20 September 2018
Having read one mythology-based fiction bestseller some time back, I had sworn off the entire genre. When I found myself reading Bali and the Ocean of Milk, I had at least one trusted recommendation to go on. I had also promised myself that I would read this book, cover-to-cover, as the trite cliche goes. The delightful surprise was that I could not stop turning the pages of this very, very good thriller.
The plot, in a nutshell, is that Indra (spelled Indrah in the book), the King of gods, is out of shape and out of form, and cannot perform, err... his duties as a king. It is the result of the dying Asura Vritra's curse, killed by Indra by deceit. Viru, or Lord Vishnu, promises to reverse the effects of the curse, and the sin of killing a brahmana, if the devas and asuras can come together to churn the ocean of milk to retrieve a jar of nectar. So far, so good. But will the asura king Bali, son of Vritra, want to have any truck with the killer of his father? Furthermore, can Indra be trusted to keep his word and share the nectar with the asuras? Yes, yes, we all know that he did not, but even then there is a twist in this tale also. Will the Mahakali priests in Bali's kingdom of Tripura, who have seen their power cut to the bone, rise in revolt against Bali, if only to reclaim power and reimpose their puritanical way of life? And who exactly are behind the assassination attempt on Bali?
While the book does not strictly following the Puranic mythological canon, nor does it claim to, it still reveals an admirable amount of knowledge on the part of the author. To modify intelligently, you also need to know what you are changing, and from what.
The language and the style of writing are confident and assured. Yes, there are words that made me wish I remembered my GRE and CAT word-lists, but they add to the texture of the narrative, not detract or distract.
Some of the tongue-in-cheek dialog between the gods is hilarious. Whether it is Viru, as Lord Vishnu is referred to, and there is a Jai and Sambha also, in case you were wondering where some members of the other cast of Sholay were lurking (sadly, no Basanti, no Thakur, no Ramlal, and no Gabbar), or referring to Indra's not so omnipotent problem, or Indra's gloriously desperate attempts to extricate himself from the clutches of Urvashi, the effect has the desired effect of puncturing any feeling of celestial awe the reader may have.
There are two sub-plots running in the book. They intersect at times, as when Indra and the bumbling celestial physicians visit Bali's court. More than two sub-plots and it can become a challenge for both the writer and reader to stay fully informed and engaged. Switching between the sub-plots also keeps monotony away.
The story takes a decidedly dark turn after the first half or so. The puns taper off, almost completely, and the narrative turns uncomfortably dark. There is talk of fundamentalism, and such that it can evoke memories of the Holocaust, Stasi-style civilian spying, ethnic cleansing, and of religious intolerance - take your pick of religions. That it does not fall into the messy morass of preachiness is achieved by not moralizing, and by weaving all this into the plot, making it an inextricable part of the plot at that, and by resisting the temptation to dive into a sermon in the middle of the book.
One quibble that I do have is with the dialogue. At times, in a few places, not many, the dialogue seems somewhat stilted and not proportional, so to say, with the emotions running in the scene.
In all, a very satisfying read.
Disclosure: Nilanjan, the author, provided me with a copy, ex-gratis, on the recommendation of Dr. Bibek Debroy, economist and author. I am grateful to both.