongst Kshatriyas of the rank of brigadier or above. The decision could not be contested and was inviolate.” (pg. 272) It is this fusion, primarily, that makes the book an interesting read.
The author has himself agreed that the novel is a result of debates about good and evil and about mythology itself (quote) and we can see these reflected in the book. Each page we turn has some issue or the other that gains prominence- like the questions of society and the social structure, the varna system (Amish has also  provided an alternative view-point to the system of birth into a given varna), questions about gods and how certain things got mythologized are some of the many issues looked at.
Yet one finds that, though the novel poses a good read, something is lacking by means of depth in narration. The story is fast-paced and there is a constant action, keeping the reader on the edge, but it is evident that Amish does not focus on a descriptive representation of his characters. His aim is only the movement of plot. For instance, there is no poetry in Shiva’s dance, no fierceness in his battles, nor is there any passion in his love- at least, the reader does not feel these emotions running through the veins of the protagonist or even his lady love. Even though Shiva becomes idolised, we do not see his human passions, except when he regrets his decision to run away from his past, which is the only important emotion that the reader notes.
Amish also attempts to translate every Sanskrit/Hindi word into English and this restricts the flow of the narration. One must ask why it is necessary to provide definitions for all the words he uses when there is a glossary available for those who do not understand the meanings of certain Sanskrit words (I use the term ‘Sanskrit’ here, presuming that most of these words are taken from their Sanskritic origin). It becomes cumbersome for a reader who uses some of these words in his or her own language.
Despite these flaws, however, Amish has managed to reinterpret mythology, and has presented a Shiva who is strong, and who is righteous. Even though there is a debate about representations of good and evil as a polarity, one can evidently see that there is a clear-cut ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In the movement of Shiva towards finding righteousness other characters are presented as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as well. For instance, the beggar sitting at the entrance to Rama’s temple is seen as a ‘good’ man. This characteristic of one man becomes a generalisation for Shiva. When this beggar offers Shiva his meagre meal, the Neelkanth thinks to himself, “Freedom. Freedom for the wretched to also have dignity,” and later he says, “These people were not evil.” By stating this, Shiva bases his judgement of a whole society based on one man’s actions. Secondly, Amish portrays a poor man as completely gratified with his situation in life. This is definitely not an accurate representation of the poor or of poverty.
Similarly, the representation of the vikarma, who valiantly walk to their deaths, is also inaccurate or misleading. While Amish offers a partial solution to the problem of the untouchable, he also states that their status in that society will not change despite a law created by the saviour (the Neelkanth), since the people of Meluha look upon them with disgust even after the Neelkanth states that the vikarma law ought to be repealed: “It had not escaped his notice that despite the repeal of the vikarma law, nobody had touched Drapaku when he had entered” (pg. 321). Thus, Amish sends them to an impending doom instead of bringing them to an equal status on par with the rest of the society, and only in doing so are they respected for their bravery. Amish says that vikarma believe that they ought to be treated that way because they believe that they are carriers of ill-fate and ought to be punished. Later, when one man (Drapaku) rebels, we see that the rebellion itself is cloaked in doom- since the ‘vikarma battalion’ go through a path that speaks of their imminent death. Thus, the vikarma in the novel, get eliminated due to war. This is a rather haphazard solution to a problem that exists in society.
Thus, Amish attempts to blend the past and the present, mythology and reality, gods and (wo)men. To his credit, the battle scenes are well defined, describing each and every move precisely and efficiently. The humour is splattered lightly through the whole book, especially between Veerabhadra and Shiva, or Brihaspati and Shiva. Nandi is the loyal servant, and Sati is a proud warrior princess. One cannot help but wonder if Amish intends to bring the South in his later novels, especially since places of Shiva worship down south is quite vast (as in Chidambaram etc.), and also because he has already introduced Sangamtamil in his first novel itself.
Amish has indeed managed to create an atmosphere of intense anticipation for his next book.


Daughter of the Night said...

