I have been narrated the Ramayana hundreds of times, first, as a child and later I read and watched various interpretations of the great epic. So I know the whole story, the beginning, the middle and, the end.
The book, Vanara: The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara by Anand Neelakantan, is based on the same epic, and I was getting the spoilers for the same ever since I was five. But surprisingly, for the most part, I felt like it was a different story! This goes on to show that storytelling is not about ‘what’ happens in the story but, ‘how’ it happens.
Baali and Sugreeva are the orphaned twin brothers who are Vanaras, the tribe which has for long been exploited and discriminated against by the upper caste tribes – the Asuras in the South and the Devas in the North. They attack them, enslave them, and what not. Baali is determined to change his fate and give a life of dignity to himself and his tribe but for this, they will have to convince their tribesmen first as they believe being dasas (or servants) is all gods will. His adopted father, Riksarajas, a eunuch, helps Baali in his struggle with Sugreeva’s support.
The conflict occurs when Sugreeva falls in love with Tara, Vaidya Sushena’s daughter, but she is uncertain of her feelings about him and sees her future with Baali. This leads to some critical decisions in the lives of this trio which changes their fate as well as that of their tribe.
Neelakantan chooses to tell the story using the multilinear narrative, which involves narrating the story for the perspective of various protagonists instead of focusing on just one. This allows the readers to understand a character better and gives them more depth. That’s why Sugreeva comes out as an instantly likeable character who is fragile and vulnerable whereas Baali is strong and commanding.
This, for the most part, is a plus but there is a point when there is a change in the narrative style from that which juggles between the two brothers to that of Tara alone, which is where the story falters a little. It becomes slow paced as opposed to the high energy action and drama in the chapters preceding that. But the author probably feels the same and gets the story back on track.
There is never a point in the book when Neelakantan tries to make a fantasy world where Ravana comes on a Pushpak Vimana or Hanuman flies in the air. Everyone here is as close to being human as they possibly can. It is written in the same way a historical fiction might have been written.
Emphasis is given on ‘forever’ in the early chapters so, when the birds die, they are “forgotten forever” or when the songs ended they “dissolved forever” in the air. It seems as if Neelakantan is trying to just brush upon the fact that the story that he’s reinterpreting has the same way, lasted forever.
Vanara: The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara is a story about how everyone is trying to please some other person, where not a single thing that the characters do is for themselves, its all about proving something to someone. The book is also a testament to how big a role jealousy plays in our life. It is a story of becoming Vana Naras (Men of the Forest) from Vanaras (Monkeys)
There is a point in the book when Tara equates Baali with fire and Sugreeva with water, both are important but at the same time, both are destructive and then there is Tara herself, trying to strike a balance between the two. It is perhaps a situation we are in all of the time, somewhere between the two extremes, what we have to do is utilize, nurture and respect both.
I’m going with 4 out of 5.
To purchase Vanara click here.