July 10, 2013

Amish Tripathi's Shiva Trilogy - Brilliant Storytelling that Rides the Wave of Religious Fervor?

Amish Tripathi's epic saga based on the Hindu deity Shiva proved to be a captivating read. Despite being a trilogy, it took very little for me to go from one book to the next because of the compelling storyline. I desperately wanted to know what happens next!

'The Immortals of Meluah', 'The Secret of the Nagas', and 'The Oath of the Vayuputras' are the titles of the three books, and each one of them unfolds a phase in the life of Shiva, the protagonist of this mythological fantasy.  My personal favorite is the first book, The Immortals of Meluah which unravels the mystery of how the superhuman 'Shiva' discovers his divine identity as also the purpose of his stay on earth.

Given that 1.7 million copies of Amish Tripathi's books have been sold and he is ranked 85th on the Forbes 'Celebrity List' for 2012, he must have captured the imagination of a large audience through his writing. The question is who is the audience? Is the audience primarily Indian, more specifically practicing Hindus in India and in the diaspora abroad? Does Amish's writing transcend religious and national boundaries? If not, then has he, indeed, 'arrived'?

Personally, I enjoyed the sheer magnitude of the setting Amish provides in the trilogy. The setting takes the reader to the peaks and valleys of the Himalyas, to the fertile plains around the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, the now-non-existent Saraswati, Narmada, and other smaller tributaries.  Amish's setting also connects up with the Ancient Egyptian settlements around the River Nile.  It's the audacity of his reach that is impressive, understandably so since Mr. Tripathi put in 20 years of research before writing this trilogy. He must have delved into the ancient scriptures to get a tighter hold on Hindu beliefs and practices, and he also must have explored the geography of the region over the last thousand and more years to paint such a plausible picture of the time in this writing.

It isn't only the setting that makes this read so gripping, it's also the themes that Amish explores in this trilogy that make the reader sit up and take notice.  Although the subject of his writing is the mythological Shiva of Hindu mythology, the action in the novels revolves around some important and highly debated issues of universal significance that transcend the religious, the regional and make forays into the realm of philosophy. For example, the central conflict of the trilogy is the manufacture and use of the "Somaras", the magic potion from Hindu mythology, but in reality it is a reference to 'Soma' a plant found in the north west frontier region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. This plant is known to be an analgesic, and a weak aphrodisiac.  'Soma' was made popular by Aldous Huxley's novel 'Brave New World' where it was used as a stimulant, causing both euphoria and hallucinations.  The plant Soma has been used as a narcotic since the time of India's earliest civilizations; in fact, it finds mention even in the ancient scripture Rig Veda which came to be in 800 BC. Through the 'Somaras' conflict, Amish brilliantly explores the theme of human mortality and its moral and social implication in this trilogy. Should the Somaras, which provides cures for all ailments and extends life significantly if not forever, be manufactured and made available for public consumption is the essential question? In a current day context this question would translate to -Should longevity of human life be the primary focus of human civilization?

Another universal theme that Mr. Tripathi has woven into this writing is about the perfectness of the natural cycle of existence : "Dust thou art and to dust returnest": yet, what happens in the middle is of the essence, as it brings meaning to life. The middle of the cycle cannot be disregarded as it involves human choice be it 'good' or 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong'. It is this perfect cycle that stands threatened by the 'Somaras'! Consequently, that brings us to the next theme that Amish plays around with in his three novels: the duality in nature.  If there is 'good' there has to be 'bad', if there is 'life' then 'death' must exist.  If we were born out of a 'big bang' then there has to a final 'cosmic pile up' that will spell death. Amish handles this volatile and difficult theme with a dexterity that could only have come from years of research and planned writing. In the trilogy there are no absolute truths or absolute rights; thus, 'evil' earns a right to exist, as does the 'wrong doer' because without them the 'good' and the 'doer of good' would not exist!

Amish trilogy connects directly to Hinduism when he explores (more like preaches) the concept of 'Dharma' - the cosmic norm "that which holds" the people of this world and the entire creation. Perhaps due to my own ignorance of ancient Hindu scriptures, those that explain the concept of Dharma and how it relates to human life and the salvation of the human soul, I found Amish's narrative a trifle didactic whenever he dealt with the concept of 'Dharma' in these books. However, that may be due to my own shortcoming as a reader, and this criticism should thus be disregarded.

There are several other aspects of this trilogy that make it a fulsome read: there is action, adventure, romance, even sentimentality (tinted with didacticism). The characters though widespread and hard to keep track of, indulge your reading fantasy whenever they appear.  Also, each character symbolizes at least one very essential human trait such as courage, loyalty, honesty, anger etc. The character of Sati, Shiva's wife, is perhaps the most dynamic one: she is a caring spouse, an ardent lover, a devoted daughter, a brave warrior, a strategic leader, a nurturing mother, a loyal friend, and more. Amish captures the heart of every reader through his brilliant portrayal of Sati, also one of the most important female deity's in Hindu mythology.

As is evident, I enjoyed this epic saga of action and romance built upon and around Hindu Mythology, and one which has a strong socio-ethical message to it. Amish Tripathi may be a maverick of sorts having written a 'revisionist' mythology!
The question is will 'any' and 'every' reader enjoy this trilogy as much as I did?