Mythological fiction

The Mahabharata Secret [Book Review]

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Author: Christopher C Doyle

Rating: 1/5

I wish this book had remained a secret and I never found about it!

It’s no news that anything related to the epic Mahabharata excites me. Mahabharata is one story (Yes, a story!) which can be perceived very differently when looking from the eyes of the various characters involved. And every perception seems justified from their end. For example, when the story is narrated from Draupadi’s point of view, her thoughts and decisions seem absolutely right. The same goes to Duryodhan’s view or Krishna’s. I have a habit of reading anything related to Mahabharata to just understand how every mind played through the war. It’s like reading human psychology. When I came across this book, “The Mahabharata Secret”, it didn’t take me much time to drop it on my TBR list. I understood that this was the second book in the series and from the look of the summary, it appeared to be a standalone book. Hence, I jumped directly into this book without reading The Alexander Secret. I don’t think I will be reading that any time for sure.

The Mahabharata Secret is based on the story of The Nine, a secret society, a brotherhood invested with a secret by King Asoka, a secret so dreadful, a secret so powerful, which can destroy the entire race of humanity. The responsibility of The Nine is to safeguard the secret with their life. We get glimpses of how the secret is transferred through the ages, get buried to be discovered centuries, but with ignorance the people who come across it shy it away as nothing. But what is the secret? The backstory definitely did prick my mind with interest.

Cut to the present. We have a group of people led by a dangerous hitman Farooq who is killing the members of The Nine and Vikram Singh, one of the Nine members is their last target. Vikram sends cryptic emails to his nephew in the United States before his murder. Vijay, after the death of his Uncle, along with his friend Colin, his family friend Shukla and his daughter Radha, set out to decrypt the emails and find out the Mahabharata Secret. One clue leads to the next and with each one’s input, clues pop according to convenience and the group gets closer to the truth. Running parallel, we have Farooq (with an unnecessary story of his own) and his team who are also in the same mission. There are loads of touch and go moments, kidnapping, car chases, guns and fist fights. To add to the drama, we have the involvement of Al Queda and LeT, Farooq being a part of it, who also wants the Mahabharata Secret, to use it to attack the key people of every country associated with the G20 convention. And more- using Sudarsana Chakra to kill people??!! Ok! That’s it. I had had enough.

This book would have been great if the author had left out the drama and stuck to history and Mahabharata how much ever fictitious it is. Every character is dramatic. Vijay and Colin’s so called friendly banter was irritating beyond point. I felt like reading Enid Blyton when the kids have conversations. Those conversations were much better. Add to it the sudden surge of love between Vijay and Radha. Really??! What was the need?!! What difference does this make to the story? There are lot of descriptions of artifacts and places which was very difficult to visualize. Now when you don’t really see what the characters are seeing, it becomes really tiring to journey along with them. I felt the author had this entire story like a movie in his mind, like Chetan Bhagat’s books, and wrote it like a script. Hence there was absolutely no depth or seriousness. Just including few excerpts from the Mahabharata- few verses of ancient languages, some symbols and diagrams aren’t just enough to make a book interesting. I am not degrading the hard work behind the book, but as a read I expect deeper analysis. To get the readers to understand them, to make the readers believe this could actually be the truth is where the victory of the author lies. Sadly, it’s no victory this time.

This book was a complete waste of time for me as a reader, as a mythological and historical fiction enthusiast, as someone who value reading time. It offered nothing on that front. Imran as the honest cop was good to read. The only part I loved what that the guy Greg White was an impersonation. I didn’t see that coming. So a mark for that.

Just forget it!

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The Palace of Illusions [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

Mythological fiction has garnered immense popularity in the last decade or so. It’s really fascinating to read our very ancient epics with a more exciting narration. I for one has always been intrigued by this genre. Mythology is like a poem. Each one can have their own interpretation. Besides, it’s just not now, these mythologies have always had hundreds of versions according to the different states and culture. Everyone has a different perspective and that’s what makes reading these mythological fiction interesting. Among all the mythologies, Mahabharat perhaps has the most number of versions and it being a controversial epic by itself, adds a lot of spark to the narration. I have read Devdutt Patnaik’s Jaya and Anand Neelakantan’s Ajaya. While the former talks about the story as a whole, as it’s always narrated to us, the latter narrates the story from the Kauravas, specifically Duryodhan’s perspective. This book The Palace of Illusions tells the same Mahabharat from the eyes of Draupadi, aka Panchaali. I am amazed how it never gets boring to read the same story when it’s told from different point of views.

