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Amish’s Warrior of Mithila fuses the mythological with the contemporary

Sita: Warrior of Mithila, the second book in Amish Tripathi’s Ramchandra series, is out, and doubtless, it will sell a million copies or more. And I feel very happy about it, if for nothing else, then due to the fact that Amish, in spite of his superstar-writer status, remains as humble and cool a person as he was when nine years ago, he was struggling to get the first part of his Shiva trilogy published.

This is a man who has his feet firmly on the ground and has not let his celebrity-hood go to his head.

Amish tries a new storytelling technique here, which he calls “hyperlink” and others refer to as “multilinear narrative”. What it means is that one book follows the story with person A as the central character and another follows person B. The two narratives converge at a particular point and then the author takes over in the subsequent books.

So, while the first book of the Ramchandra series, Scion of Ikshvaku, had Ram as its protagonist, the second book follows Sita, from infancy through her education to her marriage to Ram. Both the books end with the kidnapping of Sita by Raavan.

Therefore, many of the events described are common to both books, except that while the first book told us about Ram’s role as things unfolded, the second one does the same for Sita.

Like all of Amish’s other books, Warrior of Mithila is an edge-of-the-seat thriller full of action, betrayals and intense enmity, but also an exploration of much deeper issues. As always, a reader may enjoy Warrior of Mithila as a gripping read, and another may mull over the important questions that Amish raises, which are both eternal and contemporary. These questions impact our lives, public discourse and our society.

Even the bull-taming game of jallikattu—which faced a ban some months ago—features (Amish seems to be pro-jallikattu).

If I am allowed to boast a little, I can say that I was the first to point out the subtext in Amish’s books in my column “Why Amish is special” in Mint two years ago. I mentioned that the Shiva trilogy fundamentally tried to answer the question “what is evil?” and the Ramchandra series appeared to be grappling with “what is an ideal society?”

These were my own deductions and Amish hadn’t till then spoken publicly about this aspect of his works. Now, however, in his interviews, he has acknowledged that these were what his books were/ are about.

In Warrior of Mithila, here’s what Queen Sunaina tells her adopted daughter Sita: “The criminals among the rich are mostly driven by greed. One can negotiate with greed. But the criminals among the poor are driven by desperation and anger… They have nothing to lose. And they get angry when they see others with so much when they have so little. It’s understandable. As rulers, our responsibility is to make efforts and change things for the better. But it cannot happen overnight. If we take too much from the rich to help the poor, the rich will rebel. That can cause chaos. And everyone will suffer. So we have to work slowly. We must help the truly poor. That is dharma.”

The 1960s and 70s, when Indira Gandhi imposed extremely usurious taxes on the rich, come to mind. What it led to was only widespread tax evasion and corruption. Extremely high import duties and foreign exchange controls created a whole parallel economy of smuggled goods. No wonder that most Hindi films had smugglers as villains, and sometimes as heroes too, like in Deewaar.

This was hypocritical, to say the least, because I am sure the rich men in the film industry transacted mostly in cash and black money and would have been consuming a significant chunk of the goods being smuggled into India.

In the meantime, of course, very little of the taxes collected ever reached the poor. Indira Gandhi’s several stints as prime minister were built around keeping the poor as impoverished as ever and mouthing anti-rich slogans—imposing a fake and disastrous socialism on India.

When Sita grows older, she is sent to Rishi Vishwamitra’s gurukul to study and quickly becomes his favorite student. They have many deep discussions—Vishwamitra, as the leader of the Malayaputras, the tribe left behind by Lord Parshu Ram, is a man with many strong opinions.

In one of these discussions, Vishwamitra tells Sita: “Sadly, many in the latter-day Bhaarat society despised their soldiers and preferred to condemn them. Every action of the army was vehemently criticised. Any form of violence, even dharmic violence, was opposed. The warrior spirit itself was berated as a demonic impulse that had to be controlled… Great sages of yore who preached absolute non-violence and love were glorified and their messages amplified… Too much of anything creates an imbalance in life. This is true even of virtues such as non-violence. You never know when the winds of change strike; when violence may be required to protect your society, even survive.”

It is well-known that Jawaharlal Nehru had a visceral distrust for our armed forces. As my learned friend Jay Bhattacharjee wrote in Swarajya magazine in December 2016:

“(Nehru’s) run-ins with General (as he then was) Cariappa were legendary. One of the first symbolic acts of JLN was to requisition the official residence of the erstwhile British Commanders-in-Chief of the Army and make it his home. Consequently, General Cariappa was relegated to another house that ranked distinctly lower in the pecking order. This was clearly a harbinger of things to come for India’s armed forces in the years and decades that followed.”

Bhattacharjee conrinues: “Independent India’s government has, from the mid-1950s, steadily, continuously, and often surreptitiously, downgraded the pay, emoluments and status of the country’s military… Commitments made to the armed forces, even through resolutions of Parliament, have been flagrantly withheld, sidelined, delayed and even forgotten... A particularly shameful blow to the faujis was delivered by the Indira Gandhi government when, just after the armed forces had brought about the landmark military victory in the 1971 war, the pensions of the warriors was reduced in one fell swoop from 70 per cent to 50 per cent, and in many cases to 30 per cent, of the last salary drawn.”

