The Sanguinarian

The Sanguinarian

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book Review- The Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish

Blurb: Ram Rajya. The Perfect Land. But perfection has a price. He paid that price.


Ayodhya is weakened by divisions. A terrible war has taken its toll. The damage runs deep. The demon King of Lanka, Raavan, does not impose his rule on the defeated. He, instead, imposes his trade. Money is sucked out of the empire. The Sapt Sindhu people descend into poverty, despondency and corruption. They cry for a leader to lead them out of the morass. Little do they appreciate that the leader is among them. One whom they know. A tortured and ostracised prince. A prince they tried to break. A prince called Ram.

He loves his country, even when his countrymen torment him. He stands alone for the law. His band of brothers, his Sita, and he, against the darkness of chaos.

Will Ram rise above the taint that others heap on him? Will his love for Sita sustain him through his struggle? Will he defeat the demon Lord Raavan who destroyed his childhood? Will he fulfill the destiny of the Vishnu?

Begin an epic journey with Amishs latest- the Ram Chandra Series.

Sometimes someone like me must read someone like Amish. And sometimes, I must risk giving a review on his books because I consider myself a serious purveyor of literature, and a keen observer of publishing trends. Of course, I will be very unpopular among a few of my writer friends who wouldn't like my approach very much. But I must speak out, air my opinion, because that's what I'm like.
I'll be brief in this review, because I have nothing much to say here. Sadly, Amish's latest book doesn't deserve a lengthy review at all. I have written lengthy reviews in the past for books which were examples of serious literature, or at least worth a review. But this book is...the reason I'm writing a review is NOT just a comment on the book, but a commentary on the quality of 'popular literature' in India as well.
So like the Shiva trilogy, Amish has once again done a retelling of ancient Hindu epics- through the Ram Chandra series. He has attempted a new spin on the Ramayana- albeit with a contemporary feel to it. Raavan the demon king's juggernaut looks suspiciously akin to a modern day helicopter, for example. Ram rolls his eyes at his half-brother Bharat, who, before he falls in love, is sort of a Casanova, liaising with many girls- Ram is simply stunned at the number of girlfriends around Bharat, a babe magnet. The four brothers are shown to be loving and caring of each other; Manthara is a cunning but savvy businesswoman, Kaikeyi is a through-and-through bitch who wants to keeps both her husband and her son under her thumb; Kaushalya and Sumitra are demure queens who constantly ingratiate themselves to the misogynist, pig-headed, unreasonable, and borderline psychotic Emperor Dashrath. Ram was born on the same day as his father was defeated by Raavan, so Dashrath hates him for years with a vengeance and wrongly accuses him of being the reason the Sapt Sindhu lost to Lanka. Political intrigue is attempted through the wily, scheming Guru Vishwamitra and the rational, kind Vashishta, who backs Ram and Lakshman, and who trust him too.
Amish tries to inject a mythological fantasy with contemporary issues plaguing society, and he does this well- to an extent. He does it MUCH better than Chetan Bhagat, who CLAIMS to handle such issues in his 'books' but SHORTCHANGES the reader every time. Amish doesn't- he does touch upon plenty of relevant issues.
There is a gang-rape (aka Delhi 2012), and a brutal retaliation, there is debate on the Juvenile Justice Law- which was recently amended so that minors can be tried as adults in crimes like rape, and murder. There is a raging debate on 'masculine' and 'feminine' societies. Masculine as in patriarchal, feminine as in matriarchal? Most of the debate went over my head- and there arises my first problem with the book. Too much debate! The characters, at times look more like competing professional debate teams than characters in a mytho-fantasy. I actually rolled my eyes on having to read a debate in every chapter- I don't want a debate when I'm not in the mood, Amish. There is a time and place for that. You can, instead, write blog posts where your characters talk, or hold online webinars. If your characters must air their opinions, let it be through scenes, or incidents where the characters act upon this belief. Don't impose debates on me when I expect you to tell a story. It sounds preachy. You're telling a story, not doling out advice.
The other problems like cleanliness, city-planning, law and order, how to follow rules, blah blah blah have also been touched upon (PHEW!).
Ram's emphasis on following the law is an issue that pervades throughout the book- and the author has used this quality of his as a motivation to tell a different story than the one in popular Hindutva discourse, which I read as a kid.
Somehow, everyone in the book seems either tall and muscular or dark and muscular or fair and muscular. Do people in mytho-fantasies look all the same- are their looks all in the same damn three categories? People in real life don't look so same, BTW. Please try and imagine different-looking characters in your next, Amish. 
