Title: Vanara: The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara
Author: Anand Neelakantan
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Vanara is an awe inspiring book, epic in its sweep and reach, evoking emotions that you normally keep under wraps. It is the story of Baali and Sugreeva, the brothers in the epic Ramayana and the woman in their lives, Tara.
Vanara, the title of the book refers to a tribe of Van Naras, the forest dwellers. Baali and Sugreeva are Van Naras, born in poverty and growing up as slaves. Fighting fate and going through tribulations, Baali, along with Sugreeva goes on to build a grand city, Kishkindha for his people so that they can escape slavery and discrimination.
But the peace and the fate of the city takes a turn for the worse because of a fraternal war between the once inseparable brothers. It is precipitated by the beautiful Tara who is desired by both the brothers.
The story of Baali and Sugreeva, though steeped in mythology is stripped of fantasy elements and develops rationally. The story builds the world on the foundation of rationality and detail eg. why certain people were considered dasa (slaves), the intermingling of the races etc so that the reader needs no introduction to mythology. In fact, that is a huge plus point. I like to read books without delving much into the background of the main premise of the book. I like the book to unfold its own magic and Vanara did it so beautifully for me.
Vanara is a story that shows the viewpoint of the characters. There is no right or wrong, no hero or villain. The roles of the characters depends on their circumstances. There is a blurring of line between good and evil and this is what sets the book apart.
After reading the book, I am tempted to go in search of the various versions of stories around the main characters in mythology. From my meagre knowledge of these stories, heard and read sometime in my childhood, I recognised many different versions of the details. It is amazing to see how oral storytelling leads to the evolution of stories.
What works well
The descriptive passages in the book are so well written that the reader is immersed in the story. Every little detail counts, every rustle of leaves heard, the breeze felt, the flowers smelt; the writer evokes all the senses and more through the emotions of the characters.
The prose is delightfully lyrical. The scenes of the forest where the story is set are described so vividly. I could feel the moonlight, see the canopy of trees and shiver with anticipation.
“Through the cracks in the canopy, moonlight fell like butter oozing out of a sieve.”
The story is a sweeping analysis of the human psyche in that the emotions wash over you: anger, hatred, fear, oneness with nature. The characters are developed through the emotions they feel.
Some passages in the book are awe inspiring.
“From afar, a night bird sang a melodious note…The monkey song reverberated in the air, as free as the breeze and as fragrant as wild honey. It fell on them like rain, gentle, soothing and sweet. The forest responded with a vigour…Their songs merged and rose to the heaven…”
The pace of the story is excellent. For many books, there is a lull in the middle of the book. The characters are there, the setting set out, the conflict introduced. But for Vanara, the book gets engrossing by the middle and after that it just keeps getting better. At no point did I feel like putting down the book.
There is a strong and apt commentary on the social issues which are very relevant to us today. Untouchability, development of caste, nationalism that changes to jingoism, the justification of wrong actions under the garb of ideology, the futility of war, the degradation of values, the intolerance towards diversity, they are all dealt with and make the reader think.
The cover art is gorgeous, the few illustrations scattered around the book tease the reader.
What does not work so well
There are little inconsistencies strewn through the book which are jarring. Thankfully, these are minor, they do not have a bearing on the larger picture or the main story and I was able to move on without much trouble.
The story is set in a time period that goes back centuries so when the characters regress/progress to the modern day language, it’s a jolt and strikes a false note.
There is also plenty of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ the events, inner turmoil and emotions of the characters. This feels that the prose is unpolished and a little hurried so that the writer could get to the next part.
Vanara is the ultimate celebration of the centuries old storytelling tradition of India that have myriad versions of mythology and many embellishments. Read it for the story, the description and the emotions.
I got a copy of this book for an honest and unbiased review. This review is written as part of the Blogchatter Book Review Program.