The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first book in the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi’s, one of India’s most recent literary successes.
“A daring retelling of one of Hinduism’s greatest mythologies, The Immortals of Meluha is a welcome entry on the world SFF scene, and in that context, firmly establishes the relevance of Indian fantasy fiction. If you are looking for an Indian-themed epic fantasy of a mythological bent, this is the book you need to be reading.” ~The Founding Fields
Until I read The Immortals of Meluha last month, I had not read an Indian author for a number of years. Quite possibly, it has been almost fifteen years since I did so. The major bulk of my reading in the last fifteen years has been western SFF, dominated in-turn by tie-in fiction such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer, etc. Reading The Immortals of Meluha almost felt like a homecoming, because the novel has intrinsic value to me in a cultural context, and that is its highest value to me as a reader. There are quite a few flaws in the novel, but at the same time, it is also an unrestrained ride through one of the most important bits of Hindu mythology.
The Immortals of Meluha reimagines Lord Shiva, one of the Holy Trinity of Hindu Gods, as a mortal champion destined for greatness, a change which is quite staggering in its implications since Lord Shiva is a part of the core Hinduism beliefs and a major of the religion’s mythology is built around him and his actions and his favours towards gods, mortals and demons alike. This change necessitates a rewrite of almost all of Lord Shiva’s own mythology and the people who interacted with him. To put it in a Western Christian context, imagine that God is not a God but a unique individual within a pre-existing Christian society and that he redefined the entire society and culture when He came into His own after facing numerous adventures and trials which tested His faith to its very limits. There is something lost in the translation since Hinduism is a polytheistic religion and Christianity is monotheistic, but I hope that the contextual example is readily understandable regardless.
Considering the novel entirely on its own merits, I’ll have to say that it is a truly wonderful debut. It has characters that I loved reading. The pacing is quite on the straight and narrow. The level of exploration of the internal mythology is superb. The novel seeks to turn some gender, societal and cultural norms on their head and present a modern Indian epic that can appeal to people who believe and support gender equality, while at the same time presenting these norms in their proper context.
There is a level of pure excitement and energy in the way that Amish Tripathi directs the entire mystery and purpose of the “Neelkanth”. He intermixes the mythic clans of the Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis, descendants of the Sun and Moon respectively, into this mystery, represented by the people of the Kingdoms of Meluha and Swadweep. He also goes on to put the Nagas, a species of humanoidal snakes, as the antagonists, and so sets the stage for an epic conflict that has some interesting and far-reaching consequences for everyone involved. That Shiva, the Neelkanth, is the catalyst for these changes is another highlight of the novel, and it is an element that I feel Amish Tripathi captured really well.
The author has taken core concepts of Hindu mythology, done his own unique spin on them, and then told a compelling and involved epic that feels true to the epic fantasy/mythological fantasy genre. His characters, such as Shiva himself and his intended romantic interest Princess Sati of Meluha, live and breathe as characters of worth and purpose, characters who have a potential that the author makes sure to take advantage of throughout the novel. Sati is definitely a standout character in several aspects, more so for the fact that she is rarely, if ever, a damsel in distress. She is a daughter of warriors and her beliefs and attitudes are true to that legacy. She stands alongside Shiva as an equal rather than someone used to move along his story. As a reader, that has immeasurable value to me. As a reviewer increasingly becoming aware of gender norms in SFF, it is doubly important, and is reason enough that I would recommend the novel to everybody reading this review.
However, the novel cannot be considered entirely on its merit since there is a wealth of existing source lore. And it is in this respect that the novel begins to falter. Throughout the novel, I had the sense that the author had not thought through his “changes” in much depth and that he was making things as he went along, chapter by chapter.
Now, my contention isn’t with the way that he has represented Meluha and Swadweep, or the Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis. No, it has to do with the fact that the author has completely changed who and what Shiva is, because these changes have far-reaching ramifications.
For one, the Suryavanshis revere Lord Rama highly and celebrate his victory over the evil King Ravana, which is how it is in Hindu mythology, but the fact is that Ravana was blessed by Lord Shiva himself with great knowledge and Ravana was a great devotee of the Destroyer. This is never addressed in the novel itself. Shiva (the protagonist) is said to be the latest reincarnation of the Neelkanth, the Mahadev who will give the Suryavanshis their long-desired victories over the Chandravanshis. So the novel does make a remote mention of this cycle of birth and rebirth, but it never deals with it in more than a passing manner. This is one of the biggest flaws of the novel. The dots are all there, but they are never connected.
And casting Lord Shiva as Shiva the mortal has ramifications within the context of how Lord Ganesh’s birth and Lord Hanumana’s nature will be covered in the second and third books. We already have some context for the latter, given the title of the book – Oath of the Vayuputras. Vayuputra means son of Vayu, the Wind, and Lord Hanumana is considered both a Vayuputra and also the eleventh avatar of Lord Shiva. Both Lord Ganesh and Lord Hanumana are major Hindu deities, and I expect the author to deal with their mythologies appropriately, and have retroactive explanations for how their mythologies fit in with that of the Mahadev and Lord Rama as mentioned throughout The Immortals of Meluha.
Another thing that bothered me was the swearing. Shiva swears quite often and it was quite disturbing to read these bits of dialogue. I am not an overly religious guy, but having been brought up as a Hindu on my mother’s side of the family, and a Jain on my father’s side of the family, I do have a deep respect for all the Hindu deities, especially the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh (Mahesh is another name for Lord Shiva). To read of someone I consider a god swearing so often, it is not comfortable by any means. And the thing is, the swearing seemed gratuitous, so that didn’t win me over either.
And finally, Amish Tripathi uses a lot of modern jargon in the novel. It breaks the suspension of disbelief and breaks the setting. I am willing to give the author some benefit of the doubt since Indian terms and concepts do not translate well into English (ask an Indian how much he or she cringes during a Bollywood movie with English subtitles when a song is playing and you will get some idea), but the author simply went overboard in this respect. This really could have been handled a lot better, and I’m hoping that this is something that is addressed in the next two books.
Other than all that however, I had next to no problems with the book. The Immortals of Meluha is a ground-breaking novel that has set a new bar for Indian-themed fantasy, and thus it is of immense value in that respect alone. It shows that what Western mainstream fantasy has been doing for decades, Indian fantasy can do as well. I look on at it as an important milestone that has already put Indian fantasy on the world-map, given the enormous success of the book in India and the fact that UK publisher Jo Fletcher picked it up the English rights to it.
In addition to all that, the author has also sold the movie rights for the novel, which have been acquired by one of Bollywood’s biggest directors, Karan Johar, and one of the biggest studios, Dharma Productions. The latest grapevine is that Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan will be playing Shiva on the big screen, which is excellent news for me since I’m a huge fan of his. And the role of Sati is said to be played by either Deepika Padukone or Kareena Kapoor, one a recent mainstream superstar who has truly made it on her own and the other a scion of what is essentially Bollywood’s first family (the Kapoors to my knowledge have acting experience across four generations and more than a hundred successes to their names). I really can’t wait for this film to be released. It is in good hands and is going to be spectacular.
Do excuse that small aside about the film rights to the novel. The whole thing has me too excited for me to not talk about in this review.
If you like non-anglophone fantasy and you love to experiment with your reading, then Immortals of Meluha is a novel that should be right up your alley. It is not quite as superbly mind-blowing as Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian & Blood Aztec noir fantasy novels, but it is certainly the beginning of something great.