Right at the beginning, from the very first line, the author takes the reader 3,000 miles away from the plains of Gangetic India in the north to the coast of palm-fringed Kerala. He is part of a crowd of over a lakh people at the Mahanada Temple in the village of Poruvazhy. Of course, there is nothing unusual about this. However, what is different is that they are worshipping Duryodhana—that much reviled blue-blooded prince of Indian mythology. As I sit down to read, a howling wind rattles the windowpanes, in this outcrop in the foothills of the Himalaya.
On a winter’s morning, icy fingers of lightning rent and as the thunder rolls, a streak cleaves a deodar tree. Peals of thunder applaud this sacrilege. Momentarily, northwards, a flash of illuminates the serrated ridges of Jaunsar-Bawar in Uttarakhand. Far away, in the sheltered valleys of the Himalaya, I travel back in time, to find myself along a silvery stream spun into the Yamuna, bursting through chasms on a long journey to the sea. Not so silent flows the Yamuna. Up in these mountains, there stands a temple dedicated to the Kauravas. Of that early journey from another time, another day, memories remain the only survivors. I remember a rickety old bus rattling along a moonscape road littered with potholes, nonetheless slithering like a snake in the autumnal downpour.
A co-passenger chats to the driver: ‘How do you take the bus so fast around these hairpin bends?’ ‘I close my eyes every time!’ jokes the driver. Close your eyes and open them in this magical part of the world, where the Mahabharat is a living epic; where village deities are carried in procession in winter, from one isolated village to another, from one home to the other as part of re-enactment of the epic. Locally it’s called the ‘Kaurav Leela’. In it you find that Ajaya or Duryodhana, the anti-hero of the epic is a deity. In this re-telling of the old tale, one is aware that it is always the winners who get to write history. What about the losers? Who will tell their tale? At the end of the introduction, Anand Neelakantan admits: ‘I am a seeker; my stories are more about questions than answers. I claim neither the intellect nor the scholarship to make a critical analysis of the Gita.’ It is more about the niggling doubts in a child’s mind that bubble to the surface as a grandsire tells him a tale. Perhaps it is this openness, this critical thinking that make Hinduism unique.
There is no blasphemy in an openness of debate and discussion that have made this living religion evolve, surmount and thrive thousands of years of foreign rule, constantly adapting and reforming as the times demanded. Debate is but a tossing of the intellectual dice that must not seek to offend. And at the day’s end, every coin has two sides. In the once upon a time days, at the core of India’s most powerful empire, change was in the air, a revolution was brewing. Jaya’s story is that of the Pandavas told from the perspective of the victors of Kurukshetra; Ajaya is the narrative of the Kauravas, who were wiped out to the last man standing.
In the war that looms on the horizon, every single rule will be broken. Kin will destroy kin, as both sides shall stretch the rules beyond breaking point and use any ploy to win. Even the Gods will take sides and men’s destinies shall lead on to a shattering denouement. What emerges from the last battle of Kurukshetra, is the greatest truth: when the war is done and dusted, there are no victors. The only winner is the story. For the more you polish this rare gem, the more facets will emerge.