Book Review: Rise of Kali
Like most people would probably have assumed, I thought that the Kali in the book’s title meant the name of the goddess, as in Kaali, the female goddess of destruction until realisation struck in that it was Kali, the last yuga as per hindu mythology. A funny misconception that, given I have always been told the Mahabaratha signified the end of Dwapara Yuga and the beginning of Kali Yuga. But once the book began, I was too busy being immersed in the story rather than think about such a triviality.
The first book of this Ajaya series – The Roll of Dice – should have given me a clue as to what to expect, but then, I began reading this with a clear mind without any preconceived notions.
Alternate viewpoints have become the norm of the day. Basic human psychology likes controversies better than actual age old versions of stories and it is the inherent curiosity of the mind that yearns to know the loser’s story, if not for justification at least for the lesser known forgotten tales. Ajaya is a book series that tries to tell the Mahabaratha from the loser’s view point – that is Duryodhana’s viewpoint. Only, it doesn’t call him the loser. It calls him the victim, one who was cheated by those people who were considered do good, and betrayed by people he called friends and trusted beyond his life.
Ajaya – Duryodhana’s Mahabharatha. It is that. Only that. While Jaya spoke of the glory of the pandavas and the huge Dharmayuddha, Ajaya speaks of Duryodhana, or Suyodhana, the just ruler who wanted to abolish the caste based discrimination, who wanted goodness for his people, who wanted prosperity and always repented his mistakes without ego – only, he made little, very pardonable mistakes like disrobing a woman in public because his fragile ego was bruised. Oh, and a few choice others that anyone could make, really. It is that simple.
The story starts with the infamous disrobing of Draupadi – an incident belittled to a single dot of insignificance. The focus or the limelight of villainy is shifted towards the pandava brothers who gambled (an unpardonable crime, in my opinion, by the way) their wife and were silent and helpless, and the good men of the assembly, wise old men who let such things happen to a woman. No, the kaurava brothers who did the actual deed were just doing a small mistake. Those who kept quiet were to blame, not the perpetrators. After all, they were the ones who facilitated the shift from Suyodhana to Duryodhana.
The prologue seemed different, unique, with the author’s justification seemingly logical. Yes, Mahabaratha remains, to this day, one of the most questioned and contested epics of all time, and with good reason. It leaves many aspects open to discussion and there is no black and white. From the point where Pandavas were never Pandu’s sons, and neither them or Dhritharashtra’s sons, the Kauravas were actual descendants of the throne, every turn in the epic tale was open to debate and discussion – sensible discussions that brought out the shortcomings in the so called good people and the redeemable qualities in those clearly named villains. Including the parts where Dhaumya and Yuyutsu get unnecessary focus and importance.
The book would have worked for me if it were not so strongly antagonistic against the original epics and the values it imparted. Agreed that Duryodhana was a man with good ideals and he was misled by Shakuni who had his own agenda. But portraying him as a man who was victimised from all ends and who was so good that goodness oozed out of him and seeped towards others in his vicinity is laughably impossible. What is even funnier is glossing over all his mistakes and major shortcomings. Alternate viewpoints work best when they take a parallel line to the original versions and give a different perspective. Rise of Kali fails mightily in that regard – it takes a line in the opposite direction. It flips the original epic and inverts the characters’ color and nature. Rise of Kali is not about the greys in people. Blacks become whites, whites become blacks. The author’s intended tone – questioning the loopholes in the original instead becomes a story with glaring plot holes and random baseless assumptions sometimes.
- Duryodhana tried to kill Bhima? – not a huge fault, he repented it.
- Duryodhana disrobes Draupadi – he did it in the heat of the moment, of course he repented it, many times over. But he always ended with she deserved it. Not wrong. She did. That was for him to decide.
- Duryodhana refused to budge and give land to his cousins – that is the only point barring which he is generous. His cousins were evil, he was not interested to bring back the caste based rule they would surely insist upon.
- Duryodhana stubbornly refused sharing his kingdom – oh that was not because he wanted power. He did that because he was afraid what would happen to his country and his subjects if the pandavas, the adharmists ruled.
Scene: Duryodhana does a random, shocking thing. Can it be glossed over? If yes, don’t make a big issue out of it, even if it means belittling the disrobing of a woman. If no, was it horrible?
- It wasn’t really horrible – see? Anyone can make mistakes, even if they are good. Duryodhana doing it does not make him evil.
- Well, it was a bit wrong, you know. Not fair, and totally contradictory to the good image we are trying to build about one of history’s famous villains. – oh, not to worry. He was misled by someone close to him. Betrayed, misled, confused, the works…
- It was absolutely disgusting to the last degree – yeah sadly. But let us not focus on that. Let us instead assume (without real proof) that of course he repented it. That makes it alright, doesn’t it? If the pandavas repent they are evil wrongdoers. If Duryodhana repents it is sincere and things magically become okay, that is it. End of story.
