It’s always interesting to experience the sophomore effort of any artist, especially when the first has been spectacularly successful. Singers generally fail to follow up on successful debuts. The most egregious example I can think of being Alanis Morisette, whose debut album Jagged Little Pill (she actually had two teenypop albums before that, but they were not widely released) was not only an anthem to feminist rage but a commercial monster, selling 30 million records in the mid-90’s. Nothing she did afterwards quite measured up, though she continued to produce albums that were full of fine writing. The pages of musical history are strewn with far less talented one-hit wonders who could never match up to the brilliance of their beginnings as well.
Writers are different breed though, I like to think that they (we?) have more opportunities to grow, learn and improve, and that the loss of the passion of their youthful efforts might be balanced by the increase in skill and craftsmanship that comes as they age.
Indian literature can, of course, defy these trends – as Chetan Bhagat, whose successive books fulfil the very important function of making the previous one’s seem to be ‘not so bad’, would illustrate.
So it was with a sense of curiosity that I approached Amish Tripathi’s Scion of Ikshvaku, his heavily-promoted first salvo in the Ram Chandra Trilogy. This follows, of course, the money-spinning machine called the Shiva Trilogy, which blended Indian mythology, an intriguing plot and a complete lack of writing skill. Clearly Mr Tripathi thinks that he has found a niche, and will be settling into it quite comfortably for some time to come.
Scion beings promisingly, with a scene from Ram’s ill-fated hunting of the ‘golden deer’, where Lakshman joins him, leaving Sita unprotected in the ashram. We all know what happens next, with the abduction on board the Pushpak Viman and death of Jatayu. From here the narrative plunges into a detailed flashback to the time of King Dashrath and onwards, taking us through the childhood of Ram and his brothers, their exploits in the ashrams of the sages Vashishta and Vishwamitra, the swayamwar of Sita and the banishment. Finally the book draws to a close where it began, with a dying Jatayu telling Ram to save Sita.
The plot is nothing new - any of us who have grown up in India, regardless of our beliefs, should be familiar with it. Unlike the Shiva trilogy, which covered relatively less well-known aspects of Indian mythology, here Mr Tripathi covers familiar ground, and his take on the age-old story is definitely interesting. That said, I am not sure how much credit for this should go to the author - the great epics of India, taken independently of their religious underpinnings, are such marvellous literary achievements that it would be difficult to get this wrong. But the author is able to do battle and fighting pretty well, with an ability to describe large-form battle movements that I had appreciated in the earlier works as well. There is a definite improvement in the likability of the characters, and the dialogue and interaction is almost believable (Shiva had dialogues that belong more to un-proofed corporate press releases than mythological fiction).
Which brings us to the main grouse I had with the Shiva Trilogy – the pedestrian writing. I am genuinely glad to say that the quality of editing, at least, seems to be better in Scion than it was in it’s predecessor (not that it’s saying much). The stylistic howlers are relatively fewer and obvious mistakes in the text are also absent. Mr Tripathi’s writing is still quite ordinary, and has absolutely no stylistic flair. A decent tenth-standard student, given the outline, could have written this (in my time, I’d have said sixth-standard student, but I am given to understand standards have dropped since then).
Another interesting aspect is that Mr Tripathi seems to have taken the maxim of ‘keep sentences short’ a little too literally in some places, where he breaks sentences in such a way that four in a row begin with ‘He’. Still, given the improvements over his previous work, I think I could even wink at these shortcomings.
In the end, Mr Tripathi’s greatest enemy is the scale of his ambition. He is grappling with stories that are epic in scale and grandeur. Unlike some other authors who state, up front, that they are trying to simplify the legends, he tries to write them for an adult audience – but these are stories that deserve to be told in language that can rise to the challenge, with flourish and élan.
Yes, Scion of Ikshvaku is better than Meluha, Nagas and Vayuputras, but it’s still a muddle of ‘tell, not show’; Ram is more likable than Shiva, but he’s still not a well-realised character; Lakshman is a better sidekick than the cabal that surrounded Shiva, but he’s still one-dimensional. Sita appears relatively late in the book, but might just be the most promising character of all.
The other characters encountered, like Dashrath, Kausalya, Kaikeyi, Bharat, Ravan and Kumbhakarna are, thus far at least, quite believable, and some even display signs of breaking out of being caricatures.
Overall, it’s not a particularly good book. There are far better versions of the Ramayana out there, and I would strongly encourage the serious reader to explore the many interesting perspectives that have been taken on this age-old story.
That said, if Amish Tripathi is the medium modern India has chosen to explore it’s own legends, at least he’s getting better at it. He will never be a Tolkein or a Martin, but he’s better than the Amish he was last year, and that's something to hold on to.
TL:DR: Still not worth your money.