Book review: Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish Tripathi

Last year about this time, I regaled you with the story of the marketing mayhem that surrounded the launch of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend. I thought I had seen everything, from the full-page newspaper ad to the Masaba G tie-in. Then, I saw this trailer in May for Scion of Ikshvaku, Amish Tripathi’s latest offering.

Now, watch Bollywood’s most commercially successful director, Karan Johar, react to the trailer.

He was impressed, and so was I. I’ve seen (probably inaccurate) cost estimates for the trailer as high as 20 crore. Which begs the questions: what’s the ROI? Can even Amish, one of India’s best-selling authors, sell enough books to cover the costs? What does it say about the state of publishing that authors must resort to such tactics to reach their audiences? What does it say about the complex intersection of traditional and modern media that a writer whose books retell ancient Indian myths debuted his book trailer on YouTube? We expect that of Bhagat, whose books have contemporary settings for a contemporary audience, but let’s sit back and appreciate the irony that Amish has captured an audience interested in ancient mythology with marketing collateral that uses the most modern technology. The trailer sets the tone while creating a powerful visual of Ram, Sita, and Raavan, the main characters.

I had enjoyed the Shiva trilogy books (with the exception of the last half of Oath of Vayuputras). This book trailer set high expectations and left me wondering:

  • Would the book manage to create such stunning visuals?
  • Would the action live up to the excitement?
  • Would Amish use this platform once again to air his political views about the environment and the evils of WMDs?
  • Would I ever learn how to pronounce Ikshvaku properly?

Scion of Ikshvaku is the first in the Ram Chandra series and tells the story of Ram, the hero of one of India’s most beloved epics: the Ramayana. The Indian book market is flooded with retellings of this story. Amish is certainly not the first to enter this fray. Amish places himself in a long lineage of story tellers (both written and oral) who’ve reinterpreted the text. Yet, rewriting the Ramayana has risks. Imagine if someone created a fictional account of the gospels in the New Testament. That’s what it’s like to venture into the Ramayana universe. Recently, Aindrila Roy retold the story of Ahalya, a character sometimes depicted in the Ramayana. One commenter on her short story said her version was factually inaccurate, implying that only one accurate version of the Ramayana exists. Yet, scholars often talk about Ramayanas. Plural. In a famous essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, AK Ramanujan asked “How many Ramayanas! Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been?” Amish’s book is now counted among those variants. Indian readers will rip his book apart if Amish’s version doesn’t jive with the version they’ve grown up with. Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—I don’t have that bias. I just want a good story, and the story is good. This story begins with Ram’s birth; includes episodes about Sita’s marriage contest, Ram’s decision to use the asuraastras (a biological weapon), and his subsequent exile; and ends with Sita’s abduction by Raavan.

Editor’s Note: Apologies to my international readers, but that spoiler about the ending is hardly a spoiler if you know the story. That moment is the one depicted on the cover and in the trailer. The readers know it’s coming, and Amish teases them with it until the end.

The good

Amish’s strength as a storyteller has always been his depiction of the historical context, environment, and battles. He creates a wonderful world for the reader that transports us to Ram’s era. In this story, the battle scenes begin almost immediately. Although I have always enjoyed these scenes, I felt quite disoriented by the early battle scene. The characters had hardly been set up when I was supposed to take sides about whom I wanted to win. I don’t think an Indian reader would have this disorientation, however, as that reader already knows the characters. When Amish takes us into battle with Ram, he provides a detailed view of the landscape, weapons, and the reasons for the conflict. The action is swift, aggressive, and dramatic. Here, the book lives up to its trailer.

The real challenge of rewriting an ancient epic is making the story relatable to a modern audience. Amish meets this challenge well. The dialogue is modern in tone and includes phrases like “what the hell?” Such anachronism, although occasionally irritating, helps a modern reader understand the characters’ motivations. The characters feel more alive than they might if the language had retained the dustier feel of ancient speech and syntax. Surprisingly, with my history background, I am more forgiving of anachronism in fiction than most readers. In nonfiction, I abhor it. For example, in The Hindus, Wendy Doniger’s use of an excerpt from a Philip Roth novel to explain the concept of renunciation in the Upanishads forced me to put the book down. But, I give fiction writers a bit more leeway to connect with their audiences. Amish connects beautifully. We quickly care about the characters. When Roshni, a minor character, is brutally gang-raped, we cry for her—just as we did for Nirbhaya in 2012.