That brings me to my biggest grouse with the book- the plot. Amish has seriously lost the plot in this book of his, sadly. I thought the Shiva trilogy was fairly good, because Amish told a good story, and did his research well. The Shiva series had the plot as its redeeming USP. Something which this new novel doesn't have. If I explain why, I'll seriously give away the plot, so I'll just say that certain events, which are kind of important according to me, have been glossed over. It's like the author was hurrying through this book so he can, perhaps, provide a steady plot in the next one.
Didn't work for me. Although my knowledge of Hindu mythology is sketchy, at best, I still have a good idea about what makes a story good, what plot points deserve a big mention and what don't. What points should be stretched in detail to contribute to the plot, and what should be left alone. Retelling of a popular epic does not mean that you can just trail-blaze through the events like you're doing a running commentary. For eg- in the Shiva books, the one thing I like the most is the way Shiva and Parvati's relationship has been depicted. Here, although Ram does fall in love, at first sight, with Sita in a nicely written scene ( one of the very few that dot the book), there is no passion, no love intrigues, no silly games, no emotionally loaded lovemaking. I don't want sex scenes, no. I just want to feel their love and rejoice in it, I want to empathize with Ram when Raavan kidnaps his wife, I want to feel the depth of his anger, his indignation, his rage when his brave and beloved wife is targeted in this manner.
That brings me to reiterate the well-known fact that Amish is, at best, an average writer. What makes his book tick is the plot, and the good research. His prose is dull, uninspiring, and horrifyingly pedestrian. Now, Westland is a prestigious publisher- one which would have made lots of money from the sales of Amish's books. Why couldn't they hire a better editor? I found the SAME GLARING FLAW in the Shiva books- pedestrian, languid prose and horrible editing. Can't they find someone who can even marginally make Amish's writing better? But then, if the writer is average, how much can the editor do?
People who are first time readers will think Amish's writing is top-quality. But readers like me, who have been reading for more than two decades, and have read some of the stalwarts like Agatha Christie, Sir Conan Doyle, Dostoevsky and all Russian authors, Enid Blyton, VS Naipaul, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Marquez, Steinbeck etc. etc. etc. will make out the flaws in Amish's writing easily.
Just knowing English and English words and grammar and punctuation doesn't make you a good author. Knowing how to weave these words into beautiful prose is.
Since I'm reviewing this book, let me give you some examples from India itself. Recently I read Anees Salim and Cyrus Mistry, and then I read Amish. And I realized something. Salim, Mistry and his brother Rohinton, who is also a great author, Jeet Thayil, Vikram Seth etc. etc- these are quality authors. I, and people who read lit-fic, relate to them better. And yes, literary fiction is not the only serious literature, but it is serious. But these authors never get their due, never get the publicity, the merit and the public adulation they deserve for respecting the venerated craft of writing.
Film director Shekhar Kapur commented that Amish is 'India's first literary pop-star'.
Problem is, Mr. Kapur, we discerning readers don't need pop-stars in literature. We need serious writers who practice diligently to hone their skills to the zenith, and give us excellent stories which are also well-written, which appeal to readers like me. We readers need more Cyrus Mistry-s, more Naipauls, more Salims. Who write something serious and lasting. Time-pass writers who write time-pass stories for the masses are fine...but only to a certain limit.
Literature, if besieged with pop-stars, will wither and die. Good literature, I mean. And if one wants to be a punk, the literary equivalent of a leather-jacket wearing, funky-song singing pop-star, will receive the treatment most modern pop-stars receive. No one will take them seriously. They will be a trend, a temporary craze, a fleeting madness that will disappear when someone else comes along.
Writers improve as they write more books- Amish does the exact opposite. The quality of his prose has not improved...and his novel has gone from okay to bad- this is the opposite of improvement.
This 'pop-star' analogy seriously worries me about the quality of upcoming literature in society. Hopefully Amish will improve a bit in his next book- this one's not really worth all the hype, hoopla and star-studded launches it's getting ( public's love for Amish notwithstanding).
But I don't know if I will read Amish's next. This one has put me off in a big way.

But if you still like literary pop-stars, please go ahead and read this book. But except for a few good paragraphs and scenes, it is completely insipid and lack-luster.

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