The author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has a very simple but effective style of writing. It was really easy to get into the mind of Draupadi, to live her life in this book. The book begins with Draupadi’s birth and childhood, and the prophecy that is born along with her, that she will change the course of history. She is burdened by the prophecy and is equally curious for answers. She yearns for her father’s love but his focus is always on his son, Dhrishtyudaman. She has a beautiful and a strong bond with her brother, which is her inspiration to live her otherwise jailed life. She protests against discrimination and wants to learn everything that her brother is taught. This part shows how women’s fight for her rights started so many ages back. She adores Krishna and looks forward to spending time with him. At a point, she even wonders her feelings for him.

When she meets a sage to know her future, Sage Vyasa warns her of three significant moments in her life which she needs to be careful about. He warns her to hold back her question in the first instance, hold back her laughter in the second, and hold back her curse in the final. We all know what happened. Draupadi failed to control her emotions on all the three occurrences leading to the success of her prophecy.

Draupadi grows up as any other normal girl. She has dreams and ambitions. She wants to be loved and cared. She wants to be married to the man of her dreams, live an exquisite life in an enchanting palace. There are some very beautiful chapters which focuses on Draupadi’s expectations from her life. When she sees Karna for the first time, she is floored by him. She realizes within that he is the one for her. But when the moment arises, when she has to defend her brother over Karna, she does it without any qualms. She feels guilty doing it, she feels horrible for insulting Karna in front of everyone, but she sees no other option. The entire book shows glimpses of Draupadi’s dilemma over her feelings for Karna. She could never let it go till the end. She, at a point, realizes it was disloyalty on her part to think of another man. But it is first love for her.

Expectations Vs Reality. Draupadi is so excited to learn that Arjun is the one who won her swayamvar. She knows all about Arjun and is very happy to marrying him. But when Kunti orders all her sons to marry Draupadi and when the Pandavas don’t retort, she is surprised and angry. She feels humiliated to be shared by five husbands, and who won’t be. She feels her husbands are spineless not to go against their mother. After the marriage “arrangements” are made, Draupadi’s next challenge is to impress Kunti. The Kunti-Draupadi relationship is like the ones they show on Indian TV, typical. May be, Kunti-Draupadi are the inspiration for the saas-bahu shows now, I don’t know. Nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy this part much.

The story then moves on to the most crucial moment in history. Draupadi always feels uneasy over her first husband’s, Yudhistir’s gambling habits. All the more nervous when Duryodhan invites them to Hastinapur. She senses something is wrong. When Yudhistir loses everything in the dice game, including his fortunes, kingdom, his brothers and then his wife, Draupadi’s strength is tested. She is dragged by her hair to the hall by Dushasan, and is humiliated terribly. Her agony increases when she sees her husbands standing as mute spectators. When her sari is being removed, she thinks about the one person who stood by her all the time- Krishna. Now is the point where I wondered how much thoughts about Krishna and Karna kept the lady going. She was never really happy with her husbands and was just obeying the rituals. When Krishna saves her, she curses the Kauravas. From then on, we see a very different Draupadi- a determined woman filled with vengeance.

I know I am probably recounting the actual story of Mahabharat here, but this book shows how much Draupadi influences all the situations and actions of this historical epic. She makes sure her husbands feel her anger and her pain all through the 13 years. She doesn’t want her husbands to forget her humiliation. She belittles them whenever possible, wherever possible. She makes sure the Pandavas get revenge on her behalf, acquires justice for the wrongdoings. The young innocent girl from Kampilya is transformed into a strong willed woman. She struggles to maintain her anger. She feels guilty for the curse as she cannot back down now. She could see the numerous lives that would be lost because of her and the war. She still ponders over her feelings for Karna and cannot stand him being angry with her. We see a wonderful overview of Draupadi, as a character, and her feelings towards Pandavas, Krishna, Karna and Kurukshetra.

The war is shown through her eyes. Her fear for her loved ones, her restlessness is wonderfully written by the author. I have always believed the fact and truth that Draupadi was instrumental in bringing about the war. This book beautifully narrates how important this war was for her and her dignity. This book has made me respect this character even more than before. Kudos to the author on that front.

The rest of the significant characters make their due appearances. I loved the part between Draupadi and Bheeshma and her confusion over understanding the stalwart. Draupadi’s dream palace- The Palace of Illusions- the entire track over the building of the palace and the subsequent incidents are very interestingly written.

Isn’t it interesting how the war was fought by the men but created by the women? Like they were the reasons? If Kunti had come out with the truth about Karna, would the war had ever happened? If Satyavati hadn’t blackmailed Shantanu, Bheeshma would have never taken the vow of celibacy for his father. If Draupadi hadn’t cursed and vowed for revenge, the war wouldn’t have initiated. I guess there are many more instances too.

I guess, it’s time for me to stop writing and recommend this wonderful book to you all. Do read it to have a very different insight of this historic epic.

