Kaurava is the middle book of the Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy by Krishna Udayasankar. Her debut, Govinda exploded onto the Indian fiction scene sometime last year ending up as a national bestseller – I was extremely impressed by the depth and quality of this debut – having called it a gem from our rich mytho-history polished and lit up in perhaps different colors from what we are used to, but dazzling and radiant as always.
Krishna had opened the floodgates with Govinda. And now Mahabharata, the sweeping ambitious epic of all times, has become a central focus of a lot many authors. There are a lot many books out there that deal with different subjects of Mahabharata and this gargantuan epic still has room for more. But the Aryavarta Chronicles truly dazzles. It is not so much as a retelling but a soaring triumph of unfettered imagination built on pain-staking research and penned in a confident poetic prose that delights and transports you to far-away conflicted lands of erstwhile Bharat-varsha.
Enough said, before this becomes a foaming-at-the-mouth-fan-boy-blubbering, I will try and give you an objective review of the second book in the series.
Book two, Kaurava (Oh by the way, look at that gorgeous cover!) picks up where Govinda ended. With the revelation that Govinda Shauri himself is a FireWright. (For those of you blinking at what is a FireWright, do yourself a big favour and read Book One.) Book two events take a while to get rolling and Krishna successfully mires the original plot of Firewrights vs FirstBorns at play in book one into a confusing muddle of interconnected plots with the introduction of bit players, chief among them being the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights. Govinda’s dreams of a united Aryavarta under Emperor Dharma are set to be realized. But greed, jealousy and avarice are not to be denied. Devala Asita, one of the main antagonists of book one is still at large and the Kings around the Empire are now in a weapons race using the FireWrights technology for dominion. Order starts crumbling and Dharma and his four brothers along with Empress Panchali are cast out into the wild – chiefly due to the blind reasonless obstinacy of Dharma to stick to his dated morals about the Divine Order and his weakness for gambling. The thirteenth year of the exile, things come to head over the Kingdom of Matsya – from where the entire series had first started. Age old secrets tumble, Kings vie for the possession of a newer refined form of technology and a curse that holds sway over generations in that desert kingdom is about to lifted. But Suyyodhan and his vassals are not content to sit tight on the side-lines and watch. The lines are drawn and sides are being chosen over what might come now. For now, the Kauravas go to war. And one man, Govinda Shauri, the orchestrator of all these moving plots goes head to head with his erstwhile friend, the Secret Keeper of the FireWrights to achieve the impossible.
Suyyodhan and Dharma are the central characters in this book, as the title suggests. It’s a revelatory in-depth examination of these two Kaurava brothers to understand what makes them tick. One is torn by his painful need to uphold the ideals of a Divine Order on earth where the FirstBorns are meant to rule and so consumed by this misplaced sense of morality and righteousness in a world that has moved on, he is even ready to turn a blind to the most horrendous of crimes. The other, an able administrator and usually a cold and rational man, is conflicted and disturbed by the spiraling meltdown of morality of his own brothers and friends, is forced to take up the mantle of righteousness and fight a war that is not his own. It’s a fantastic character-study of two earnest and multi-layered characters and Krishna’s research and prose shines it up to a sparkle in this book.
What happened to Govinda and Panchali you ask? The star-crossed lovers find meaning through torture, distance and painful sacrifice. They withstand the trials of time, settling into the roles of Earth & Essence(“Together we are life and death, creation and destruction, we are the cosmos. We are complete.”) It is a lovely depiction of this ethereal relation that defies a name. Your favorite characters from book one are all back. Shikandin, Aswattamma, Sanjaya, Partha, Dhristyadhyumn with the introduction of more interesting ones – Abhimanyu, Uttara, General Keechak, the vile pair of Jayadrath and Dushassana etc. It’s a crackerjack assembly of such and more. While Govinda still gets the lion share of face time, for me, this book was mainly about the two elder Kauravas.
Krishna writes with an earthy intensity – frenetic and furious with a passion that you as a reader cannot help but revel in. Be it the harrowing scene of Panchali being dragged across the Halls of Indraprastha (that is plain brutal and would make you cringe). The monologue of Panchali is possibly a clever foil that Krishna uses to question the meltdown of societal values in today’s real world, exhorting us to believe and respect the moral codes that make us human. Or be it the pirates-of-the-Caribbean-moments during that pitched sea-battle between Dwaraka and the incoming hordes of enemy ships lead by Saubha King. Excellent naval battle action set piece that is drawn out in some fine detail. Or the adrenaline rush of whirling kicks and intense sword fights between the mercenary assassins and (..hold your breath..)Govinda!
Krishna’s writing is like wine. Matured and tasting sweeter with time. While the story does take its time to get going (The narrative momentum sucks you in like a giant suction-pump after the dice are cast and Dharma loses the gamble, around page 90’s and then its ‘Buckle your Seatbelt, Dorothy ‘coz Kansas is going bye-bye’ all the way until the breath-taking climax.) I am more than happy with the pacing. No real quibbles this time. Sure, Krishna stretches your imagination and credibility with some plot points (Uttara, you feisty little thing! I loved this character and the neat little twist that Krishna has achieved with her. I wish she had stretched out that teasing love story between Uttara and Abhimanyu)
I frankly was holding off reading this book as I didn’t want to get disappointed with a sophomore-slump, placeholder-second-in a-trilogy-book phenomenon that just extends the plot and sets up the story further for a good ending. Don’t get me wrong. Kaurava does all this well – setting up things for an explosive climax in the third book, aptly named “Kurukshetra” for the eighteen-day war between the cousin brothers. But what this book does and does really well is to create a rip-roaring ride of action and intrigue that draws us so much into this crumbling world of the Aryavarta. As I said before, it is not so much as a re-telling but a true rendition of top notch fantasy writing – expanding this wonderful world of Aryavarta, creating such unforgettable morally complex characters and adding dollops of swashbuckling action to sweeten the whole deal.
Let the conches blow. Let there be war.