Like the Shiva trilogy, the Ram Chandra series is not without its political themes. This time, rather than focusing on WMDs or environmental issues, Amish presents an allegory of the broader political landscape. His decision to depict Roshni’s rape as a brutal gang rape directly addresses the outrage over the Nirbhaya rape and the issues it raised. Ironically, this book was released just as the Indian government was banning the documentary India’s Daughter about the rape.

In Scion of Ikshvaku, Amish tackles the relationship between the law and justice and the nature of good governance. Amish’s gloss on good governance is fascinating. At various points, I thought that Ram was a thinly veiled signifier for Rahul Gandhi, the Scion of the Gandhi clan. Yet, elsewhere, it seemed that Ram might represent Narendra Modi. For example, when Ram insisted that he be punished for his justified release of the asuraastras, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to Modi’s alleged—never proven—involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Amish certainly makes an argument that not all laws are just, and that they must change as society changes. Yet, the law must always be respected, even if it’s sometimes wrong. Roshni’s rape allows Amish to explore whether a juvenile who commits a brutal gang rape should be punished like an adult. Roshni gets justice, but it’s mob justice, not justice under the law. Through Ram, we hear a lamentation that the law is too inflexible to consider such complex cases.

The bad

In keeping with Indian philosophical traditions that emphasize a dialectical relationship between ideas, Amish offers two types of societies: masculine and feminine. Both societies have advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses. When a feminine society becomes corrupt, then a masculine society should arise and replace it. As that masculine society fails, then the feminine side should have its ascendancy. Civilization moves in such cycles, and Indian society is ready for another such change. In the book, “India today” is in a feminine cycle and must look to its masculine tendencies to bring the society back into balance. This argument from Amish surprised me as he is generally seen as one of India’s male feminists. The women in his books are strong and complex, and he frequently speaks in support of women’s empowerment. Considering the highly patriarchal and chauvinistic nature of modern Indian culture, I would argue that India could use a little feminization.

My main criticism of the philosophical discussion is that although it’s fun to watch Amish unravel this philosophy, it feels heavy handed at times and frequently drags down the story. His previous books had these elements as well. In this book, Amish has improved the treatment by using more dialogue and less monologue. Such discussions between Ram and Sita help build their relationship while allowing Amish to wax philosophical. Yet, I find the dialectic too simplistic in its execution. Why must the feminine and masculine always be juxtaposed, at war with each other as opposites? As the series progresses, I would like to see a more complex treatment evolve. I want to see the halves come into balance rather than opposition.

Even though I listed the anachronism as a positive, I must also place it in the negative column. Amish’s need to modernize the story sometimes feels forced. Characters repeatedly refer to “today’s India”—a concept that did not exist during the period. The use of the term “storm troopers” sent me over the edge with exasperation. Not only does it refer to the Nazi military organization, but also reminds me of Star Wars. That association created quite the stunning visual: Nazis in white helmets and dhotis! Both connotations feel misplaced. Here again, it seemed that Amish was commenting on modern politics and not ancient culture.

Finally, I have to admit that I dislike the title. And, yes, thanks to the trailer, I have learned to pronounce Ikshvaku, but it’s not easy. I don’t pretend to be Amish’s target audience; I’m not. My inability to pronounce a Sanskrit word isn’t surprising, but it’s not Ikshvaku that bothers me. It’s “scion.” It’s a difficult English word to pronounce (even for me), and most readers don’t know what it means. In India where English is widely spoken, but is often a second or third language, the use of such a high-level vocabulary word speaks volumes about who Amish thinks his audience is—or rather isn’t.

Which raises the question: who should read this book? If you love Indian mythology, politics, and epic battles, this book is for you. My only caution is for international readers: the names might trip you up at first. Stick with it. It’s worth it.

The verdict

#review @authoramish’s #ScionOfIkshvaku is an epic retelling of #Ramayana mixed with insightful political allegory.

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