Ajaya Series

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Rating: 4/5

Disclaimer- I am looking at the Mahabharata as a story, just a story here.

Pandavas Vs Kauravas. Dharma Vs Adharma. Jaya Vs Ajaya.

Whenever I have read the Mahabharata or discussed about it, it had always left me with a lot of questions jamming my mind. I couldn’t accept the fact that the Kauravas could have been pure evil and the Pandavascould be complete innocents. Something was always amiss for me. I have read different versions, but every version ended with good over evil, Pandavas won over Kauravas. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the epic. Just that I always felt a lot of disconnections in the story. But now I can positively say I am very clear about my thoughts on the epic after reading the Ajaya series by AnandNeelakantan.

The book argues from the side of the Kauravas, putting forward their perspective, narrating their point of view. The best part of the book is the balance the author maintains. The book never argues that Kauravas were right and Pandavas were wrong. The book merely narrates how both sides believed they were right, how both sides believed they were fighting for dharma and how both sides believed their rule would bring a much better future for India. The book throws lot of questions that are worth pondering about, especially on the topic of Dharma. The book brilliantly narrates beyond the victory, what happened after the victory, which none of the versions I have read had done. Was there really jubilation?  Were the Pandavas able to bring about the dharmic revolution they dreamt of? Portraying Duryodhana aka Suyodhana as a gentle yet arrogant human wasn’t definitely out of place, but it made a lot of sense to the entire story. Every incident in Mahabharata, which were always told from the Panadavas perspective, when read from the Kauravas perspective made it more logical. Mind you, I am not telling Kauravas were right in every incident. I am just saying, the reasons behind every incident, the background information, gives more meaning after reading.

Every character has been given a lot of depth, both their positive side and their not so positive side clearly put down. It’s just not the main characters, but characters like Bhishma, Vidura, Eklavya, Aswathama and mainly Jara add so much interest to the entire reading. Reading the life of Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi, Bhanumati, Subhadra, Vrishali and even Sushala brings up the strong women power among the men folk. They didn’t fight the Kurushektrawar on the field, but they had their own wars going on. The author has done a great job in including the smallest of the characters in the book, showing how small incidents involving Samba, Krishna’s son and Suyodhana’s daughter Lakshmana had laid down stones for the war. Of course, I felt the entire war was a war between two masterminds, Krishna and Shakuni. The actions of both had a reason, a reason till before reading the bookwas unknown to me. You actually start to enjoy both their mind games at one point of time. The author is able to successfully immerse the reader into his world of Mahabharata. Every character is relatable. The narration of every incident has been written poignantly. The pace of the narration is really good. The story does go without much action for some time in the second book making the reader grow impatient, but once the action gets back, the importance of the non-action portions are realised.

The book makes you think, makes you think a lot before you can decide which side you want to support. Honestly, I am still unable to decide which side I am actually on. Both sides had made their own share of mistakes. Every move of Pandavas during the war, which were always portrayed as smart moves of Krishna before, comes across as just moves of deceit to end the war quickly, planting the seeds for confusion in my mind once again. Was the war battled fairly? Did Pandavas win fairly? Would the Pandavas have won if Krishna wasn’t there on their side? Did Krishna just use the Pandavas to restore the dharma he believed in? A new set of questions crop up at the end of the book.   At the end, the entire epic Mahabharata is a sad story, an unnecessary war that was fought because there was no mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, a war with caste as its basis.It also eventually makes you think of the current situation our country is in with respect to caste. The author cleverly tells how the winner of the war would go down in history as the purest souls while the other would become the evil. In case the Kauravas had won, Pandavas would have been the evil guys. Conclusion- The beliefs of Kauravas weren’t evil as it was claimed. The term dharma in itself cannot have a fixed definition.

The bits which I absolutely loved reading. The beginning of the first book with Bhishma abducting Gandhari. The author’s description of Gandhari and Bhishma, and the foundation laid for both the characters were really impressive. The interactions between Balrama and Suyodhana left a smile. Every chapter involving the friendship among Aswathama, Karna and Suyodhana gave a nice positive feeling.  Dhridharastra’s clever ploy of projecting himself as the fool was a surprise. Honestly, the book made me realise that even after the war, it was Dhridharastra who was the King and not Yudishtar. Emotions flow at the death of every great warrior during the war, immaterial of which side they belonged too. Finally, Aswathama stole the show for me. I wouldn’t divulge more there.

To a person who is open to varied views about Mahabharata would love this series. The book doesn’t ship Kauravas, but just puts forward the reasons behind their actions which in general are ignored.  One cannot change the epic story, but to read and experience how different the story can sound when heard from the other side was an amazing experience. A must read for mythological fans.