Humanising The Shiva

The Immortals of Meluha, Amish Tripathi; Tara Press; Rs 295; pp 398

By Shana Susan Ninan

He breathes. He eats. He curses. He cries. He lusts. And he does just about everything else that any normal 20-something man does. Amish Tripathi’s captivating debut novel, a mythological fiction at that, The Immortals Of Meluha, set in 1900BC, is about Shiva and how he became a god. He’s a tribal immigrant in Meluha, the people of which have been waiting for centuries for the Neelkanth, their saviour.

The book, first in the Shiva Trilogy, charts out Shiva’s life as a Guna tribe leader from the time he leaves his war-mongering homeland near the Mansarovar Lake till he leads the Meluhans into a successful war. There’s the Suryavanshis on one side. They are the descendants of Lord Ram, living in Meluha, the almost perfect empire created by Ram himself. The people here are obsessed with hygiene and are masters in the field of town planning, medicine and warfare. And then there’s Chandravanshis, beyond the Yamuna, who are followers of the moon. They are the exact opposite: lovers of all things dandy, whether it’s the orange walls of their houses or the unscrupulous goings-on of its people.

The battle between the two peoples is compared to the one between the Asuras and Deva, and the ever raging one between good and evil. The Meluhans have many perils to deal with – Chandravanshis are supposedly conducting hit-and-run terror attacks on them with the aid of the cursed Nagas. One of the ingredients of the Somras (drink of the gods), the waters of the sacred Saraswati, is drying up.

The Somras is given to all immigrants on entry into Meluha. And on drinking his share, Shiva’s throat turns blue, among other developments. At first Shiva refuses to accept his destiny – he has his own demons to battle. This “simple Tibetan tribal”, as the story gathers momentum and Meluhans, the faith, turns out to be the Messiah of Meluha. Shiva is drawn to take up the challenge more so because of a childhood incident where he didn’t do anything to help a pleading lady than because of his belief that he was the Neelkanth.

His having a blue throat means that every word and act of his will be judged by the people. Sometimes, Shiva looks too human to me. Especially when he says things such as, “bloody hell” and “son of a b****”, or smokes up marijuana. But that in effect is what makes this book believable. The highly slangish language used by Shiva and his smart-alecky mannerisms give him a totally contemporary feel. Like he lives in this decade or so. Readers will be able to identify with their god, and the concept that he was just another person, who, because of his ability to take up any task and lead a million people, became a legend, a Mahadev.

Sati, daughter of King Daksha, the ruler of the Suryavanshis, is a powerful character in the story. She’s a vikarma, someone who’s a near outcast because of her past life’s sins. But she’s not the kind of outcast who sits around doing nothing but sob over her fate. She’s strong, bull-headed at times and a very compassionate person. Shiva, who fell in love with her the moment he set eyes on her, tries many ways to woo her. After a couple of sad and unsuccessful attempts, and with the advice from a pandit, he realises that giving someone what they desire most is what should be done. In Sati’s case it was respect. Something society never gave her. Shiva gives her the respect she deserves and we see a very willing Sati fall for him.

Nandi, whom we know as a bull and Lord Shiva’s vehicle, is a strong character in the plot. Although he’s just a captain in the Meluhan army, he comes up the rung, especially because of his truthfulness to Shiva and his affection that makes him Shiva’s aide. Shiva’s best friend and guide, Bhadra, too, is an important character. Brahaspati is the chief scientist of the empire and becomes Shiva’s trusted friend. Brahaspati, though unbelieving in the legend of the Neelkanth, feels that Shiva can deliver his people, and is so attached to Shiva that he swears that he’d go to Patallok, if necessary, for him. Throughout the story, Shiva’s fan following only increases. Including the once-distant Parvateshwar, the chief of the Meluhan army. It is interesting to note how Shiva never thrusts himself on to others to believe him to be their savour. Situations unravel where Shiva’s skill in warfare and administration is duly recognized and lauded.

There are some stunning portrayals in the book: the one I loved the most was the Sati-Tarak duel – eighty-five years of shame and angst that Sati suffered is translated into one quick slash of her knife, and her consequently forgiving her opponent; then there’s the possible Shiva-Sati union which Sati compares to that of the Sun-Earth relation, where the Earth, knowing that the Sun is meant for the whole solar system, keeps her place without wishing the Sun for herself; and, of course, in the last chapter where Shiva finds comfort in the Ramjanmabhoomi Temple and comes to certain realisations regarding his and his people’s destiny.

Some parts of the book reads like a movie script. But, I feel this particular feature is what makes it interesting. Especially the war scenes. If Tripathi had simply narrated the war and fight scenes in the book just like a history textbook does, it would’ve fallen flat. By giving it a movie script feel, he has taken it beyond the level of shoving plain historical facts to the reader and made it a thrilling experience to read. Remember 300? The fight scenes from this movie flashed into my mind while I read those pages. The book itself was launched with a You Tube trailer. One of first Indian authors to do so. And the book has all necessities for a brilliant movie.

Tripathi, a 35-year-old IIM-graduate working with IDBI, writes lucidly, and his usage of terse sentences makes the book an easy read. Historical information is merged into the plot, without them sticking out. His extensive research has definitely helped him put together this thriller of a book. If I had to pick out a line from the novel I like best it’d be Shiva’s very words that “every person is a Mahadev.” It rings true in the current scenario of life, too. As individuals, we face many problems, and instead of waiting for a saviour to come and clear us of our troubles, we ourselves should work towards it.

The Immortals Of Meluha is one of the few modern novels I came across that had something worthwhile to say about the caste system. For instance, the caste system was initially meant for making the workings of the society easy by dividing people into sections, depending on the jobs they did. But as time wore on, people used this to exploit others. And later, it became hereditary! I’m quite sure if Lord Ram were to witness the condition of the caste system today, he’d be quite aghast.

As a lover of history and a believer in the Eastern stream of science and philosophy, the reading of this book brought me closer to my thoughts and beliefs. The book is a turning point for the author himself, who isn’t much of a religious person. He says he is still skeptical of many things religious but has found solace in a supreme power. He himself, through the course of writing this book, has found the divinity in Shiva.

When usual books start with a pulling first sentence and end with a calm all’s-well-that-ends-well chapter, Tripathi starts his with a contemplative Shiva at the serene lake and ends the book with a loud cry from Shiva and a dangling sentence that makes the reader wait for the next book in the series.

Verdict: Well-researched and well-written. Very few writers have been successful at writing a story centred on a religious theme and still managed to make it interesting. Kudos, Tripathi.

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Rating: 8.5/10 (14 votes cast)
Humanising The Shiva, 8.5 out of 10 based on 14 ratings

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 25th, 2010 at 9:02 pm and is filed under Historical Fiction, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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