Scion of Ikshvaku
Before I begin here’s a Disclaimer:
I have been brought up listening to the stories of the Ramayana. I am fairly familiar with it – the twists and turns, the stories within stories, the blacks and whites and greys of its characters, their intentions and motivations. I have seen every episode of Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayan on the telly. To make matters complicated, I have recently read a few re-tellings even while stray dohas of the original (for me) Ramcharitmanas echo in my head. I cannot but compare. Unfortunate as it may be, I cannot offer an unbiased review of Amish’s Ram Chandra series. There.. you have been warned.
(You can skip down to the review directly if you are familiar with the narrative)
The story opens as Raavan is flying away in his Pushpak Viman with Sita. Told in flashback, it traces the birth of Ram, born on the day that the unconquerable Dashrath, suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of Raavan, the then head of trade security forces of Lanka. He thus comes to be known as the ‘inauspicious’ one and is shunned by Dashrath, the Ayodhyan nobility as well as the people.
A depressed and disheartened Dashrath lets the Sapt Sindhu deteriorate into an impoverished nation while Raavan, now the king of Lanka, prospers through extensive trade. When Ram is 6, he and the other three princes are taken away by Guru Vashishta to be taught their princely duties as also to shield them from palace intrigue and power play. Even as toddlers, Sumitra impresses upon Lakshman the need to look out for Ram while counselling Shatrughan to stay by Bharat.
The princes grow up at Guru Vashisht’s ashram with very distinct personalities:
Prince Ram, simple, unassuming, spartan. The stoic. Meticulous follower of laws, the one woman man looking for a soulmate – a woman he can respect.
Prince Bharat, the advocate of freedom, the flamboyant Casanova, a ‘girlfriend’ always by his side.
Prince Lakshman, Ram’s shadow, the one who has taken upon himself the task of being Ram’s protector. Lover of food, the one with the brawn.
Prince Shatrughan the brainy bookworm, the one who always has an answer to Guru Vashishta’s questions.
Back home, after they finish their education, Dashrath withholds from Ram the title of crown Prince till one day he sees his first born for what he really is and makes him crown prince. Soon after, Guru Vishwamitra seeks out Ram and Lakshman to help him fight the demoness Tadka and her son Subahu. Ram does so, though not quite as Vishwamitra has planned.
On the way back they drop by Mithila. Without his consent and much against his wishes, Vishwamitra pledges his participation in Sita’s swayamwar. Even as a fuming Ram steps out, he bumps into Sita and falls in love. Ram wins Sita’s hand at the swayamwar where Raavan is also a suitor. He (Ram) is drawn into a war with Raavan who attacks Mithila alleging he has been insulted. Events thereafter force Ram into exile along with Sita and Lakshman.
During their exile they meet and play host to Raavan’s estranged step-siblings Vibhishan and Shurpanakha. An accident sees Shurpanakha’s nose being cut off followed by Sita’s abduction by Raavan.
What I loved
I loved the way the characters are etched. I loved Amish’s Ram but it is his warrior Sita who is by far my favourite. She is the Prime Minister of Mithila, far removed from Tulsidas’ demure girl stealing coy looks at Ram. It is Ram who spies this Sita, single-handedly fighting off a mob. It is he who is smitten while she remains business like. If I had a complaint, it would be that I didn’t get to see her gentler, perhaps more romantic side. But I’m not complaining.
I loved the way Ayodhya and then Mithila come alive in amazing architectural detail.
I loved how Amish makes this ancient story mirror today’s society. I found myself drawing parallels and trying to figure out whether it was closer to the Asura version of governance or the Deva version. He makes a case for both through his characters.
Most of all I loved the war of philosophies. What is a good ruler? Does he have to be a good person? Should laws be absolute? What is a good society? Is there one perfect way to govern a society?
Sample this argument between Ram and Bharat:
Ram: ‘We need a great leader one who will lead by example. A leader who will inspire his people to discover their godhood within! We don’t need a leader who will leave his people free to do whatever they desire.’
Bharat. ‘We need a king who can create systems with which one can harness even selfish human nature for the betterment of society!’
Food for thought, huh?
What I didn’t like:
I sorely missed the drama, the drama that the Ramcharitmanas abounded in. I missed the drama of Kakeyi’s kopbhawan, which was almost superfluous to the plot here. And Manthara.. she was barely there. I missed the drama of these two powerful dark characters. Nope I don’t want blacks and whites, keep them grey by all means but making them powerless and irrelevant? Not done.
I missed the drama of Sita’s swayamwar, of the invincibility of Shiva’s bow (Ravan picks it up and shoots it even before the Swayamwar officially commences), of Parashuram’s tantrum.
I missed the drama of Ram’s heartrending departure from Ayodhya, the terror of the dreaded Dandakvan and lastly the drama of Shurpanakha. (This last bit was wrapped up in fifty odd pages.)
Blame it on Tulsidas or Ramanand Sagar.
Lastly, I disliked the bits of detailed gory descriptions. Perhaps it was required for the story but I have no stomach for it.
That said, there are enough unanswered questions to make me look forward to the sequel. Hurry up and bring it on.
PS: The autographed copy from Amazon and this bookmark were an absolute delight. (The bookmark reads RAM in an ancient Indus Valley Script according to Amish’s unofficial interpretation).