Book review

‘The Scion of Ikshvaku’ is quite the ‘Un-Ramayana’

Amish deviates from the epic in several crucial ways, but his story is racier as a result.

Picture this. A large royal court with an assembly of the best kings and princes. The mission: to complete an archery challenge, and the prize, the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage. The challenge is be to shoot the eye of the fish on a turntable mounted on the ceiling, while looking at its reflection in a vessel of rippling water on the ground.

This is the swayamvara from the Mahabharata, when Arjuna competes to win Draupadi’s hand, right? Wrong! This is Prince Ram Chandra of Ayodhya trying to win the hand of the princess of Mithila, Sita. At least that’s how it is in Amish Tripathi’s first book of the Ram Chandra series, The Scion of Ikshvaku.

After months of advertising, in what seems to be the biggest and most expensive promotional drive for a book, the first book in Amish’s planned trilogy was released on June 22, 2015. A record signing amount, full page newspaper ads, exclusive Kindle offers and even Youtube trailers (never mind the nail polish-wearing Sita) had readers waiting with bated breaths for the next offering from the extremely popular author of the Shiva trilogy.

And why not? After all, he promised to re-tell India’s favourite story of all, the Ramayana. Or did he?

Surprising deviations

For anyone who knows the Ramayana and expects Amish’s story to be similar, The Scion of Ikshvaku can come as something of a shock. But for anyone who is familiar with the author’s previous works, the book meets all expectations, for Amish bends it better than Beckham.

While not a great fan of his literary style, I cannot help but admire Amish for the way he manages to create completely new stories from old ones. He has an almost magical ability of retaining the essence of familiar mythological tales while spinning wildly deviant plots.

As a student of mythology, I was shocked and awed in turn by the liberties the author has taken in writing the story of Ram. But there’s no use pointing a finger at him for these deflections, because not once does he use the word Ramayana. Our literary pop star friend ingeniously calls it the Ramchandra series. And one can only smile indulgently because this is not really a deviation but tradition.

Ram and The Ramayana both belong to the people. Valmiki may have been the first one to record it, but over centuries, poets and playwrights have taken creative liberties in creating their own Ramayanas. From Kamba’s 12th Century Ramavataram in Tamil to Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series in 2003; from Tulsidas’s 16th century Ramcharitamanas to Devdutt Pattanaik’s Sita in 2013, and hundreds in between, the The Ramayana has served as the fountainhead of inspiration for storytellers.

Amish builds upon the Rama epic too, albeit in a very un-Ramayana like manner. The differences are apparent right in the first page, where he lists the major characters. Some of these are surprising, some shocking, and some, even amusing. Amish’s Ram is very much a human hero just like his Shiva and the story is stripped of all magical elements.

Ram is neither born through divine means, nor portrayed as the apple of everyone’s eye. In fact, the first and greatest point of difference between the traditional Ramayana and The Scion of Ikshvaku is the depiction of Ram as an unloved prince. His father, king Dasaratha, considers Ram’s birth inauspicious and blames him for all his misfortunes. So the fabulously powerful and wealthy king of Ayodhya is shown to be a defeated old man ruling over a crumbling kingdom. The very foundations of the epic are laid differently in this story.

Further, Manthara has been depicted as the wealthiest businesswoman of Ayodhya instead of the poor handmaiden we know her to be. She even has a noble daughter who is, er, a “rakhi-sister” of the four Ayodhan princes. We all know Sita is a strong character, but Amish pushes the envelope by appointing her the prime minister of Mithila.

My favourite is his development of the usually ignored character of Shatrughan. The poor youngest prince of Ayodhya has little or no role to play in most versions of The Ramayana. Here Bharat gets a makeover as something of a ladies’ man, a foil to the stoic Ram. Ravana loses nine of his heads in Amish’s version and gets a horned helmet instead.

The intrigue deepens as the author hints at some kind of revolution being planned by Ram’s guru, Vashishta. Apart from the plot, Amish also fiddles with mythological templates. Instead of the standard Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh trinity, he designates the lords Brahma, Parshu Ram and Rudra as the holy triumvirate. And the ultimatr twist? Ram reforms and joins hands with the rakshasi Tadaka instead of killing her!

Improvising for greater effect

Full marks for ingenuity, but when the inevitable comparisons arise, these inventions get a little hard to stomach. However, Amish is unapologetic about his inventiveness, and perhaps that is his USP.

The book is full of such fruits of Amish’s imagination, but it is for the reader to find them, taste them and judge them. The author has played his best stroke – one that he knows works with his junta. It’s like a Salman Khan movie, with all the necessary drama-action-comedy masala, a devoted audience and consequently assured box office success.

Let’s be honest. The book does not have any great literary merit, although it is a vast improvement from the shockingly pedestrian language of the Shiva trilogy. Amish’s easy-to-read prose and page-turning style is designed to be accessible and enjoyable. From the looks of it, he is poised to set another best-selling record.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession, and an Indologist in the making. She can be followed here on Twitter.

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