I like your analysis... particularly the bit about there being no poetry in Siva's dance or passion in his love. I agree.

I think it's because of Amish's focus on the ideology he's trying to reveal through the story... which I certainly do find interesting and fascinating.

One or two things, I think need further looking into, though.
I agree it's hasty of Shiva to generalize based on one man (the beggar), but perhaps this is a human characteristic. We all do that from time to time.. and he is in an emotionally charged situation at that point. Perhaps this is part of Shiva's human side? It all depends on whether the character gains maturity in the next book. Maybe this tendency of his to see things as 'good' or 'bad' is part of his immaturity? Here's hoping for a better rounded character next time around!

Also, I don't think his portrayal of the poor man at the temple is of a type of people. Or at least, I don't think it should be. It is quite possible, that a poor man on a particular day is perfectly happy. This need not be true of all days or indeed the whole of that day!(though it does not necessarily mean that this is not so).

Thirdly, the vikrama issue. In saying that the vikramas believe they are bad luck, I think Amish is giving us the ideal version of society as opposed to lived reality. In fact, I think someone of a (comparatively) privileged background makes this comment. This, I think is quite realistic. Drapaku fits in rather well, I feel, as someone who is fighting to change this ideal. And the fact that changing a law does not change society is an observation hat does Amish credit. And the gaining of acceptance through martyrdom (conveniently provided by the war) does not ring false to me. It is difficult to change mindset on a large scale, except through dramatic means like this.

I think the main problem in this book, is his rather obvious attempt to promote an ideology through the story. The story lacks life, as a result and where elements of story-telling take over, the ideology becomes muddy.

What say?

Sayujya said...

When I said that the beggar had been generalised, I wasn't talking about Shiva, I was talking about Amish. It could have been presented in such a way that the external narrator disagreed with the protagonist's point of view. But yes, I do agree with your point about humanising Shiva, and about how he has the ability to mature over the next two books. And I was aware that the poor can also be happy.
About the vikarma issue- I had not looked at it from that perspective. It might be true that only by martyring themselves can a vikarma be noticed by the general public, yet, I thought, maybe Amish could have worked it out differently.
I don't know if you noticed, Sati's actual incineration by fire was changed into an Agnipariksha. I found that very interesting. It was things like that that caught me.

Thanks for the feedback. It provokes one's thoughts.

Daughter of the Night said...

I know you are, da (aware that the poor can be happy!). Sorry if I sounded condescending or anything. Didn't mean to.

Yeah, I liked the Agnipariksha bit. I liked the whole idea of the book, I think, and a lot of the reinvention of mythology (though quite a bit went over my head, I'm sure!)was quite fascinating.


Sayujya said...

Ah, Gits, I just wanted to add that I thought the notion ought to have been perceived from the point of view of Amish as well. There was no note of condescension in your tone!!
I felt that quite a bit of the mythical stuff skipped over my head as well. But I really do hope Amish brings in south India. Then there will be a meeting with Meenakshi, the warrior princess of Madurai and all that.

rohit said...

An enjoyable read The Immortals of Meluha by Amish .loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Sayujya said...

Oh wow Rohit. Thank you for that comment. I'm glad I've managed to inspire somebody to read a book. :)

roshini v said...

i loved the concept of the series. making gods look like mortals appeals a lot to me n to many ppl.but even tho amish brings a lot of different ideas in his book somehow it seems superficial. wen i read a book i always feel impressed by the description of characters. but here they are mere names. not able to associate any1 with any particular trait. a one time read for every1 but nothing more that that unless amish changes his style

Sayujya said...

@ Roshini- I agree, and somebody has already mentioned about how it is possibly because of Amish's focus on the ideology that the characters lose out some of their vividness. But the ideology is brilliant, and for that alone, it is worth the read. Regarding The Secret of the Nagas- there seems to be a little more character in that book, which is probably why it is more appealing. Yet, I think I would prefer the first book over the second any day!!!