Of curses and elixirs
Reviewed by Balwinder Kaur

Bali and the Ocean of Milk
by Nilanjan P. Chowdhury. Harper Collins. Pages 306. Rs 199.

The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana have captured the hearts and minds of generations. They have inspired numerous reimaginingís and retellings. Bali and the Ocean of Milk by Nilanjan P. Chowdhury is the latest in a long line of such works.

This story takes us thousands of years back in time to Satya Yuga where all is not well. The king of Gods, Indrah is in crisis, his physical strength and powers have faded to such an extent that simply powering his halo drains him of energy. Ever since vanquishing the asura (demon) Vritra two hundred years ago Indrah has felt like a mere shadow of his old self. Suffering, which is considered largely an earthly affliction, something inflicted on mortals; has become the bane of his existence. To make matters worse the preserver of the universe Viru himself accuses him of neglecting his duty and his kingdom.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown is also the harsh reality of Bali, the king of asuras. There are a hundred bedrooms occupied by Baliís lookalikes to foil assassination attempts. But this is all in vain, for he gets poisoned and lies on the brink of death. The prime suspect is his trusted advisor Surasen who is the commander of the royal army. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Bali is saved by none other than Indrah, his arch-enemy and the killer of his father.

Given the dire state of affairs, Viru advises them to put aside their differences and work together. Their only hope is to cooperate and attempt the Samudra manthan by churning the Ocean of Milk to obtain amrita which will make them immortal. And so an uneasy alliance is formed between the Gods and the asuras, with the assistance of Viru, the Preserver and Jai the Destroyer. As is wont to happen with the best laid plans of mice and men, in this case Gods and demons; the unthinkable happens and everything spirals out of control.

This is the age-old story of good vs evil. However, the traditional roles are reversed. Contrary to their portrayal in myths and folklore, it is the king of asuras who is the selfless ruler putting the interests of his people ahead of his own; even in his darkest hour. Always striving to do the right thing. The irony is that the king of Gods is the one who plays it fast and loose, wreaking havoc and causing mayhem wherever he goes, leaving misery in his wake.

Peace is something that eludes both the asuras and the gods. Their problems may have different names, different shapes and may happen in different places but are fundamentally the same. Not only does power corrupt but the struggle to acquire power causes political and social upheaval. Motivated by selfishness and greed; friends and foes become interchangeable and loyalty is harder to find than amrita. And consequently, alliances are flippantly made and easily broken. In such a climate, fortunes change with unsettling frequency, as trusted confidants are exposed as murderous backstabbers and sworn enemies save the day. It is easy to draw parallels between the socio-political climate in the book and that prevalent today.

The story moves along rapidly. The authorís choice of setting and characters aids his storytelling as Indian readers are familiar with the mythology of Amravati, the Holy Trinity, asuras and amrita. Even though some names have been altered to varying degrees, others like Urvashi and Bhrigu remain the same. Nilanjan P. Chowdhury frequently alludes to well-known escapades and stories familiar to most. So with just a few remarks and casual references the readerís imagination supplies both back-story and visuals making the narrative more colourful.

The authorís efforts to blend centuries-old myths and legends with trendy humour and pop culture references at times fall short of the desired mark. The attempts at providing levity instead of being amusing seem irreverent and forced. From beginning to the end there is a morose and maudlin ambience; the jokes and jibes eke out a dry sort of amusement.

There may be cautionary tales and morals but itís mostly just broken halos and in the narrative, here is moon dust and lunacy; and everyone involved realises too late that more has been lost than gained.