If Amish’s purpose, while writing his Shiva Trilogy, was to present an Everyman, elevated to greatness by extraordinary circumstances, he has succeeded spectacularly. The Shiva we are introduced to in The Immortals of Meluha, the first book of the trilogy, is a Tibetan chieftain, whose home in the Himalayas is made uninhabitable by the constant assaults of the warring Pakritis. He’s looking for a way out of this miserable life, when fortunately, envoys arrive from a country called Meluha – well-known for it’s peaceful and highly developed ways – and invite Shiva and his tribe, the Gunas, to make their home with them. They’re promised good accommodation, fruitful occupations and a peaceful, conflict-free existence. To Shiva it makes perfect sense to do so and so the Gunas move into the rich and powerful Suryavanshi kingdom of Meluha.
Once they arrive, though, the new immigrants find that there might be more to the Meluhans’ generous invitation. When Shiva’s throat suddenly turns blue after he drinks a medicinal concoction, the reaction of the Meluhans is baffling, to say the least. He is immediately venerated as a Saviour, the ‘Neelkanth’ of legend who has arrived to save the Meluhans from disaster. Because, as it turns out, Meluha is not as perfect as it seems: the neighbouring kingdom of the Chandravanshis has evil designs on it and has teamed up with the evil, deformed Nagas to carry out terrorist attacks within the country. Shiva is initially reluctant to believe that he could be the Neelkanth and tries to convince his hosts of this. By the end of the book, however, he has fallen in love with the beautiful Sati and has come to have great faith in the ways of Meluha. He is convinced of his duties towards his adoptive country and even though he’s still squeamish about the heroic status bestowed on him, Shiva acquits himself well when hostilities break out between the Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis.
However, the situation is more complicated than Shiva, or we the readers anticipate, and it is when he’s revealing the complex relationship between the two kingdoms that Amish really shines. I had started reading this book believing that I knew how it would all proceed, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that Amish had worked hard to ensure that the story would go along unexpected lines. In fact, the greatest compliment that I can pay this book is by saying that I am very eager to start reading the second book in the trilogy, The Secret of the Nagas.
There are two things really that work in Amish’s favour. One is the complete mystery surrounding what we call the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished between 3300 BC and 1900 BC, and our fascination with it. Excavations have revealed the striking uniformities through the length and breadth of the geographical area covered by it, and massive public structures as well as grid planning of the cities and a comprehensive drainage system. There’s also evidence that inhabitants traded with the Mesopotamian civilization and that they had developed a sophisticated system for weights and measures. But we have no idea who these people really were and where they came from and how they achieved such marvellous heights of civilization. We know they had developed their own script, but we have no way of deciphering those weird symbols. They must have had some sort of religion and culture, but again, we’re at a loss to know what these were. And the biggest mystery of all is – what happened to this once-great civilization? All evidence suggests that it came to an abrupt end, but we don’t know what that is. Amish has cleverly used this blind spot in Indian history to speculate and has created the fictitious kingdom of Meluha. He’s done a splendid job of it too, using our existing knowledge about the period, such as the almost obsessive-compulsive attention to uniformity – down to the bricks used across the geographical area – and the platforms on which many of the cities seem to have been built. He’s embellished history with myth, taking chunks out of Vedic narratives and transposing them into a much earlier period. His contention is that it’s quite possible that the Vedic gods worshipped by ‘Aryan’ immigrants from Central Asia and Europe were actually historical figures from the Indus Valley Civilization. In fact, some historians have speculated that the mysterious figure, seated cross-legged, found on a seal from the era, is the prototype for Shiva. This ‘Pashupati’ seal, as it is called, is often furnished as prime evidence by those who believe that the Indus Valley Civilization didn’t die; it just transformed in nature.
The other thing that has worked well for Amish is our love for the pot-smoking, tandav-dancing, dreadlocked Lord Shiva. He’s often described as the ‘Rockstar’ of the Gods, for his unapologetic disdain for civilized conduct. His hair is a matted pile through which even the river Ganga wandered for seven years before she could find a way down to earth, and his body is smeared with ash. He is the leader of ghosts, demons, witches and other outcasts and his only garment is a tiger skin draped around his waist. But he can also be benevolent, should his disciples pray long and hard enough. He’s a powerful deity and is considered by many to be the Supreme God, or Mahadev.
Amish has taken this fearsome personality and turned him into a human being who is a little impulsive and not quite soignée, but who is approachable and has his heart in the right place. And there starts the trouble. The heroic, brave, intelligent, handsome and lovelorn protagonist of The Immortals of Meluha is a pale shadow of the Shiva we worship. For Lord Shiva, heroism means casually drinking a poison that threatens to destroy the world and not worry much when his throat turns blue. He’s also the same God who beheaded his father in a fit of rage and then wandered the earth as a beggar, driven insane with guilt, until he found salvation in Varanasi. For Meluha’s Shiva, guilt comes from not helping a woman in trouble. The latter is not any less heinous, but you can see which would be the sin that animates legend.
And then we come to the topic of love, of course. While Meluha’s Shiva is a lovelorn Romeo, Lord Shiva of myth and legend is the Heathcliff who lets nothing get between him and his woman. His volcanic passion and consuming love for his consort Parvati is scary, to say the least, but it’s equally fascinating. In fact, one of my favourite Shiva stories goes that the Gods are worried that Shiva’s honeymoon with Parvati is going on for too long – many months, in fact. It is this passionate, eccentric Shiva who has been turned into a ‘normal’ human being for the Shiva Trilogyand I’m not entirely happy about it. Do we really need to ‘normalize’ a personality whose very appeal lies in his eccentricities of mythic proportions and wildly swinging moods?Ultimately, Meluha’s Shiva is little more than an assembly-line hero and his coming of age is not particularly convincing. We never really see this Shiva struggle. Right at the start of the book, we’re told that he’s fighting the Pakritis, but after one brief battle, this part of his life is closed for good. Thereafter, his growth as a person is limited to accepting the fact that he could, after all, be the Neelkanth. Does he learn anything new about his strengths and more importantly, his weaknesses? Not really. Even his love story is a poor imitation of the epic love that Lord Shiva had for Parvati. Riddled with clichés about how his life would be empty without her, Shiva comes across more like a schoolboy with a massive crush, than as a grown man who feels an overwhelming passion for a grown woman. Frankly, I have seen better romance in Yash Raj Films.
Of course, like I said before, Amish is capable of throwing the occasional curve ball, and I’m hoping that in the Secret of the Nagas, he has fine-tuned his interpretation of Shiva, and brought in an unexpected touch. I would hate is if someone as gloriously mad as Lord Shiva were to be translated into a less convincing fantasy fiction hero than Bilbo Baggins.