Ravana at a parade in Jember, East Java, Indonesia, on August 29, 2015.(Getty Images)
Ravana at a parade in Jember, East Java, Indonesia, on August 29, 2015.(Getty Images)

Amish on the complexity of the central character of his new book Raavan; Enemy of Aryavarta

Ahead of the release of the third book in his Ram Chandra Series on July 1, Amish writes exclusively for Hindustan Times on the character of Raavan, who is often described as the quintessential villain
Hindustan Times | By Amish
UPDATED ON JUN 28, 2019 06:22 PM IST
374pp, Rs 399; Westland
374pp, Rs 399; Westland

Raavan is often described as the greatest villain; the original bad boy. This image of Raavan in the minds of modern Indians has been moulded largely by some television serials. Many see him as a monstrous, violent man, lacking any depth of character.

However, the great sage who wrote the original Ramayan, the incomparable Maharishi Valmiki, held a far more nuanced view of Raavan. In fact, Valmiki ji had a far more nuanced view of life in general.

The tradition of seeing Raavan, and life itself, in a nuanced way, was not unusual in ancient India. We can see how this tradition expressed itself through the many versions of the Ramayan that our ancestors celebrated such as the Valmiki Ramayan, Adbhut Ramayan, Anand Ramayan, Kamba Ramayanam and many others. In my book, Raavan – Enemy of Aryavarta, I have tried to follow the path of the ancients, rather than the one forged by modern TV serials.

So what does Raavan look like from a nuanced perspective? Well, he is violent. Brutally violent. He has an out-of-control, massive ego. He commits horrific crimes. He is power-hungry to the point of obsessive mania. All less than wholesome attributes, no doubt. But he is not just a thug; he is not the kind of “villain” we normally see in our modern movies and books. There is more, for he is also a scholar and is extremely well-read. Even in the traditional tales, he is credited with having composed many hymns and texts that survive to this day. Many of my readers who have seen the trailer film for my first book, Immortals of Meluha, will recognise the Sanskrit chant embedded in the music. It was drawn from a powerful hymn dedicated to Lord Shiva, called the Tandav Stotram, said to have been composed by Raavan himself. In some traditions, it is believed that Raavan had also invented a few musical instruments, such as the melancholic Ravanhatha. He was dismissive of his wife, Mandodari, and had relationships with many other women, but was also obsessively respectful towards the one woman he felt deserved his respect. The image that emerges is of a man of massive contrasts: one who will love without reward and kill without remorse. A deep, complex man full of pain, rage and hatred. A scholar, a pirate, a warrior, and a king. Someone who is in such a dark place all the time that it’s almost scary for an author to write about him.

It was my misfortune that I started writing the story of Raavan, a character full of such anger and darkness, at a point in my life when I was drowning in grief. It has been a difficult few years for me; many personal issues. Writing the story of a character like Raavan only made me sink deeper. This was one of the reasons it took so long to finish this book; this is the longest gap I have had between books. In some ways, I am glad this book is over.

But, looked at another way, there is something priceless that I have learnt from the first three books of the Ram Chandra Series. As my readers would be aware, the Ram Chandra Series will comprise five books; the first three have a multi-linear narrative. Book 1, Ram – Scion of Ikshvaku, tells the tale of Lord Ram from his birth to the kidnapping of Lady Sita. Book 2, Sita – Warrior of Mithila, chronicles her tale from her birth to her kidnapping by Raavan. And the soon-to-be-released Book 3, Raavan – Enemy of Aryavarta, is from the birth of Raavan to the time he kidnaps Lady Sita. Book 4 onwards is a common narrative.

Amish (Courtesy the author)
Amish (Courtesy the author)

This multi-linear narrative is a very complex style to write in (I am sure I will never do it again!) but it gives one a far deeper understanding of different characters. In the case of my Ram Chandra Series, it gave me an immersive insight into the characters of the three principal personalities of the story: Lord Ram, Lady Sita, and Raavan. All three are tested to the extremes by their fate. Their lives are beset with suffering, and grief hits them repeatedly. But their individual reactions to that suffering are different. Raavan reacts with unrelenting anger and hatred. Lady Sita reacts with fierce determination and a pragmatic approach to life. Lord Ram reacts to his grief and suffering with nobility; the more unfairly he was treated, the more honourably he behaved.

Gautam Buddha had said that grief is an inalienable reality of life. What defines us is how we react to it. Do we react with unrelenting anger and hatred? Or do we react with determination and honour? Can we learn from Lady Sita and Lord Ram? We cannot be exactly like them. They were divine, while we are ordinary. But we can at least try.

And yet, one cannot deny that the side of Raavan, that makes him react with fury and antagonism, captivates many and pushes them to explore his tale. Complex, flawed characters make for fine stories. Especially if that flawed character is also one of the most talented and scholarly men in Hindu tradition. Even today, Raavan is a study in bizarre contrasts. His father was a respected Maharishi, and folk traditions say that he was born close to Delhi, which makes him a north-Indian brahmin. And yet, Raavan is a hero to a few in the Dravidian movement, especially those who are anti-brahmin and anti-north Indian. Isn’t this inexplicably fascinating?

Read more: Excerpt from Raavan; Enemy of Aryavarta

Our ancestors understood one thing, though. The natural state of the universe is Balance. If you see it from that perspective, you realise that without the darkness, light would lose its purpose.

Explore the dark side with the story of Raavan. But learn from the tale of this tragic man. Don’t surrender to darkness. Come to the light. Or at least, try.

Amish’s seven books have over five million copies in print. His Shiva Trilogy is the fastest-selling book series in Indian publishing history. And his Ram Chandra Series is the second fastest-selling book series in Indian publishing history. Twitter: @authoramish

Story Saved