Many management consultant types have an obsession about showing how mythological epics and the characters therein have lessons for modern day management situations. Some of those make sense, most are too far fetched to meet any objective other than satisfying the author’s vanity.
In her début novel, Abhaya my friend Saiswaroopa Iyer does a reverse trick. She asks us the question – what if someone with a more modern sensibility was present in some of the mythological stories? and the result is nothing short of stunning.
All the female characters- the protagonist Abhaya, her friend Mitra, her mother Kadambari and the enigmatic anti protagonist Dhatri are all women steeped in the ancient culture but at the same time they have sensibilities that are somehow very 21st century and very urban. Even the male characters like the Lord Krishna , Abhaya’s half brother Vikrama and her father Dharmasena are all very unlike your typical sword and sandal literature male heroes. The testosterone is there, but so is the restraint and sensitivity towards gender rights. That Sai pulls it off without sounding preachy or out of context in most of the places is the true success of the book.
The second and (to me at least) interesting narrative Sai pursues through the book is how the perception of injustice is used by ambitious individuals to provoke ordinary people into rebellion and anarchy. Very often the rebellion begins (as it does with the Shaktas in the book led by the charismatic Dhatri) as a movement to abolish outdated customs related to sexual chastity and soon converts itself into a non monogamous, anything goes kind of lifestyle that brooks no space for a contrarian thoughts. Through Abhaya, Sai tells us the old line about “Punya ki raah kathin hain, hain paap bada asaan” ( sinning is easy, righteous takes effort) but at the same time leaves room for us to be empathetic about Dhatri’s motivations behind becoming the cult leader.
The last but by no count the least, is of course the author’s unique take on Lord Srikrishna and his story of marrying 16000 women. Sai weaves this story and other stories from Krishna’s life effortlessly in the primary narrative and shows us Lord Krishna as a true modern world hero. The defender of the weak and the champion of the underdog who unlike most modern day leaders of the downtrodden, has lost neither his sense of wonder nor his wit. The love story between Abhaya and Krishna develops at a leisurely pace and comes to a satisfactory conclusion in a way that the reader may not foresee easily. The tag line of Lasse Halstrom’s Oscar nominated “The Cider House rules” reads- a story about how far we must travel to find a place where we belong. And it is with an immense sense of pride and happiness that I can say Abhaya and all the good guys find such places at lengths in the book.
The book is a slow paced story so its not your finish in one sitting kind of book. Also Sai’s habit of covering action only peripherally may not be to the taste of those looking at “Conan the Barbarian” type of action. But for those who seek to find intelligent and sensible storytelling with three dimensional characters that asks questions of us, Abhaya has a lot to offer. Two Big Thumbs up Sai!!