If you only know Ravana (or Rāvan, as he is called in this book) from the various mythological retellings on TV, or even from the plethora of New Age mythological fiction so popular in India right now, you don’t know Rāvan. That thought, is clearly what debutant author Rahul Rajan has attempted to convey in his debut book Rudrāvan. And it is quite an attempt indeed, as Rajan balances the act of introducing a character far more complex and nuanced than any previous version. Yet staying faithful to the genre of sword-and-sorcery. All this while building a clearly sci-fi inspired context as well. But more on that later…
The plot is a non-stop struggle with no let-up. There are almost no breaks in the action/mystery, as the author only seeks to highlight events and characters that play a role in moving the story along at a furious pace. Though Rajan does introduce a fair bit of characters, and all of them have their bits of emotional highs and lows, it is still Rāvan’s story all the way. And the human element suffers just a tad bit. But that criticism apart, the name of the book is Rudrāvan. And the story certainly does justice to that.
To make it clear, this is a tale set in the world of our mythology, and NOT a historical retelling. The characters comprise of Gods, Demons, Demi-Gods and the like. In that context, to make a character compelling, and not merely a cardboard cut-out imitation of Sauron from LOTR, is not an easy task. It is difficult to build complexities in your characters when you have them lifting a mountain. (Yes, Rāvan does indeed pick up Kailas in these pages). But here is where the author shines, and beautifully at that.
There is a reason why that works. The world of Rudrāvan has a set of rules, which the author never flouts. This is the most critical point in writing good fiction on God-level characters. Too often, Fantasy writers are guilty of deux ex machina, introducing elements to close loopholes by having their characters do anything. That’s when the story suffers. But in this book, the limits of each character are established subtly through the various storylines, and once that is achieved in the reader’s mind, the cosmic spectacle begins playing second fiddle to the characters’ motivations.
The Never Seen Before Shade of Rāvan
Coming back to Rāvan, we are taken on a monumental journey of a half-Daitya boy from his noble but humble beginnings to the master of the world. And Rāvan makes this journey completely his own. His incredible wisdom, matchless power and roaring passion, all shine through in his story. He thinks through every step, plans every move, and just or cruel, every act makes a twisted sort of sense. Even his sins…terrible though they are.
What the author does well to define Rāvan, is take away the baggage of hubris or bravado associated with the character. When that is stripped away, the readers get a peek inside Rāvan’s mind, and begin to marvel at how deeply he needs to plan to devise a way to defeat his omnipotent enemy, Vishnu. It’s move after counter move to decide Rāvan’s demise or escape, and we find ourselves intrigued even if we do know the end.
Even apart from Rāvan, the book has quite a lot to offer. Rajan has also attempted to arrange the fragmented bits of mythological lore into a cohesive story. Every tale links to another, presenting what we knew of the story into something very new. The birth of Hanuman, the breaking of Shiva’s bow, the avatar of ParashuRām, the brief angle of Vishwamitra, and many others all combine to create a wholly palatable stew.
The many enemies of Rāvan, ranging from Vishnu to his avatar Ram, and others like Hanuman and even Jatāyu are treated with care. No matter how much this story belongs to Rāvan, the magic of characters like Ram and Hanuman shines through. Rajan builds Rāvan’s tale without watering down either his foes or his supporting cast. This could easily have become a tale of a powerful but wronged king, fighting against inferior but craftier foes. Thankfully, that does not happen here.
Perfect blend of Mythology and Sci-fi
Moving on, the book manages to walk the line between adhering to the events of the original mythology and also reflecting Rajan’s own voice. Here is where the previously mentioned sci-fi theme comes in. The passage of Yugas is explained through two equal and opposite forces, held apart at the birth of the universe, but fated to merge to lead existence to its eventual end. And here again does sci-fi merge with our myths. If the universe has to die, what role do Gods have to play in it? With a little bit of philosophy thrown in for good measure, Rajan gives us his version of the answer.
Rajan’s language is often flowery, adding a sense of archaism to the stories. It’s a bold move in today’s times, as it might make the book inaccessible to the casual reader. But the purists should enjoy it.
All in all, it is an impactful debut by Rahul Rajan, presenting the most vilified figure in Indian mythology in all his glory and all his weaknesses. A must read for sure, just to understand a different essence of Rudrāvan!