Some parts I loved from the book, in no particular order:
Bhishma talking to Yudhishtra and Duryodhana on war ethics:
“Do not forget that every woman has the same strength within her. She is not a thing to be pawned.” Yudhishtra looked away, ashamed. “Or to be stripped in public,” added Bhishma. It was Suyodhana’s turn to flush and drop his gaze.
Two different instances where Duryodhana thinks about the opponent’s forces:
‘Suyodhana was a worried man. He felt angry at the way Bhishma had manipulated him. The Pitamaha meant well, but he was sure Yudhishtra would not follow the rules he had so blithely agreed to. Even if his cousin was a changed man, as some claimed him to be, Krishna would follow his own rules. Suyodhana knew he faced a ruthless enemy who would stoop to any level to secure victory.’
‘His opponents had everything – money, the Confederate forces looting the countryside for supplies, an avatar who inspired fear of hell and promised moksha, and spin masters who portrayed their side as the epitome of dharma and him as the devil.’
This hard hitting paragraph that has many more implications:
Uthayan entered his funeral pyre. In his last moments, Uthayan prayed history would judge him kindly. But he need not have bothered. His history and that of his people did not matter to Bharatavarsha. They belonged to the wrong side of the Vindhya mountains.
The one sentence, in my opinion, that sums up Yudishtra, one of my least favourite characters in the epic:
He had not killed anyone in the war; others had done the butchering for him.
However, there are a few glaring parts of the book, that are open to debate, and would have been better understood with the additional information of a verse or something from the original that supported the author’s twisted view point. The lack of supporting arguments makes this a weak presumption to mar the image of the ‘good guys’ and the suggested reading list at the end does little to quench the reader’s thirst.
- During Draupadi’s disrobing, the prose goes as such. ‘Dushasana – drunk and bemused fell over the unending cloth’. Really, drunk and bemused? And how did the saree become unending? A normal saree is mostly six to eight metres long. That does not come under unending. And more importantly, why is there no mention of Krishna giving draupadi the saree? Or any other alternative argument for that matter? If it is a story that refuses to believe in Krishna’s magic (neither do I, not really) it should at least give a believable, different version instead of clearly glossing over the parts that cannot be explained.
- The incident in which Arjuna got the Pasupatha bow – a very controversial take is given in the book, one that would change the whole course of the huge war. But sadly, it lacks the conviction because it is left to everyone’s imagination. There is no clear proof that it happened the author’s way. I would have liked the original verse reproduced with the meaning, if possible, since the author surely must have read this corresponding part many times to arrive at this interpretation.
- Lakshmana’s rape by Samba, Krishna’s son, is a very serious allegation. While most epics do not talk about Krishna having any son, or about Duryodhana’s daughter, a few that do talk of an abduction and subsequently Balarama intervening and saving the day. The allegation that Samba is a serial rapist and Krishna would save him killing another man in the process seemed more like a scene set for highlighting the villainy of the man rather than the actual story and becomes baseless without the proof and supporting arguments.
- Another popular story debunked is how Duryodhana got the help of the Narayana Sena. While the original says Duryodhana demanded for, and got the help of Krishna’s army, the author clearly says they came and joined him of their own accord, out of the goodness of their hearts, to fight for the only man who seemed to be fighting for Dharma. Again, without substantial proof.
- The scenes where everyone from Kunti to Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna as a compensation for him to come over to their side – speaks of distaste and totally unethical practices, if only it were substantiated by something else more concrete, instead of sounding like whimsical additions to portray the good side as the evil one.
- The story of Bhisma’s death, again way more contradictory to the original – again with no proof. The distasteful version where the eunuch stands shielding Arjuna as he hits the pitamaha from behind sends a wrong impression. And then the eunuch sings and dances around corpses. And neither Duryodhana nor the Kauravas treated Shikandi with respect. They even went to the extent of being very noble, so noble that they would not speak about her – (s)he was an eunuch, after all, not one of Duryodhana’s respectable subjects because he worries about caste based segregation and not gender based. Yeah, right!
- The solar eclipse excuse – one of the flimsy parts of the original epic, still marred by this alternate explanation. I was expecting something better from you for this, Mr. Neelakandan.
- What Krishna says in the Geeta: Work tirelessly and don’t worry about the end. How Anand Neelakantan interprets it: Krishna clearly says that the end matters, means don’t. Impression readers get: Krishna advises people to use unfair means to gain whatever they want.
The story would have worked for me if the author had tried to ask the questions he had in an unbiased manner and tried to portray the grey areas on both the sides. Instead, he has written a tale that tries to feed a very controversial story to the readers, one that did not give the impact it intended to because of lack of proof. It should have tried to show the shortcomings in both the Pandava and Kaurava side instead of flipping every story to show Duryodhana as the ultimate victim /hero who had nothing but good intentions with everyone around him being villainous.
Jaya raised so many questions. So does Ajaya. It only supports the opposite side.
Read the reviews of other books rated 3 stars by Team TP HERE
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