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Of An Anti-Hero And His Tragedy


A.N.D. Haksar

ASURA: TALE OF THE VANQUISHED
By Anand Neelakantan
Platinum Press, Mumbai, 2012, pp. 498, Rs. 250.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 7 July 2013

Mythology has always been a good source of raw material for fiction in literature. Recent activity on the Indian literary scene has reaffirmed this old proposition with a series of publications, including some bestsellers. India is a gold mine of myths and legends, many of which have inspired its literature since ancient times. The book under review is yet another example of this continuing tradition.   Such literary creations have generally followed the main outlines of their sources in terms of events and characters, while making their own points of departure or emphasis. But greater focus on the traditional anti-hero figures of mythology, or such figures’ projection as the main hero of a work, has also been a part of such writing over the centuries. An excellent early example of this can be found in the 2000 year old Sanskrit plays of Bhasa, Urubhangam and Pancharatram, which have as their central heroic figure Duryodhana, the leading anti-hero of the epic Mahabharata. Without giving a list of other such instances in subsequent times, it may suffice to conclude it with the celebrated 19th century Bengali work drawn from the other great epic, Meghnad badh Kavya by Michael Madusudan Dutt, which climaxes with the death of the son of Ravana, the leading light of the book here reviewed.   As its sub-title indicates, this book tells the story of Ravana and his people. The blurb calls it the Ravanayana, which ‘has never been told’ unlike the Ramayana. There is certainly more to Ravana than his role as Rama’s adversary, which has brought him lasting celebrity and notoriety.   Interesting sidelights are available in the numerous counter-tellings of the Rama tale. In some versions, Ravana is a tragic anti-hero. In the Jaina account he is an illustrious figure come to grief because of his illicit passion for another’s wife. Some other versions claim that Sita was Ravana’s own daughter, abandoned at birth, though it is unclear if he already knew this at the time of his memorable abduction. In yet other versions the thrust is clearly political, with Ravana as the representative of an indigenous nationalism resisting external invasion from the North.   Here, the description of the times and the situations conveys a sense both modern and political. The Asuras were originally roaming tribes which had settled down over most of the subcontinent and built a prosperous civilization over time. They ‘were a casteless ...


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