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Divine Interventions

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For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, one of the best parts of childhood was the Amar Chitra Katha series of comics, those beautifully sketched stories that served, more often than not, as an introduction to the world of mythology and the polytheistic pantheon of Hinduism. It was in these pages that we learnt of our first superheroes, the various Hindu gods and goddesses; of powers and weapons and boons; of the constant battle between good and evil, the gods and the asuras; and of amrit, the nectar of the gods, our very own Philosopher's Stone. Nilanjan Choudhury takes us back to that world – albeit a world distinctly more adult than the ones inhabiting the pages of comics — in Bali and the Ocean of Milk. And if, like me, you had grown a little tired of the overweening vanity and arrogance of the gods, you should enjoy Choudhury's take all the more.

Our universe, in Choudhury's imagination, is divided into three worlds: Earth, the domain of humans; Tripura, the domain of the asuras, ruled over by King Bali; and Amravati, the domain of the gods, ruled over by an ineffectual Indrah. An uneasy truce has prevailed over the domains for the last 200 years, ever since the gods, led by Indrah, defeated the mighty demon Vritra. Bali, Vritra's son, had proved himself a capable ruler, had signed a treaty with Amravati, and was well on the way to putting Tripura firmly on the path to modernisation, freeing asuras from the shackles of a tradition dictated by the priests of the Mahakali temple, whose brotherhood follows a code of conduct culled from, it would appear, the worst excesses of both the Taliban and the Nazis. Indrah, in his heavenly abode, is far from enjoying the peace his conquest has brought him — he has been afflicted by a mysterious ailment that leaves him drained of all energy and power, an ailment that not even the apsara Urvashi's not inconsiderable physical charms can cure.

When Lord Viru, Preserver of the Universe, hears of this, he lets Indrah and the Council of Gods into a secret — the dying Vritra had cursed the gods with mortality with his last breath, a curse that now appears to be coming true. There is only one way out — they have to churn the Ocean of Milk and get the amrit hidden there; only the nectar can restore the gods to their immortal glory. But there's one catch – they have to enlist the help of the asuras to do so. And as they grapple with this problem, an assassin breaches King Bali's defences, almost killing him in the process. Will he survive? Will the demons and gods work together? Who has hatched this plot to assassinate the demon king and destabilise Tripura in the first place?

If one had to stick a label on Bali and the Ocean of Milk, it would probably be ‘political thriller' — the light-hearted tone of the first few pages, when the reader is called upon to indulge in a great deal of schadenfraude at Indrah's plight, quickly gives way to a more sombre tone, with assassinations, betrayals, political strategies and coups taking over the pages that follow. While that does make for a racy read, it also sets a rather breathless pace; no sooner does one get used to a change, a death, a revelation, than the cycle of revolution-peace-betrayal-plots-coup starts all over again, with a different cast of characters this time.

The characters, too, seem to swing wildly between extremes. The gods are satisfyingly crooked (with the exception of Prithvi, the only one with a conscience, who is rather unfortunately — and oddly, especially when one considers how the other strong feminist in the book, Queen Avani, is portrayed — cast in the stereotyped mould of radical feminist-environmentalist) and prone to trickery and bluster. Indrah is clearly the worst of the lot, not even balking from betraying his fellow gods should the need arise; but his change of heart towards the end is unconvincing. While Lord Viru remains his steady self throughout, one wishes that Jai (or Shiva, the Creator and Destroyer), who has some of the funniest lines in the book, and whose life seems to be all about moving from one marijuana-induced high to the next, had a bigger role to play. More interesting than the vainglorious gods, though, are the demons — Bali, his queen Avani, Surasena, Commander of Bali's royal army and his faithful friend, and Suketu, head priest of the Temple of Mahakali, are some of the most memorable characters Choudhury has created.

The best of the lot, of course, is Queen Avani, whose intelligence, erudition, loyalty and passion for King Bali make her one of the most attractive and best-sketched characters in the book. The same, though, cannot be said of the eponymous Bali, who teeters wildly between strong, steadfast, noble ruler and weak, confused, heartbroken escapist, and therefore never quite rings true. Which one is he — the powerful king leading Tripura on the path to modernity, or the vacillating, tired man only too happy to abdicate his responsibilities when faced with personal tragedy? And his switch between one to the other and then back again is too sudden to be credible, leaving the reader confused and disappointed in a character that had held such promise.

One also wishes Choudhury had drawn the end out a bit more. After having drawn the reader in with a frenetic, convoluted plot and entertaining characters, and spending endless pages detailing the Brotherhood's strategy for taking over Tripura, a strategy that seemed to be working, the denouement strikes one as a bit abrupt. Moments of calm are just as important in a book as frenzied action, and one wishes that the calm that finally descends towards the end had stretched on for more than a mere two pages.

All said and done, though, this is a fun book to read; and the politics played out between Amravati and Tripura, and then inside Tripura itself, will definitely resonate with the developments taking place in our world, which is clearly what Choudhury intended. The traditional boundaries of good and evil are blurred sufficiently, and characters painted every possible shade of grey, enough to provoke thought and invite debate. If you enjoy mythology and adventure, you'll like this one.

I must end with a question I've been wanting to ask the author (which, obviously, the book did not answer): Whatever happened to the endearingly ditzy Urvashi?