“… The Commander-in-Chief of India ranked only next to the Viceroy in 1947. Over a period of 70 years, the Chiefs of Staff of the three forces have now been pushed down to the 12th position, lower than worthies like Election Commissioners, Chief Information Commissioner, and, if you please, the Chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Wait, matters are even more grotesque. For many years, the Services chiefs were subject to frisking and security checks at the airport, whereas a certain person named Robert Vadra was officially exempted from this procedure. Enough to make the heavens weep.”

In October 1947, tribal militias backed by the Pakistan army invaded Kashmir. Nehru was loath to send in the Indian army, but his hand was forced by Sardar Patel. However, it appears that Nehru connived with Lord Mountbatten and just at a point when the Indian army seemed poised to take back all of Kashmir, he called for a ceasefire, thus creating Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. We are still suffering the consequences of that decision.

Add to this our present-day saint, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He went on a fast to pressure the Indian government to pay Pakistan the money—Rs 55 crore—that India owed it as part of the allocation of assets at the time of Independence. Thus India became the only nation in history to pay a country it was at war with. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what Pakistan spent that money on.

Later, Vishwamitra tells Sita that India began to demean trading itself “when a few of the Vaishyas became selfish, ostentatious and money-grubbing. We gradually pushed trade out of the hands of the ‘evil-moneyed capitalists’ of our own society, and into the hands of others”. Public sector, anyone?

After her marriage to Ram and her arrival in Ayodhya, Sita is sitting with her brother-in-law Bharat in the palace gardens. She tells him that Indian society has “foolishly decided to hate its Vaishyas… The fact is that while a few businessmen may be crooks, most Vaishyas are hardworking, risk-taking, opportunity-seeking organisers. If they do not prosper, then society does not produce wealth. And if a society does not generate money, most people remain poor. Which leads to frustration and unrest”.

Once, when J.R.D Tata told Nehru that the public sector must also make a profit, Nehru replied: “Never talk to me about the word profit; it is a dirty word.” Soon afterwards, Tata’s Air India, Air India International and insurance outfit were nationalised by the government.

Today, like many other public sector companies, Air India is a millstone round the Indian economy’s neck.

The top 10 loss-making PSUs totted up losses of Rs22,951 crore in 2015-16. The most ridiculous case is that of Hindustan Photo Films, as Vivek Kaul pointed out recently on www. equitymaster.com. In 2015-16, this company, which is supposed to make photo films (which went extinct years ago), lost Rs11.65 crore per employee (217 employees; total loss: Rs2,528 crore).

“So, you have a situation where young men, and frankly some women too, are radicalised,” Sita tells Bharat. “There is intelligence, but little wisdom. There is poverty. There is love for violence… They look for simplistic, quick solutions. And they hate anyone who doesn’t think like them.” Is this a reference to the extreme left-wing/ Maoist problem that we are facing?

Bharat turns out to be a libertarian. He argues that there should be as few laws as possible, “enough just to provide a framework within which human creativity can express itself in all its glory”. Freedom, he says, is “the ultimate silver arrow, the answer to everything”. “It may appear chaotic and difficult to manage on the surface… But there is no problem that cannot ultimately be solved if you grant freedom to a sufficiently large number of argumentative and rebellious people.” He believes that freedom is “the most important attribute of life”.

Ram, Sita and Bharat are all looking for the secrets that could lead to the creation of an ideal society. Ram believes in the rulebook. He abides by the law himself and believes that this would inspire the people of Ayodhya to be law-abiding too. Sita disagrees. She tells her friend Radhika, “Laws must be enforced, yes. But this cannot be an end in itself. You may sometimes need to even misuse the law to achieve what you want.”

“Ram has shown a new way,” replies Radhika. “By simply ensuring that he, too, is accountable and subject to the law. No shortcuts are available to the Ayodhyan nobility anymore. This has electrified the common folk. If the law is above even a prince, then why not them?”

In Amish’s Ramayana, Ram exiles himself to the forest for fourteen years for using an Asurastra on Raavan’s soldiers. One Asurastra can render ten thousand soldiers unconscious for days, and in some cases, even kill—clearly a reference to modern chemical weapons, just as there was a reference to nuclear weapons in the Shiva trilogy.

The use of the Asurastra is banned by the Vayuputras, the tribe left behind by Lord Rudra (the Vayuputras play a pivotal role in the Shiva trilogy), and the punishment for employing it is exile for fourteen years. The story of Rama sentencing himself is different from the one we have been brought up on—that Ram went away to the forest due to Queen Kaikeyi’s machinations.

I have here given just a few examples of the many issues that Warrior of Mithila raises.

Amish does not provide any easy answers to the questions he poses, and his characters too are searching for the truth. Underneath their thick veneer of battles and bravery, his books are questing discourses that look at the arguments from all sides, and opposite perspectives. The books are also an attempt to take the essence of these arguments, figure out what should be treasured and what junked and see if what is left can be compressed into one single theory.

That may not be possible, but what comes through strongly in Amish’s books is a plea for maintaining balance in life, society and philosophy and a quiet condemnation of extremism and discrimination in any form.

Who would disagree with that, other than fanatics, including fundamentalist ideologues? Who also count in their ranks of those who preach a phony liberalism—something that is just disguised intolerance.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director ofswarajyamag.com.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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