Pyre of Queens (Return of Ravana) by David Hair
A New Zealander who has studied history visits an old fort in Rajasthan. And gets inspired to write a story. He uses his imagination to blend the two worlds that he observed and studied during his stay in India. Yes; First is the world of the 21st century in which he lived in India. And observed the demographically most prominent section of the population – its teenagers. The second is the world of yesteryears, with its forts and palaces, its kings and queens and their desires, the grandeur, the rise and fall of kingdoms. Then there are myths, legends, and folklore that exist around every old building in India. The plot Pyre of Queens has been skillfully crafted to run two parallel stories that converge in the end at a location in an old fort where the characters from the present meet themselves from past lives, separated by 1250 or so years.
An ancient king wanted to be rise with the power of Ravana. And for this, he had to ensure that all his seven queens including an Arabian one join him on the pyre wearing a special stone. There are subplots of love affairs, rivalries, deceit, and courage. The ritual is not completed as a poet, smitten by her beauty saves the Arabian queen. And another queen gives her special stone to her brother to pass it on to the same poet as a symbol of her love for him. The characters are born again and again over the centuries. And in the current time, they are four teenagers studying in Jodhpur, not too far from their earlier place Mandore. The characters from the past haunt them. And lead them to an underground channel in the old fort where the climax of the story takes place.
The Pyre of Queens plot is very interesting. You would admire author’s knowledge of the subject that he is dealing with. Though the nuances are missing sometimes. When you are writing about two different eras, the language also has to reflect those eras. And this is where he lost the nuances, especially while writing about 769 AD. But having said that, writing such an involved story about a culture that you have not grown up with is highly admirable. Though the book seems to be written primarily for young adults, everyone can read it. The plot is the biggest strength of this book and it keeps you engrossed. Although you somehow know the story after a while.
The language of the book Pyre of Queens left me wanting for more. It gets confusing at times. And at times it breaks the flow of the reader. Some of the things explained, though needed for a global audience, always leads me to a question: Should there be different versions for the different audience? Just like in oral tradition you would always customize the story for the listener?
This genre of mingling historical facts with fiction seems to be gaining popularity these days. Is this a transitional time when we are going back to folklore? Is this going back to the dream world? Or the world of imagination after dealing with the world of realism? If this is happening I am not complaining as reading reality is always dry and boring compared to reading the hidden messages within the free-flowing stories where everything is possible. And logic and reason have to sit on the sidelines. And the beauty of folk tales is that you can listen to them again and again without getting tired. Remember telling your grandmother to narrate the same story even when you know the story and the exact words that are going to flow.