We love anti-heroes. Sherlock Holmes from the BBC show, Snape from Harry Potter, Walter White from Breaking Bad, the list of enduring anti-heroes goes on and on. But Anand Neelakantan, the author of ‘Asura’, throws light on another anti-hero, one who has remained right under our noses all along; the ubiquitous villain of every Dushera festival – Ravana.
Asura asks a simple question – what if the “bad guys” weren’t actually the bad guys? For hundreds of years, the Ramayana has been one of the most celebrated tales in the Hindu mythological canon. We all know the general gist of the story – Ravana, the demon, kidnaps Sita, and Rama has to wage war on Ravana’s kingdom to retrieve her.
Asura: Tale of the Vanquished (Review)
But Neelakantan is clearly a strong believer in the idea of there being two sides to every story, and the side of the Asuras has been left untold for too long. In this version of events, Ravana is heralded as the savior of his race. His people admire him and look to him to make their lives better after years of stifling rule under Deva kings or their puppet rulers.
While the novel is about Ravana’s side of the story – that includes the people he fights for. We see the lives of ordinary Asuras like the novel’s secondary protagonist, Bhadra, who are struggling to live a secure and fulfilled life. Bhadra arrives on the shores of Lanka when he escapes the pillaging of his quiet village and is forced to witness gruesome crimes committed against his family.
Throughout the novel, Bhadra operates primarily through rage and the need to survive. He is distinctively aware of the place he occupies in social hierarchies, and like every Asura in the novel, he just wants to live a happy, peaceful life. We also see both Bhadra and Ravana struggle to understand their Asura identities, which raises further questions about how a person’s culture is closely tied to their idea of the self.
The novel also explores a cultural and historical legacy championed by the Asuras that mainstream Ramayana barely addresses. Asura society is vastly different from the brahminical Deva hierarchy (a hierarchy that automatically places Asuras at the bottom). The book explores themes that continue to be socially relevant today, like the erasure of an entire culture of the dominant victors.
Caste clearly has a big role to play in Asura, both in the novel and in its creation. Neelakantan’s critique of caste is unmistakable, especially towards the end of the novel when Rama finally conquers Lanka and a Deva (brahminical) way of life is established. As the novel progresses, we see that ideas of ritualism and purity have a negative effect not only on the oppressed but even on members of the upper castes.
Outside the realms of the texts, many of the events and historiographies presented in the novel are borrowed from Dalit traditions and folklore. This pushes the novel outside the realm of pure fiction since these narratives are the cultural heritage of millions of oppressed outcastes in South India. The novel challenges mainstream understanding of Indian mythology and explores the myriad of narratives that are swept under the carpet in favor of one ‘factual’ version.
History is often written by the victors. Throughout the 19th century, colonialism was justified by the British as a service bestowed unto unwitting savages. Rudyard Kipling (yes, the man who wrote The Jungle Book) also wrote the lesser-known poem ‘White Man’s Burden’ that turns a blind eye to colonial violence and exploitation and instead posited the English as saviors bringing progress and advancement to India.
Whether or not the Ramayana was based on true events, it is clear that the version told with the ever-noble Rama at its heart is only one side of the story. It is a story where its heroes are bound by divine duty, where the fight against evil is unequivocal, and customs and traditions, even when they harm the heroes, are never questioned.
Asura re-imagines the Ramayana to explore the gaps left unanswered by the original – Who were the Asuras? What drove Ravana to capture Sita in the first place? What was the story of the masses whose lives were disrupted by a war they had little to do with? And the most important question of all – what does all this say about our world today? You can get the book here! 📖
Asura: Tale of the Vanquished
We love anti-heroes. Sherlock Holmes from the BBC show, Snape from Harry Potter, Walter White from Breaking Bad, the list of enduring anti-heroes goes on and on. But Anand Neelakantan, the author of 'Asura', throws light on another anti-hero, one who has remained right under our noses all along; the ubiquitous villain of every Dushera festival – Ravana.
Author: Anand Neelakantan
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