Left Wanting More

Genre is continuously evolving. In India, the historical genre has been merged into the mythological, and in turn has brought in pulp in recent times.

Genre is continuously evolving. In India, the historical genre has been merged into the mythological, and in turn has brought in pulp in recent times. The combination originated in Indian language literature (Marathi and Tamil, for example, have a thriving catalogue), and thence made its way into cinema, where Tamil and Telugu seem to have been the first to adopt it. The blockbuster movie, Bahubali, which emerged from this fertile field, took the genre to new heights. 

Bahubali has been successfully franchised after its stupendous success - its fiction universe was expanded through animation serials, comics, and now, through a prequel trilogy of books, focusing on the enigmatic character of Sivagami, played by Ramya Krishnan in the Bahubali movies. The trilogy is being written by Anand Neelakantan, already known for TV serial writing and for other novels in the genre. Chaturanga is the second novel in the trilogy. 

It is critical to mention this background because a lay reader coming straight to this book would be lost. Neelakantan takes the brave step of starting full speed with the story, right where it left off in the first book, The Rise of Sivagami. Sivagami is in an arena, facing off with her foster father Thimma, at the command of the king of Mahishmathi. Killing Thimma is the price the king has set to allow Sivagami a foothold into the Mahishmathi administration as a courtier. She would like nothing better than to kill the king instead, since he was responsible for the death of her father. Does she play the game and fight, or figure a way out to save Thimma? 

There are many more things going on. True to pulpy form, Neelakantan keeps multiple plotlines moving at top speed, switching to one main character in each chapter. We meet the slave-bodyguard Kattappa, who will later play a pivotal role in the movie. We meet the two princes of the realm, who are a study in contrast—one courageous but cruel, the other kind but diffident (and in love with Sivagami). There is a neighbouring kingdom, conquered by Mahishmathi and plotting to take its revenge. And there are various friends, ministers, and co-plotters—good and evil.

Neelakantan does a fantastic job of fleshing out these various characters with their own motivations and worldview. No one thinks they’re themselves evil, even the king who’s a villain to so many. The writing style is fast-paced and simple, rather than the ornamental style preferred by historical fiction. True to the best of genre fiction, Neelakantan talks of current societal concerns (hyper-nationalism, blind religion, corrupt leaders) through the mouths of various characters, making them relatable. 

If at all there’s a criticism of the book, it is that so many of the plot threads are unresolved here. Ideally, one would want some sense of closure with a book, even if there are some open questions for subsequent instalments. The reader is left unfulfilled, awaiting the third instalment to close out the stories. But this is a fun, fast-paced book that does a good job of expanding an already popular world.

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The New Indian Express