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Prince of AyodhyaPrince of Ayodhya¬†is the first volume of a modern retelling of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic about the ideal hero, Rama. I was quite looking forwards to reading it (even though I’ve owned this book for a good few years) – Indian or Hindu mythology seems to be very colourful and obviously part of a tradition¬†just as august as the Graeco-Roman and Germanic mythoi (which is the plural of mythos) that inform our European outlook. In practice, though, reading it was a big disappointment.

The novel is set mostly during a single day in which Rama is declared the crown prince of Ayodhya by his father Maharaja Dasaratha and is taken on a journey by a millennia-old seer, Guru Vishwamitra, to kill a demon (or Asura) and protect a ritual the seer wants to conduct. This latter double task actually takes a week or more, but is squeezed into the last hundred or so pages of the 500-odd page novel. Much of the rest of the story is concerned with palace intrigue involving the maharaja’s three wives.

The story is colourful – with larger than life characters like the preternaturally mature Rama and his half brothers, the evil governess Manthara, the weary king Dasaratha – it has lots of Brahmanic magic going on and some big fight scenes at the end. But it’s also very shallow. The all the good characters are pure in thought a deed, while the bad ones are ugly or corpulent and simplistically single-minded. There is one minor demoness who has a conflict of motivations, but only because she has a crush on the fifteen-year-old protagonist. Rama, his brother Lakshman and Vishwamitra conquer their foes without any real danger to themselves. Well, Lakshman does get killed, but is resurrected at the cost of a soul … conveniently enough, that of the Asura they’re supposed to get rid of.

Ashok K Banker

Worse than all of this, is the language and quality of the writing. It’s weak. It’s laden with lots of Hindu or Sanskrit terms – which isn’t a big problem, as it does lend a lot of authenticity to the text and there’s a moderately helpful glossary at the end. However, these words are used a little too liberally, especially when, for instance, you read a new word – ‘astra’, clearly a weapon of some sort from the context – towards the end of the book and turn to the glossary for an explanation and it just says ‘a weapon’.

The worst flaw of the book, though, is the use of modern idioms in a story set in ancient India. When magical beings transform from one shape to another, they ‘morph’. Rama, right on the very first page of the book, is described as a having ‘tight abs’. On more than one occasion the Vedic unit of measurement, the yojana, is compared to ‘Western’ miles. Perhaps such anachronisms were used to try to appeal to a global mass audience, but they end up making a mockery of the dignity of this ancient tale.

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