Death is the ultimate mystery for humans, and their ultimate fear - part of which is the spectre of the dead returning to wreak revenge, which perversely also offers us morbid fascination - as the continuing popularity of horror stories and movies proves. But can humanity withstand the onslaught when the very god of the dead can't prevent the most evil souls from freely crossing into our world to do their worst?
Title: Yama's Lieutenant
Author: Anuja Chandra moduli
Publisher: Random House India
As always, a good story can be found by re-telling the old myths as Anuja Chandramouli did in her first three books, but a better one can be crafted by adapting them to our world as she has done in her latest work.
In "Yama's Lieutenant", she adroitly mixes mythology and modern life for the riveting story of a mysterious quest to defeat the forces of evil and more importantly, find meaning in life.
It is the story of Agni Prakash, whose life is now a empty shell following the sudden death of his beloved twin sister, and then his parents. He is aimlessly visiting a hill station they spent good times in, when one night, a mysterious, silvery goddess appears to him to enlist his support.
She tells him that with Yama, the god who presides over hell, enfeebled by an old curse, it is he who is now needed to confront evil spirits, who, aided by a powerful necromancer, are breaking free from their confines in hell, to create terror on earth with nothing less than destroying the three worlds their aim. Though our hero is not very amenable, he is slowly won around.
For his mission, he not only has the aid of two hounds who helped Yama deal with the dead, but the god's very weapons and powers - the staff and the noose, and fire - but can count on the assistance of a young woman with powerful magic when he can find her.
Their quest is no less than to track down Goddess Ganga, convince her to hand over a girl - destined to be Yama's consort but already destroyed once by evil- whose spirit the river goddess is now keeping safe and guard this girl while she "fulfills her mission and proves herself worthy of joining the ranks of the immortals".
And it proves to be as difficult as it appears - and the end, nearly futile for our hero.
This plot would itself make for en entrancing read, but running parallel are a story of Yama and his dysfunctional family from a novel Agni's sister Varuna finished before her demise and sent to her brother for his opinion. This offers Chandramouli, who has earlier engagingly retold the stories of Arjuna, the middle Pandava; love god Kamadeva, his consort, Rati and their curious fate; and Shakti, the divine feminine, to use her skills to bring focus on one of Indian mythology's most misunderstood characters - the lord of death, while also offering a valuable perspective on good and evil and life and death.
As she brings out (and readers familiar with the Percy Jackson series will have come to know), in the old religions, the gods of the nether regions and death were not necessarily evil as the Semitic religions have fostered, but only stern and inexorable, given their remit to maintain cosmic order by not allowing any mortal to outlive his ordained span of life.
And the premise of the evil dead returning to the world to create havoc, and a champion to resist them, offers the author to tweak some familiar events like the caste angle unsuccessful love affairs may take and the violence they can cause - as can be seen in the opening (though the police investigation angle and the policemen seemed rather too promising to be dropped).
Parallels with Harry Potter and Percy Jackson will be drawn - there is one point where Agni even cites Professor Dumblodore - but Chandramouli has fashioned a wholly Indian story in both its essence and essentials. It may be unsettling at times - but then anything with death as a major theme is bound to be - and not pretty too - but most mythology never is. But even with these limitations, it is an absorbing and thought-provoking read.