Vanara by Anand Neelakantan is the story of Baali, Sugreeva, and Tara – the three characters from the kingdom of Kishkindha in Ramayana. We know a lot of about Hanuman from here, a bit about Baali and Sugreeva but hardly anything about Tara except her name. So, I was keen to read this Upkatha or the subsidiary story from Ramayana. This is also the first Anand Neelakantan book I was reading, and he is already a very popular author.
As the title suggests, it is the story of three main characters – two brothers of Vanara tribe – Baali and Sugreeva. The third character is Tara, who I always thought to be Sugreeva’s wife who was taken by Baali by force. That was until I read this book and questioned it.
The book reads like a typical subaltern study, where the so-called downtrodden are glorified and the regular folks are reduced to being villains. The story talks about Vanara or Vana Nara tribe which is essentially monkey men or maybe a tribe that simply lives in the forests next to the Pampa river in Kishkindha.
Buy Vanara The Legend of Baali, Sugreeva & Tara by Anand Neelakantan at Amazon
Baali and Sugreeva are raised by a eunuch. They also spend time in the ashram of Gautam Muni where they found his much younger wife Ahilya to be in an adulterous relationship with Indra. They dream of building a city for the Vanaras to compete with the city of Asuras like Ravana or the Devas like that of Mahishmati on banks of Narmada. So they need the money and skilled builders, which they get by hook or crook. This is just the backdrop.
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The real story is Tara – the only bone of contention between them. She loved Baali, and both brothers love her. She marries one, while the other almost kills his brother to get the girl. The whole story then moves to the love triangle and the struggles of three characters. After a while, it almost felt like an Ekta Kapoor serial, where the whole world revolves around getting the one you want. Obsession is the keyword here. Nothing else in the world matters. Even the smaller characters like the Sugreev’s wife become a part of the game.
At places, the dilemma of Tara is well told. She is torn between the two Vanara brothers and is often found thinking about the other brother always. Her character his deified towards the end, as she retires into the jungle, where she actually belongs.
Hanuman appears as someone who is from the community but is almost treated as an outcast for, he has studied like Devas and behaves like them. Only Tara reaches out to him when she needs him. Ram comes across as someone totally unjust in killing Bali, which could have been a valid argument, but then his role was just shooting an arrow in this story. Fair enough.
Towards the end, there is an attempt to show Tara as a feminist, the way modern feminists would approve of. I see this as a trend among the writers writing around Indian epics. They pick up a well-known character and show them as feminist. As and when I have read the scriptures, most of which are written by men for men, I still see a balance between the genders.
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My personal opinion is shifting the balance from male-oriented stories to the other extreme of female-oriented stories just gives us the female version of the same stories. Hope some writers write to show the interdependence of two genders and how they complete each other rather than compete with each other.
The story is pretty much rooted in Kishkindha and does not really move from there. As and when it moves, it is more like narration by the wandering minstrels who bring the stories home. I quite liked the
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Among the contemporary writers writing on mythology, I liked Ananda’s writing. His narrative is gripping and it flows seamlessly, even though the story got too melodramatic at times. Having said that, I would not rule out the fact that an average reader would like the drama. Even though you may be familiar with the characters, the story is most likely unknown to you.
The big question I have for Anand Neelakantan is if his story has any scriptural or literary references? Or, is it all a figment of his imagination? I have never heard of this version of the story but then our Indian scriptures are such a huge spectrum, it is impossible to know them all.
The cover design and the few illustrations in the book are beautiful.
Take your call.