"Prince of Ayodhya"
(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte OCT 21, 2003)Fans of the kinds of fiction filed under "fantasy or sci-fi" tend to be an insular lot, isolated from and perhaps shunned by the other genres. Attempts at "cross-over" are therefore remarkable all by themselves; all the more so when an ancient epic is reworked and pressed into service. In Prince of Ayodhya, subtitled "The Ramayana - Book I," the Indian author Ashok K. Banker takes the classic Ramayana and casts it into the peculiar conventions of Western-style fantasy fiction.
There are two great ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Having been around for a while, they have gotten used to retellings, recensions, and expansions down the ages. In the first century CE, the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa spun an entire full-length play, The Recognition of Shakuntala, from what amounts to a couple of verses from the Mahabharata. More recently, Shashi Tharoor wrote The Great Indian Novel as a tongue-in-cheek, literary adaptation of the Mahabharata. So, Ashok Banker is in distinguished company. He is, however, attempting a new kind of operation on the Ramayana with these books (the second is already available in the UK): he keeps the main characters and follows the time line of the major events fairly faithfully, but improvises on many scenes and adds new motivations to create a more straightforward fantasy novel.
The Ramayana, "story of Rama," is a very long poem (the even longer Mahabharata, at four hundred thousand lines, is eight times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey taken together). The Ramayana itself declares that it was written by one Valmiki to describe the life of Sri Rama Chandra, the eldest son of Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya.
At first deprived of his rightful accession to the throne by the machinations of a jealous stepmother, the young prince is exiled to the forest where he spends fourteen years accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. They overcome many hardships including the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana, the villainous ruler of Lanka. Prince Rama, who is a righteous man and has divine powers, leads a makeshift army into battle with Ravana, defeats him, and rescues Sita. When they return at last to Ayodhya, Rama is crowned amidst much jubilation. Banker's novel uses only the first book, which ends even before Rama is sent into exile.
A key character in the first book is the jealous Second Queen, Kaikeyi. In Banker's version, she nurses a morning hangover from cheap wine with a stranger at an inn the night before, preferring a happy hour to a tiresome pooja. Her mentor and guardian, the old maid Manthara, prays at a dark altar to a secret force from the dark side (Ravana himself), and sacrifices Brahmin boys to fuel her unholy powers.
A word about languages: many names have been converted to Hindi before transliterating roughly into ordinary Roman script: Bharata becomes "Bharat;" Lakshmana becomes "Lakshman." But others have not: Dasaratha, Rama, and Vishwamitra remain rooted in Sanskrit land. The poor Western reader will probably be confused. More seriously, many lines of speech are in Hindi, adding little and needing to be translated anyway. But these are minor quibbles. For the target audience of this book, more pertinent is the final product and how absorbing it is in its own right. And here Prince of Ayodhya does well.
As I suspect is common in adventure fantasy fiction, the central characters tend to be male, and they are more fully developed than the others. The god-prince Rama, and even more so his aging father Dasharatha, are well-sketched, troubled souls. Some of their struggles against the constraints of duty and past deeds are preserved well. King Dasharatha's youthful hunting accident, which ultimately costs him the succession of his throne to his beloved son Rama, is revealed to First Queen Kausalya much as it is in the original.
There is a lot going on in the Ramayana, at many levels. The human characters' own deeds and consequences play out over their own lifetimes and that of their progeny, the immortals win and lose in their endless struggles with the demons from the dark side, and at a more cosmic level, the arithmetic of dharma ultimately balances out evil with good. Some of this spirit of inevitability naturally comes through in the genre of Banker's book.
The settings, atmosphere, and particularly the profusion of demonic creatures is another natural match. One can imagine a full-color Boris Vallejo painting of the warrior princes with arrows and swords, fighting a "grotesque melange of breeds and species," half-serpents and many other kinds of mutant monsters. Published in the United States by a division of Warner Books, Prince of Ayodhya certainly packs enough blood and special effects to make a nice screenplay. If the medium is the message, then the depth of an epic plot is merely an added bonus, a pleasant aftertaste, as light as popcorn.
- Amazon readers rating: from 45 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Prince of Ayodhya at MostlyFiction.com
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
The Ramayana Series:
- Prince of Ayodhya (2003)
- Siege of Mithila (2005)
- Demons of Chitrakut (2005)
- Armies of Hanuman (2005)
- Bridge of Rama (2006)
- King of Ayodhya (2006)
- Vengeance of Ravana
- Sons of Sita
The Krishna Coriolis Series:
- Slayer of Kamsa
(back to top)
- Official website for Ashok K. Banker
- Learn more about the ancient poem: Sri Ramayana
- January Magazine review of Prince of Ayodhya
- Curled Up review of Prince of Ayodhya
(back to top)
About the Author:
Ashok K. Banker the author of several novels in India, marks his U.S. debut with PRINCE OF AYODHYA. He has already completed the next book in The Ramayana, Siege of Mithila. Banker lives with his wife and two children in Bombay, India.