Govinda is the debut novel by Krishna Udayasankar, the first in a trilogy called Aryavarta Chronicles. I finally finished this deceptively “slim” book last week and really was impressed with the depth and quality of a debut attempt. Indian fantasy scene truly is an unexplored terrain, layered with countless beautiful astounding stories and myths, a lot of which all of us have grown up listening to. Mahabharatha is my favorite and can actually make Tolkien’s LOTR look like a pale shadow – it stands out among all epics for reasons more than one – fascinating characters, tons of back stories that loop back and forth until the complexities drive you silly and above all, the epic nature of the narrative itself spanning across time and distance.
Krishna bases her novel against the backdrop of this grand epic and this by itself, should make her book a winner. But wait, a retelling of the tale that we’ve heard countless times? Now that’s going to be treading dangerous waters. But here’s where Krishna literally blows us away with her bold re-interpretation of this epic, exploring myriad themes of politics, gender equality, social causes weaved into an expert narrative that chugs along sweeping us into the dark murky and dangerous domains of the Aryavarta kings in this book one.
As described by the blurb, an original tale of valor, honor and vengeance, it traces the story arc of the eponymous Govinda Shouri, a simple cowherd who through a strange twist of fate and events, now leads the Yadus and is the commander of their capital city, Dwaraka. The major plot is that which pins Govinda against an ancient race of “mages” called FireWrights who are hell bent on using their ancient knowledge for destructive purposes. Into this arc is woven the parallel track of the lineage of Kurus and Pandavas who are part of the Aryavarta empire and their internal conflicts and struggle for ascendancy to power. These two plots run throughout the book with Govinda being the common thread.
Krishna’s narrative flows like clear waters from the hill springs. It’s fresh, lucid - told in a confident, almost poetically lilting prose that elevates story-telling to a brand new high. That and the depth of tremendous research that has gone behind this book, shines through her writing. It’s almost a relief to note that Krishna’s writing is top notch, instantly setting her apart from the clutter of newbie-authors in the Indian scene today – the dam that burst with Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi’s phenomenal success with mediocre writing. The take is so unique that it draws the reader in and invests them with the fates of various characters in the story.
The world building is very detailed and engaging, taking us back through time to splendors of the kings and emperors of erstwhile “bharat”-varsh. It comes alive with Krishna’s lively prose and attention to detail – staying true even to the way of dressing (Heard of ‘Antariya’ anyone?!) and the weaponry used in the book. The one aspect of the book that struck me is the absence of Magic and Krishna’s earnest endeavors to explain the arcane with the basis of science. Very commendable, but it took away a bit of the “fantastical” elements I was looking for.
The major characters that get face time are Govinda, Panchali, Partha( Arjuna for the un-initiated), Dharma( Yudhishtra) , Dwaipanaya Vyasa (Vyasa who is long believed to be the chronicler of the entire events) and also interspersed with minor characters like Aswattamma ( one of the most creepiest characters, also one I’ve been fascinated with as he is one of the seven immortals who still walk the earth – I thought the manner in which Krishna’s dealt with Aswattamma, keeping him in the shadows and a little bit of mystery surrounding him was apt) Sanjaya ( the one blessed with ability to see the war and narrate it to Blind King Dhritharashtra – here painted in a completely different picture as disciple of Vyasa and an expert on court politics) etc.
The way the story progressed it was clear Krishna favored Panchali as a character as it’s very well etched. Strong-willed, independent and feisty – maybe giving a little too much rein to the feminist inside of Krishna (the author) – but overall a wonderfully crafted one that grows with all the conflicts that surround her. Her character is wildly in love with that of Govinda (Yeah in your face you un-believer you! Tell me that didn’t smash your rooted old B R Chopra-led beliefs of Mahabharata!! ), the undercurrents of passion and love that waits to explode in the scenes between these two are very beautifully written. Playful banter turning to some heavy duty desire. Panchali believes herself to be the unfulfilled half which completes Govinda and is firmly in love with him throughout the book. Dharma is painted as more an inept administrator who loves taking credit for the valorous feats of his brothers – indeed as is the example with his wife, Panchali who is won by Partha at the swayamvar but who cedes her to his elder brother who is equated to the head of this five-limbed being. That is correct; you’ve got to keep your older stories of Mahabharata stored up in the attic and not let that color your judgment of this tale. Coz this is told in an albeit different but engaging manner with a lot of twists to some of your favorite characters. I wasn’t complaining – I never like Dharma anyways ( grin!)
Partha – a womanizer? Did I see a lot of brows crease up? He indeed was my favorite of all the Pandavas – Alas not in the case with Krishna (the author). Partha who still remains the most gifted archer of all times, however is prone to lapse of judgment when it comes to women or even battle situations. I never ended up liking him in the book. Dwaipanaya Vyasa, who is like the most revered scholar sage, is actually a major bit player in this multi-dimensional game of thrones. I liked this spin, it was very crafty indeed of Krishna to have brought in the chronicler himself into the court intrigue and she gives him a lot of face time, however maintaining his mysterious nature. We believe him to be the puppeteer of a lot of conspiracies that is set afoot the way he is portrayed. Also written into the narrative is Suyodhan. Yeah you read that right – “SU”-yodhan and NOT Duryodhan. Surprisingly underplayed and very well in control of his emotions, quite unlike the “Puneet Issar” version we’ve grown up with in childhood. I loved this twist. They say he was an able king and they got a temple in his name in the North somewhere. Very believable.
Govinda – the titular character is probably one of the most kick-ass protagonists I’ve read. Grey. All shades of grey. Till the end of the book, Krishna maintains the mystery around him. His motives are his alone and he sets along some dangerous paths to achieve his goals. A cold and calculating devil. Not quite what I expected but I relished it all the way. Superb twist to the tropes that we’ve grown up all along.
The book is 450 pages long and it takes up quite a bit of your attention while you stay glued. The plot twists, meanders, slows down and then ultimately explodes in the last few chapters. The writing is polished, the language lyrical. Quite a few times I got lost when Krishna expounds on the nature of politics, draws in themes of social evil and societal well-being – perhaps a bit pedantic at times. The other major grouch that I had while reading was with the POV’s – which at times kept switching in the middle of a scene – not letting me settle down into some character’s head. Also since Krishna is struggling to condense this gargantuan epic into a few hundred pages, it’s understandable that she skims a few years into few sentences. Our loss. Especially the scenes of Partha winning the Swayamvar or maybe the abduction of Rukmini.
But we are willing to overlook this lapse. For Krishna has ultimately given us a gem from our mythologies, polished and lit up maybe in a different color perhaps, but radiant and dazzling as always. Awesome debut, you’ve got me panting for the part two now. Especially after the way book one ended.