Abhaya is a fantasy novel set in ancient India, in the era of Mahabharatha. While retaining a minimal number of characters from the epic, it introduces the reader to a whole new set of (fictional) people. The story traces the events in the life of Abhaya, a young princess of the fictional city of Anagha, located in the borders of the larger, more powerful kingdom of Avanti, towards the western frontiers of ancient India.The initial chapters dwell on the growing animosity between the two kingdoms and Abhaya’s role in the same. However,towards the middle of the novel, we see a shift in the plot, where Abhaya finds herself in the midst of a far greater crisis – one that questions the very essence of all that she and her beloved Aryan civilization has stood for thus far. Abhaya, along with Krishna Vaasudeva and her brother Vikram strive to fight for what is right and protect their Faith from disintegration.
One of the biggest strengths of the novel is the simple, but engaging narrative, with powerful dialogues making up a major part of the book. It is almost completely devoid of descriptive passages and heavy metaphors, which tend to be rather distracting to the reader. The novel also introduces us to a good number of interesting characters – all strong-willed women (with the exception of Krishna Vaasudeva), who leave an indelible mark on the reader’s mind. These women are unique in their own ways – there is Kadambari, who leaves her abusive husband, in search of a better life, Shyeni, a young woman who decides to leave her motherland to be with her lover, Mrinalini, a wise old maid in a royal household and my personal favorite – Atulyaprabha, who takes it upon herself to personally clean the ghats of the river Ganga! There is also Datri, a woman who is wronged by her kinsmen, and is thus easily convinced by the antagonist, Bhauma, to embrace the Shaktha religion. She is shown to dedicate her efforts towards what she believes would lead to the improvement of the condition of the Aryan women, while constantly undergoing an internal struggle fueled by doubts about the lies she is fed by Bhauma. Krishna’s sister and Arjuna’s wife Subhadra has also been portrayed as independent and self-driven – unlike in many other derivatives of the epic.
The protagonist, Abhaya is shown to be a free spirited princess, with a natural flair for strategy and diplomacy – in short, she has all the makings of a capable ruler. She grows up to be a fearless young woman with ideas far ahead of her time. She also has the deepest faith in the innate goodness of her civilization, for the protection of which, she is prepared to do anything. Her intelligence, reasoning capabilities and the sense of duty she feels towards her cannot fail to impress.
Krishna Vaasudeva has been portrayed in a beautiful manner. The author has painted him more as a human being than as a God – he comes across as a charismatic ruler, with designs for the welfare of the land and its people. However, there are certain miraculous incidences within the story – which leave the reader wondering, whether there is more to him, than what meets the eye! The author has done a brilliant job – in endearing him to the reader, while still maintaining the mystery about his true identity.
The novel offers much more than the story alone. There are some lovely thoughts expressed, especially in the conversations between Abhaya and Krishna. Many of these and the truth in them are relevant to this day. They show us how blind adherence to traditions and rigidity in our ways, while losing track of the actual aims can be dangerous – and how the frustration it creates in the hearts of the people can be easily exploited and thus could cost a civilization, in which religion plays a major role, dearly. And also, how a religion as ancient and diverse as Sanathana Dharma, that has multiple facets to it, cannot be branded as uncouth or uncivilized due to the questionable activities of a few fringe elements alone. It is a dharma, a way of life, that encourages us to constantly question and evolve, in our relentless quest for our ultimate aim – that of attaining oneness with the supreme being.
I would like to quote here, part of some of my favorite dialogues from the book.
“The constraints of tradition cannot limit those taking up the cause that seeks the welfare of the universe.” – Abhaya.
“The purpose of our life often beckons to us in the guise of a challenge or a hopeless situation.” – Atulyaprabha.
“It is easy to rebel and call for a revolution. What is difficult is to inspire evolution. That happens with transforming thought, not condemning people. That happens with challenging their thought and not by provoking their egos” – Krishna Vaasudeva.
“Are’nt you painting a conveniently homogenous picture of a civilization that has a hundred sides and flavors to it?” – Abhaya.
The battles that Abhaya fights, in spite of being able and talented, resonate with those fought by women in the country to this day, against the unfair ways of what has predominantly been a patriarchal society. She has to face ridicule and strive double as hard, in order to be taken seriously, in her own kingdom, by her own people. Despite being a princess, she has to fight hard, to prevent herself from being coerced into a marriage that she has no interest in. Some events portrayed in the book – honor killing, forced conversions or the slow brainwashing of people to adopt a new faith, unfortunately continue to haunt our nation to this day.
On the flip side, I would have liked more attention to detail in the case of some sequences. For eg., there is the case in which Vikram, Abhaya’s brother goes in search of his mother, to a place that is entirely new to him. However, we are not taken through all his struggles in this almost impossible task – it seemed to me that he finds her rather too easily. Also, there are the battle scenes – which could have been dealt with in more detail – taking into account the brave front put up by the protagonists. Also, there are somethings which are left unexplained. For eg., there is the case where Abhaya decides to go after Bhauma’s men, who she suspects are responsible for the disappearances of many young girls. Given that she has been shown to be well trained in combat, it is rather surprising that she embarks on what she knows to be a dangerous journey with just a small blade for a weapon.
Also, while the dialogues give us a deep insight into the minds of the characters involved, we are told little about their physical appearances, the garments they wore, the kind of houses or palaces they stayed in or even their day to day activities. While these may not contribute much to the storyline as such, as a reader I would have liked a small introduction to the world these interesting characters inhabited. Also, I would have liked a tiny insight into some mannerisms characteristic of the important characters, espescialy Krishna – the only ones we are exposed to are about his “lips curving into a smile” or about him “raising his hands” (which, by the way, are oft repeated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers tire of it!). I would have liked him to perhaps smooth the feather on his head gear! Also, I would have liked Abhaya or Subhadra to twirl their hair with their fingers or maybe even chew their finger nails, giving them that human touch, which would further endear them to the reader!
Such minor glitches aside, it is a beautifully crafted novel – the reading of which has been a pleasurable experience. It is a novel, which I believe should be read by every self-respecting Indian – it would definitely help reinstate the pride we ought to feel towards our rich and diverse heritage.
Abhaya is available on the Kindle store and can be purchased here.