History is always written by the winner, never the vanquished. Songs are written about the goodness and valour of the victor and cruelty and cowardice of the vanquished. One never gets to hear the story from the losers point of view, especially in mythology. There is no evidence left to unearth and no witnesses alive to validate the story.
Ramayana is one such 'story' that has always fascinated me from a veracity viewpoint. It gives us such an idealist view of the human nature that one is left wondering if it was ever possible. Was Rama truly the ideal son, husband, prince and King? Was Ravana truly the evil incarnate? Or did he have his story as well? Did he have his viewpoint of why he did what we all know he did? I am sure there is a Ravanayana somewhere which I hope to get my hands on sometime. I have always thought that Ravana was a very mis-interpreted and mis-judged character. How could a king who had united the various Asura clans, built a 'City of Gold', promoted arts and artisans and brought peace to his kingdom fall prey to and be remembered by a single incident albeit a big one on historic scale! Maybe I've answered my own question.
'Asura' promised to be the story from not just Ravan's perspective but also from an unknown individual in the Asura race. The premise is fascinating as it presents a unique opportunity to an author to espouse on his thoughts about the general populace and their travails, dreams, heartaches and aspirations while the Kings fought their own battles.
Anand Neelakantan's Asura begins on the battlefield where Ravana is being devoured by animals and left to die like a common soldier. It begins in his thoughts as he reminisces on his life and his decisions. Anand's story unfolds on parallel paths - one being told by Ravana while the other from the point-of-view of Bhadra, a simple man trying to make ends meet but whose destiny is closely linked to Ravana. Anand uses Ravana's perspective to tell us how a clear focus and belief in his destiny transformed a poor boy who used to look at his cousin Kuber's palace with jealousy became the King of Lanka uniting the Asura clans. Anand's Ravana, however, is raked by uncertainty and insecurity in the latter part.
Across the story Anand presents some fascinating insights into the Asura and Devas battle for supremacy across the Indian landscape and brings out the basic differences in their lifestyles and culture. While he portrays Devas as being rigid and governed strictly by rules and regulations of castes and place in society, Anand's Asura clans are more freestyle living their lives as they wish with no overpowering rules except that of meritocracy. In the Asura world if you are good at your job, you can rise to be King as well while in the Deva world it is more about if you are eligible for it by birth and caste. Anand uses Bhadra's viewpoint to talk about how simple, hardworking men get caught up in the ego battles of kings and lose their lives. He poignantly brings out the ravages of war on the poorer class while the rich fight from the confines of their palaces and the middle class enjoy the king's patronage. At some point, Anand's 'Asura' becomes a treatise on the evils of the Brahmin caste system and the uselessness of war.
While Ravan starts off secure and focused, in the latter half he becomes insecure and unsure of his place. Ram (and Brahmins) on the other hand is portrayed as a scheming, conniving person whose main aim in life is that he should be percieved as an ideal person who does not go against the wishes and dictats of his Brahmin culture even if he wants to. And therein lies his biggest fault. Anand's Ravana also has a nice twist in the tale to explain why Ravana is unwilling to let go of Sita which explains so many things in Ramayana.
For me the book gives the same image of Ravana as you now right from the start. The cover itself portrays Ravana as an Asura with big teeth thereby pandering to the known image. The book starts with Ravana laughing at the prospect that Ram asks Lakshman to take lessons in administration from him. I didn't like that as I expected the book to show how Ravana was a great king who made some mistakes - not a one questioning himself. But I would recommend that you read it. Ramayana will never be the same for you.
I rate it 4/5.