Shiva. Lord Shiva. The Destroyer. One of the Hindu Trinity. Mahadev. Nataraja. Husband of Parvati or Sati. The Supreme Yogi.
Most Indians, and certainly all Hindus, know Shiva in all these forms and then some more. For millions he is a revered God, an ishta devta, worshipped in his myriad forms. Probably, that’s why many of his devotees do not think of Shiva’s origins — perhaps, the fact that Shiva is a God and is, therefore, eternal inhibits them from thinking about his beginnings.
The author of The Immortals of Meluha (Westland, pp.412, Rs.195), Amish, has no such inhibitions. The first book in the Shiva Trilogy, it introduces Shiva as an ordinary human being with an extraordinary destiny in store for him. A destiny which makes him a saviour and a god, and whose arrival has been prophesied in an ancient legend.
It is the year 1900 BC in the area that the world today knows as the site of the Indus Valley Civilisation. But the people living there at that time call it Meluha, a near-perfect, disciplined society that lives by the rules laid down by Lord Rama himself. A caste-based society where every member’s place is determined not by birth, but by his/her abilities.
A society that is almost immortal due to the availability of somras, an anti-ageing potion, for all its members. This is the society of the Suryavanshis or descendents of the sun.
And yet, this is also a society whose very existence is under threat: the waters of the river Saraswati, which flows through Meluha, and is a core ingredient for manufacturing somras, is drying up; the Meluhans are increasingly facing “terrorist” attacks from their neighbouring country, Swadweep, which is inhabited by the Chandravanshis (or descendents of the moon). And then there is also the threat from the Nagas, an ostracised group of deformed (mutant?) beings with extraordinary skills, power and strength. The Chandravanshis and the Nagas appear to be allies who jointly conduct such terror strikes in Meluha.
It is in such a scenario that the Meluhan Emperor, Daksha, and his people find hope in an ancient legend which says that “when evil reaches epic proportions, when all seems lost, when it seems that your enemies have triumphed, a hero will appear”. That “hero” will not be a Suryavanshi or a Chandravanshi or a Naga; he will be someone from another land. That hero will be identified when his throat turns blue on partaking somras, thereby becoming the Neelkanth (or the blue-throated one). Due to this legend, Meluha actively encourages immigrants to settle in their land.
It is against the backdrop of this legend that Shiva and his tribe of Gunas arrive in Meluha as immigrants from Mount Kailash in Tibet. They are blissfully unaware of the legend and are keen to get away from their homeland due to constant inter-tribal skirmishes. As new immigrants and as per the Meluhan policy, the Gunas are placed under quarantine and administered somras. Little do they know that life for one of them is going to change forever—Shiva’s throat turns blue, and the Meluhans find Neelkanth, their saviour.
Shiva’s life changes as he is made aware of the legend and the expectations of the people of Meluha by Emperor Daksha. The book then charts the journey, growth and self-discovery of the Neelkanth as he travels through Meluha, discovers a not-so-perfect society lurking underneath, gets involved in skirmishes with both the Nagas and the Chandravanshis, foils two kidnapping attempts of Princess Sati (Daksha’s daughter), falls in love and marries Sati, befriends Brihaspati (the chief scientist responsible for the manufacture of somras) and only to lose him in a “terrorist attack”, and leads the Suryavanshis to a war against the Chandravanshis. This war leaves the Suryavanshis victorious, the Chandravanshis vanquished, thousands dead, and the Nagas still at large.
This is when Shiva discovers that the Nagas and the Chandravanshis are not allies, and that the Chandravanshis too believe in the legend of the Neelkanth and had expected him to be on their side. Both these discoveries devastate Shiva and leads him to question the very war that he led and executed.
As Shiva ponders over this folly after the war at the Ramjanmabhoomi Temple in Ayodhya, the capital of Swadweep, the temple priest reveals to him that Shiva’s destiny is to destroy evil and become the Mahadev or the great god. He exhorts him to believe in himself and tells Shiva that he will receive guidance from a group of priests called Vasudevs, at the appropriate time.
A less despondent Shiva leaves the temple with hope, and as he exits he notices Sati waiting for him and behind her a hooded and masked Naga readying for an attack. The book ends at this point.
The Immortals of Meluha is a potpourri of Hindu mythology, history, philosophy, fantasy and literary freedom. Amish juxtaposes all this to create his debut novel and the first of his Shiva trilogy.
The author (or publisher or typesetter) has used certain thoughtful design elements to convey the age and setting of the period of the story. Indus Valley Seals or the Harappa seals are used as section separators, as well as a decorative motif at the beginning of each chapter. Also interesting is the way certain names have been changed to convey a sense of the past and are yet recognisable today: for example, Karachi as Karachapa, Harappa as Hariyupa, etc. Jhoolelal, the community god of the Sindhis, is present as Jhooleshwar, the Governor of Karachapa !
The language is simple and everyday Indian English, presented in a racy format. There was one description that I particularly liked:
The ornate [temple] roof was topped by a giant triangular spire, like a giant namaste to the gods. (pp. 44)
Another description that I liked was Shiva’s explanation (pp.345) for the slogan “Har Har Mahadev”, an explanation that I thought was absolutely brilliant and inspired.
But there are also some lines in the book, which are rather stale and corny:
Although her black hair was tied in an understated bun, a few irreverent strands danced a spellbinding kathak in the wind. (p.47)
If anybody here has any objection to this yagna, please speak now. Or forever hold your peace. (p.223)😛
In my opinion, the simple, everyday Indian English that Amish uses in this book, is also one of the biggest drawbacks of the book. For example, everybody, and I mean everybody, in the book speaks in the same way—Emperor Daksha, Princess Sati, Parvateshwar (Commander of Meluha’s security forces), Kanakhala (the Meluhan Prime Minister), Shiva, Nandi (his Meluhan aide), etc. The vocabulary and expressions used for all these characters are the same in spite of all of them coming from different educational, social, and cultural backgrounds. In fact, Shiva is uneducated, as Parvateshwar remarks rather heatedly (p.70). So how is Shiva able to read the word “Ram” written on his angavastram (p. 34)? And sometime later, he is actually reading treatises and histories!!!. Did the somras give Shiva this ability? We’ll never know.
Poor editing is another drawback of the book. For example, spelling mistakes: “Why will you not council me?” (p.27), when it should actually be “Why will you not counsel me?” Another (minor) irritant is continuity: Shiva is initially described as having a beard, and after he becomes the Neelkanth, it appears that has become clean-shaven. But there are no lines giving this transition.
This is not the first time that I have come across the theory of Shiva being a mortal, human, who became a God by virtue of his deeds. A friend, who is something of an expert in tantric studies and Hindu mythology, had said this to me many years back. But this is the first time I am reading about that theory through The Immortals of Meluha.
Due to my interest in mythology, and the general positive buzz created in the media, I had great expectations from the book. I must admit that I was disappointed not so much with the story (which I think is great), as much as I was with the quality of writing. But, having said that, if you are looking for a racy, exciting read then this is the book for you. It is the kind of book that you will want to read from cover to cover in one sitting. But if, like me, you are interested in language, the play of words, the characterisation, and depth in a story, then this book is not for you.
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