There are probably years to go before an Indian book series achieves the level of devotion (or the sales) of the Harry Potter series. We do not have costumed fans thronging book stores for midnight readings (which the Shops and Establishments Act would make impossible anyway), or websites dedicated to picking apart plot points and sneaky hints.
But the last month has shown that we’re capable of getting there, with the explosion of interest in The Secret of the Nagas, the second book in Amish’s Shiva Trilogy. The Shiva Trilogy brings two new things to Indian books. Commercially, it brought its publishers blockbuster sales in a new segment. Chetan Bhagat’s raging sales have been helped in large part by Rupa and Co. pricing his books at Rs.95, a tactic quickly adopted by other mass-market publishers such as Srishti. The Secret of the Nagas, though, is retailing at Rs 295 (the first book, The Immortals of Meluha, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, is published in two editions, for Rs 195 and Rs 295).
The other new thing is its genre: the mundane mythological, where gods and heroes are shown to be just regular guys from ancient or prehistoric times, but who did things that then grew into legends. This trope has long been popular with comics writers, but few Indian writers have used it yet—and none with the sort of success that Amish has achieved.
Myth-maker: Amish’s novels are a labour of love. Photograph by MS Gopal
This raises a question: Is this relative novelty all that The Shiva Trilogy has to offer, or can it stand by itself? There are things I loved about The Secret of the Nagas. It’s a labour of love by Amish, who has spent a lot of time thinking about the characters and planning the plot. Amish also humanizes his characters, something which most popular Indian writers fail miserably at. Bhagat, the original mass- market author, is especially terrible at this, creating characters who are uncompromisingly and unidimensionally mediocre—but who still get happy endings handed to them through a deus ex machina. Since Shiva is his own deus, you get to see the machinery operating.
Amish’s Shiva isn’t as complex or nuanced as the one in Ramesh Menon’s TheSiva Purana Retold (2006), but his characters are capable of showing more than one emotion or motivation. Shiva and Sati are military tacticians, lovers and loving parents, and the villains are weak rather than wicked. Spending time on drawing out his characters has meant that Amish has also sneaked in a joke about a gold-bedecked prime minister of ancient Bengal called Bappiraj.
But along with some good action sequences, those are the only virtues of The Secret of the Nagas. Amish’s dialogue is weak, with too many characters delivering unrealistic expository speeches to each other. The book is also a chamber of grammatical horrors. It is possible that—like “prepone”— using “may” instead of “might”, “would” instead of “will” and “one hour back” will eventually get recognized as widely practised Indian English usage, and so sanctified by the Oxford English Dictionary, but until then these should not show up in publication. Similarly, there is absolutely no excuse for an error as glaring as “it’s” instead of “its” making it into a published edition.
The Secret of The Nagas—Shiva Trilogy 2: Westland Press, 396 pages, Rs 295.
Amish has also not paid enough attention to keeping the book free of corporatese, which means that every so often the fast-paced narrative is interrupted by a glaringly out-of-place word, like a speed breaker across a national highway. It is possible to use anachronisms to good effect, but Harraparyans saying “as per” and “vis-a-vis” to each other does not achieve the positive effect that playing We will rock you in A Knight’s Tale did.
The idea of The Shiva Trilogy excited me because this sort of experimentation with Indian mythology is long overdue in popular literature, especially by an Indian author (Grant Morrison, a Scotsman, has been doing it for almost 10 years).
As far as plotting and pacing are concerned, Amish is very skilful. It’s a shame, then, that The Secret of the Nagas is so badly let down by the clumsy use of language. With time and better editing, Amish will be capable of writing a great fantasy adventure. Unfortunately, he’s not there yet.
In six words
If God spoke like a banker
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