It is hard to repeat spectacular success. After all, not only did the books in banker-turned-bestselling author Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy break all records in terms of book sales—with more than two million copies sold to-date—they also made Indian mythology hip and the ascetic God Shiva cool for the new generation. Add to the list, a film adaptation by Karan Johar in the pipeline, a vast, steadfast, age-no-bar fan-following and a deluge of books retelling Indian myths and you have nothing short of a literary phenomenon. So much so, that the publisher inked a `5-crore contract with the author for his next idea, even before he had it.
Given the intimidating expectations riding on it, the first novel in Amish’s Ram Chandra series, Scion of Ikshvaku, does not disappoint. Like the Shiva trilogy, this again is not a retelling, but rather a complete re-imagining of the original story using the same characters but with fresh perspectives and modern sensibilities. Scion of Ikshvaku only takes the plot outline of the Ramayana and makes major changes in the story, even introducing new twists and characters. This is a sort of a prequel series to the Shiva books, as Ram Chandra later establishes the ideal kingdom of Meluha that is the setting in Amish’s first book The Immortals of Meluha.
The story begins, in media res, with the abduction of Sita and is followed by a flashback that explains the present turn of events. On the day that Ram is born, Dashrath, the king of Ayodhya, who is also the emperor of Sapt Sindhu (India), faces a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ravana, the military chief of Kubaer, the trader king of Lanka. Lankan trade supremacy is established over Sapt Sindhu pushing the kingdoms into decline and penury. The setback breaks Dashrath who blames the inauspicious child, who is then also hated by all of Ayodhya. When Ram and his three half-brothers are still kids, Raj Guru Vashishta takes them into his gurukul in the hope of raising either Ram or Bharat as the saviour Sapt Sindhu needs.
Amish has a wondrous imagination. So Manthara becomes a powerful businesswoman who has the ear of the queen with the most clout—Kaikeyi. Jatayu and Hanuman are Nagas (born with deformities). Shurpanakha is not an ogress, but a European beauty with blue eyes and a porcelain complexion. Sita is a spunky warrior-princess and the prime minister of her father’s kingdom.
For those who have not read the Ramayana and all their knowledge of the timeless epic comes, like mine, from either grandparents and/or Ramanand Sagar’s TV series, this humanising of epic heroes is quite captivating and refreshing. Amish breathes life into many minor and side characters from the epic, especially Ram’s brothers—Bharat and Shatrugan—who are portrayed with distinct and strong personalities.
From the first book to the present one, Amish has also matured as a storyteller. His terse, vivid writing and a fast-paced narrative make this book immensely readable. There is, however, a lot of philosophy being discussed throughout the novel, which is where it flounders at times. Since it contemplates deeply on matters of law, governance and justice, the book is also very political. Religious intolerance, violence against women, rampant corruption—Amish’s Ayodhya is a lot like contemporary India. For instance, this classroom discussion between Vashishta and the young princes, where Bharat reasons:
‘‘Even honourable men sometimes prove to be terrible leaders. Conversely, men of questionable character can occasionally be exactly what a nation requires.’’
There is also a horrific gangrape in the book, much like the Nirbhaya tragedy, where the juvenile rapist escapes death penalty. Ram, who is the chief of police, tortures himself secretly for letting the teenager who brutalised his rakhi sister get away, but he will not break the law. Unlike Amish’s Shiva who challenged the obsolete Vikarma law to marry Sati, his Ram does not question laws even when they undermine justice. Ram tells Bharat as much: ‘‘Even if it lets a heinous criminal escape death, the law should not be broken.’’
It is Ram who decides to go on a 14-year exile, just hours after his wedding, for breaking a law nobody even reprimands him for.
Amish has said in interviews earlier that he chose to write about Ram because he was upset by the unfair criticism hurled at him. But much like John Milton in Paradise Lost, Amish ends up achieving quite the opposite when he sets out “to justify the ways of God to men”.
His unintentional hero then, thankfully, is not Lucifer/Ravan, but the passionate and rebellious Bharat. Amish’s Ram comes across as a dogmatic, stubborn, borderline masochist, and nothing like the noble, unfortunate prince of the Ramayana, who was repeatedly tested by the terrible choices thrust upon him.
There are more books promised in this series. One hopes maybe the next one would be able to do justice to the difficulty of being good.