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Retelling Mahabharata: why Kauravas are villain-heroes to Anand Neelakantan

The bestselling author talks on why being on the losing side is a winner vis-à-vis books. In his new book he gives his take on the epic Mahabharata, this time focusing on the ‘unconquerable’ Kauravas.

brunch Updated: Jan 18, 2014 20:02 IST
Apekshita Varshney
Apekshita Varshney
Hindustan Times
Anand Neelakantan,Asura: Tale Of The Vanquished,Ravana plays hero

Anand Neelakantan may seem boringly intellectual; he’s anything but. It takes only a few minutes for his stiff demeanour to melt away and for the mythology buff to turn into a warm storytelling uncle. And he has a story about everything – often the opposite of the one you expect. There are twists in his every tale.

It’s those twists that made his debut, Asura: Tale Of The Vanquished, 2012’s surprise bestseller. Neelakantan got Ravana to steal Rama’s thunder as the hero of the Ramayana. He dismantled long-cherished beliefs of good and evil, questioning the idea of victory and defeat. Asura sold 1,30,000 copies, but Neelakantan is far from finished. Now, Ajaya: Roll Of The Dice, takes on the Mahabharata, this time focusing on the ‘unconquerable’ Kauravas. What makes the losing side a winner on bookshelves? We decided to find out. Indian epics have been getting spiced up recently. What do you think accounts for their appeal?

Epics became epics because they were constantly retold. Every era adds their own spice and nuance to them. Epics that don’t evolve mark a dead civilisation. We should enjoy the vibrancy of our culture and whatever is passed and added on across the generations.

Critics believe that retelling tales is now clichéd. How different are your books?
Asura is not only Ravana’s story but also the story of a common man called Bhadra. It is crafted to offer an experience from an unconventional perspective – that of Bhadra, to make the reader know how it would have felt to live in the era of Rama and Ravana. On the other hand, while the Mahabharata is the story of the victorious Pandavas, Ajaya is the narrative of the Kauravas. I have also presented alternative viewpoints like those of Eklavya or Karna. They explore the lesser-known stories of the Mahabharata.

Tale spin Ramayana has many versions. Here are some unusual ones:

* One version popular in Wayanad district, Kerala, depicts Sita as a tribal girl and Ram and Ravana as her suitors. Since both are great warriors, the fight could never end until Vibhishan and Laxman forced Ram to kill Ravana.

* South India has a feminist version – the Adbhuta Ramayana, where Sita kills Ravana.

* One Kannada version portrays Ravana as Sita’s mother. Ravana becomes pregnant with Sita and gives birth to her when he sneezes. ‘Sita’ in Kannada means ‘he sneezed’.

* The Thai version is Ramakien, where Hanuman is cited as the hero who kills Ravana. He is not a brahmachari and Ram is just a God-like figure in his life.

Most authors make a circus of book launches. Yours released without a fuss. Why?
I don’t think flashy launches help sales. They satisfy your ego and help you sell 100-200 books on that particular day. A book is sold only through word-of-mouth marketing. It worked for Asura. Also, I live in a small town called Belgaum, in Karnataka. I am rather shy of interviews. I only do them because my publishers find it necessary.

Breaking Bad and the upcoming films Maleficent, Venom and Sinister Six all focus on the villain. It’s a good time to be the bad guy...
It’s all about perspective. My good guy can be your bad guy and vice versa. But no writer writes keeping the trend in mind; it’s purely a creative pursuit. When I started writing Asura six years ago, there were no takers for it. But bat an eyelid and trends change; only good content prevails.

Ravana in Asura and Kauravas in Ajaya; whose story is next?

After the second part of Ajaya, which comes out next year, I am planning to write historical fiction. It will cover the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. Chanakya will become the anti-hero and the original anti-hero Rakshasa will become the hero.

From HT Brunch, January 19

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First Published: Jan 16, 2014 12:16 IST