In Anand Neelakantan’s novel, ‘Asura – Tale of the Vanquished’, the story is told from Ravana’s perspective, giving a new insight into the Ramayana, the 5000-year old epic
Photo of Anand: By T.P. Sooraj
By Shevlin Sebastian
‘Tomorrow is my funeral. I do not know if they will bury me like a mangy dog or whether I will get a funeral fit for an emperor – an erstwhile emperor. But it does not really matter. I can hear the scuffing sounds made by the jackals. They are busy eating my friends and family.
Something scurried over my feet. What was that? I haven’t the strength to raise my head. Bandicoots. Big, dark, hairy rats. They conquer the battlefields after foolish men have finished their business of killing each other.’
This is the first-person viewpoint of the most unlikely hero of the Ramayana: Ravana, and taken from Anand Neelakantan’s novel, ‘Asura – Tale of the Vanquished’ (The Story of Ravana and his people). Perhaps, for the first time, an English-language novel has been written from Ravana’s point of view.
“From childhood, I was drawn to Ravana, the anti-hero, as well as his people, the Asuras,” says Anand. He grew up in the culturally rich town of Tripunithara, off Kochi. “The Ramayana has been a part of my growing up,” he says. “At most family get-togethers there would be animated discussions about the Ramayana and other mythological tales.”
Since Anand belonged to a Brahmin family, it was not surprising that they regarded Lord Rama as the god, and Ravana as evil. “But once I started travelling, I got exposed to other versions of the epic,” says Anand, who is Manager (Retail Sales) in the Indian Oil Corporation, and is currently stationed at Belgaum, Karnataka.
In the Ramayana espoused by tribals and in folktales, Rama and Ravana are given equal importance. “He is considered as a fallen hero rather than an outright villain,” says Anand.
In Wayanad district, in Kerala, there are some accounts in which both Rama and Ravana woo Sita, a tribal girl. Recently, the Union Minister of Corporate Affairs Veerappa Moily has written a version in which Lakshman is the hero, instead of Rama. “The story is told through the former’s eyes,” says Anand.
Across Asia, there are even more different adaptations. In Thailand, Hanuman is regarded as the hero, while Rama does not do anything heroic. As Anand began to come across so many different narratives, a desire arose in him to write a humanised version of Ravana. “I did quite a bit of research,” he says. “But, overall, I depended on my imagination.”
So, he would get up every morning and write for one hour. On Sundays, he would do revisions. At the end of six years, he had a 498 page book. And Anand created a new character called Bhadra, a commonplace Asura.
Bhadra starts his journey from Muziris in Kerala (modern-day Kodungaloor). At that time, Muzuris was the capital of the Asura empire ruled by Mahabali. When the empire falls to the Devas, a lot of people, including Bhadra, lose their families. He vows revenge, and meets Ravana, who is a half-caste. His father is a Brahmin, while his mother is an Asura woman. “Ravana promises a new world for the Asuras, and a return to their glory days,” says Anand. “Many Asuras believe in Ravana and follow him.”
Soon, Ravana succeeds in having an empire stretching from Sri Lanka to the foothills of the Himalayas. But Bhadra finds that nothing much has changed in the lives of the common man. “Poverty was rampant,” says Anand. “Only the elites had cornered everything.”
Eventually, after many twists and turns, Anand returns to the conventional story in which Rama slays Ravana.
Asked to analyse Ravana, Anand says, “He is a megalomaniac dictator. Ravana means well, but his ego is large. He is a materialistic person and unconventional.”
And in the novel, Anand tries to show the contrast between Rama and Ravana. “Both are heroes, but Rama is controlled by the traditions and conventions,” says the author. “Ravana is somebody who totally breaks away. Society – irrespective of the heroic nature of both – does not accept rebels. So Ravana gets demonised.”
Like all first-time writers, Anand had difficulty in finding a publisher. But finally, after five months, the Mumbai-based Leadstart Publishing agreed to publish his novel. Within five weeks of its release in June, more than 10,000 copies have been sold. The book is No. 7 in the Crossword bestseller list, and is a Landmark 'Recommended Product'.
Anand has also been selected as the ‘Author Of The Month’ for June by Reliance Timeout. At Flipkart.com, he is No. 4 on the bestseller list (in the literature and fiction section). Reader reviews have been mostly positive. Says T.K. Krishnakumar: “We get to know the Ramayana from Ravana's perspective, which makes the story captivating.”
But Anand is not entirely surprised by its success. “I have taken a story which has been a hit for five thousand years and offered something different,” he says.
(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)