Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review : Ajaya - Roll Of The Dice (Anand Neelakantan)

After the enormously likable 'Asura', I could not resist myself from picking up more of Anand Neelakantan's literary works. And as I had guessed it, I loved the 'Ajaya' series which is the author's take on Mahabharata's characters. This is the first book in the series and predictably, it is written from the viewpoint of the vanquished 'Kauravas'.

It begins with the childhood days of the cousins. Suyodhan ( that is how Anand refers to Duryodhan, the eldest Kaurava ) and his siblings are depicted as carefree souls who are needlessly badgered by the Pandavas. Yudhisthira is the obsequious child who is out to please all while Bhima is shown to be a bully. In fact the only Pandav who shows some heart is Arjuna. A scheming Kunti, an indifferent Gandhari, a helpless Dhritarashtra, a vengeful Shakuni and an authoritative Bhisma are some of the prominent characters who influence their childhood.

The grooming of the young royals under the tutelage of Dronacharya is given sufficient coverage. This is the section of the book where we get to have a sneak peek of the personalities of the young Pandavas and Kauravas. The infamous Ekalavya incident is also played out in gory detail in this section. While most of us would have already heard of it but reading it in Neelakantan's language almost moves one to tears.

The introduction of Karna and his desire to break free of caste shackles is another high point of this book. His travel to South India and his grooming under Parshuram wonderfully depicted. The author also spends sufficient effort in developing the bond friendship that develops between Karna, Suyodhana and Aswathama (Drona's son) as it is quite pivotal to the climax of the epic.

The subplots are wonderfully developed and integrated in a way that is almost seamless. Despite there being too many characters in the story, one never feels a break in the narrative. There is an excess of gore in sections (which I avoided by skipping a few paragraphs and pages) of the book. The building of Indraprastha and the exploitation of Mayasura and his Naga folks is one section that almost had me choking on tears.

Apart from the central characters, the minor characters like Ekalavya, Jara and Mayasura are extremely well developed. Based on rigid caste lines, this is one take on the Mahabharata that will have the purists screaming for blood. Shunning the so called 'divine origin' of the Pandavas, the author has referred to them as 'bastards'. Kunti is shown as the power hungry widow who is out to ensure that her son 'Yudhisthira' ascends on the throne of Hastinapur at any cost. She is manipulative and merciless as she does not hesitate even for a moment before trapping the poor Nishada family in the palace of lac. The way she treats her own daughter in law is also deplorable for she uses the young woman as a pawn for furthering her own ambitions. Shunning popular folklore where she is said to have unwittingly wed Draupadi to the five Pandavas, Neelakantan paints the picture of a woman who uses cold logic to ensure that a pretty woman does not become the reason for discord among her sons. As Draupadi puts it, it is "the darkness within" her soul that speaks for her.

The climax of this book ends at the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lose everything including themselves and their common wife Draupadi .

[ Watch out this space for the next book of the series 'The Rise of Kali'. To be reviewed shortly ...]


  1. I read an interesting take once, that Kunti married all her sons to one woman, as she wanted all of them to have a single goal of ascending to the throne. Had all of them married different women, she suspected her sons would "break up"

    1. arrgh...this reminds me of something that Dhritarashtra said in Ajaya. It's got to do with upbringing :)