We are the stories we tell. The Aryavarta Chronicles are neither reinterpretation nor retelling. These stories are a construction of reality based on a completely different set of assumptions… I am simply one of those innumerable bards who passes the story on, contexualized and rationalized but not lacking in sincerity or integrity. It is you, the reader, who shall infuse it with meaning and bring it to life as you will. (pg. vii)
Ha ! That’s what nearly every author of mythological fiction claims, I grumbled to myself as I settled down to read Govinda.
458 pages later, when I closed the book shut, I was no longer grumbling. Instead, I was keenly aware that I had just finished reading a book that had turned out exactly as Udayasankar claimed, particularly the last sentence.
Govinda was no “old wine in new bottle”, as I had initially feared, but a completely fresh perspective on the most timeless of all epics — the Mahabharata. It was a perspective that delighted me, challenged me and, more importantly, made me think.
Govinda’s plot is straightforward — it is the battle between “good” and “evil” for supreme power. On one side are the “good” Firstborns — scholar sages, keepers and codifiers of knowledge, and “protectors of the Divine Order”. On the other side are the “evil” Firewrights — weapon makers, master inventors and scientists. Once upon a time the two — Firstborns and Firewrights — had worked together to build Aryavarta, where the book is set. But increasing differences over centuries between the two has led to a conflict that threatens and breaches order, peace and stability in Aryavarta. Due to their “rogue” tendencies, the Firewrights have been persecuted, hunted down and killed. Aryavarta appears to be allied with the Firstborns, but Firewright sympathisers abound as well. An outward, uneasy calm prevails in Aryavarta, but discontent simmers just below the surface.
The book begins at the point where Ghora Angirasa, the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights, dies a violent death outside the Vyasa’s (a Firstborn) ashram. With his death, the battle for power is out in the open and that brings us to what Govinda is all about — seeking power, seizing power, controlling power, using power, manipulating power…
Imagine a game of chess (or Battleship if you don’t like, play or understand chess) being played here. Each move brings in new complexities, new dimensions and new power equations. As each move is played out, the reader will wonder who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated. Each move blurs the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white…
The plot and the characters/people who populate Aryavarta, I mean the pages of Govinda, are eminently recognisable from the Mahabharata and yet so very different. Without exception, all have been shorn of their supernatural, larger-than-life and the holier-than-thou persona associated with many of them, thanks to popular perception. All the characters have been presented as human beings with all their strengths, foibles, quirks and weaknesses: Partha (Arjuna), Panchali (Draupadi), Dharma (Yudhishtir), Syoddhan (Duryodhan)… Some like Shikhandin, Asvattama and Sanjaya have been fleshed out to an extent that if it were not for their names, they could be someone else altogether. And some like Pritha (Kunti) barely find a mention !
But the real surprise is Govinda, Govinda Shauri or Krishna. Friend, lover, saviour, cousin, advisor, strategist, coward, cowherd, politician, warrior, pacifist, manipulator, human … Govinda is a simple and complex “man” at the same time, and Udayasankar has built on his character very convincingly and lovingly. For me, this particular line captures Govinda Shauri perfectly:
What I am is and always was plain for all to see. I can’t change that, just as I can’t change what I know. (pg. 439)
Govinda is a very well-written book. The research that has gone into the making and writing of the book is reflected in the effortless way it has translated into a seamless narrative and strong and believable characterisation. I cannot elaborate more without giving away the plot or the various relationships that bind the characters together. The language is refreshingly simple, crisp and clear and it has a certain timelessness. For instance, I found the struggle for power, the political games and manipulation very contemporary and real. Consider the following extract:
It doesn’t matter how you got here…. What matters is why…. This is how it was meant to be ! Those who have served you, those who have built this empire for you — have done so in your name and by the will of gods. Their fate, their future is their own to face. Don’t think yourself beholden to them for honours you’ve showed them, or feel bound by their service to you. (pg. 425)
I can imagine a white dhoti kurta clad political kingmaker or “godman” saying these words to a newly elected politician of today. But these words are actually uttered by the Dwaipayana Vyasa to Yudhishtir after he becomes the Emperor of Aryavarta. Chilling indeed ! Govinda doesn’t just belong to the genre of mytho-historical fiction; in my opinion, it classifies for the genre of a political thriller as well.
Govinda was released in mid-2012. I think I must have been living under a rock at that time as I was blissfully unaware of the existence of this book. I got to know about Govinda only when it was offered as a giveaway for a twitter chat on “Mythology and Mythological Fiction” on The Sunday Book Club (I am one of the co-founders of this club) earlier this year.
I am now eager to read Book 2 of The Aryavarta Chronicles: Kaurava, which releases tomorrow. I am not going to wait for 6 months to buy Book 2 or a year to write a review — I’m going to pay a visit to the nearest bookstore tomorrow. And for reading and reviewing it, watch this space 🙂