Anand Neelakantan was born in Thripoonithura, on the outskirts of Cochin, Kerala. He currently works as a manager in Indian Oil Corporation ltd. His first book was a new take on Ramayana, the great mythological Indian epic, told from a different perspective. Titled Asura, it became a bestseller. His second book, Ajaya was also a bestseller. His third book, The concluding part (second book of Ajaya, Duryodhana’s Mahabharata) – Rise of Kali releases on 29th of July, 2015. Below you can read an excerpt from the book. Courtesy: Anand Neelakantan.
ROLL O F THE DICE
HASTINAPURA, THE MOST POWERFUL EMPIRE in Bharatavarsha, is faced with political strife. King Dhritarashtra is blind and rules but in name. His younger brother, Pandu, is dead. Pandu’s widow, Kunti, arrives at the palace with her three sons – Yudhishtra, Bhima and Arjuna, as well as Nakula and Sahadeva – the sons of her co-wife, Madri, who has committed sati. Together, the five brothers are known as the Pandavas, or the sons of Pandu. However, it is an open secret that Pandu was cursed by a sage never to have marital relations. The Pandavas are thus not his biological children.
But Kunti is determined to make her eldest son, Yudhishtra, the next King. Dhritarashtra’s foreign-born Queen, the beautiful and imperious Gandhari, believes otherwise, and sees her own firstborn, Suyodhana, as the legitimate successor. Crown Prince Suyodhana and his 99 brothers, scoff at the Pandava claims and call them bastards. In desperation, Kunti claims her sons are of divine lineage and aligns herself with the orthodox elements of the clergy. Dhaumya, an ambitious and cunning priest, dons the role of her chief advisor. Meanwhile, Suyodhana, a headstrong, idealistic and generous-hearted youth, disregards the caste system, believing that only merit matters.
The new martial arts Guru of Hastinapura, Drona, is a supporter of Kunti; Arjuna, the third Pandava prince, is his favourite student. Drona arrives to replace the maverick Kripacharya, as the royal Guru, making young Suyodhana’s life miserable by openly favouring the Pandavas. However, Aswathama, the Guru’s son, becomes Suyodhana’s close friend.
As rivalry between the cousins escalates, there are attempted murders, allegations and counter allegations. The air is thick with intrigue. Civil war looms. Holding the empire together is the noble patriarch, the Grand Regent of the Kurus – Bhishma Pitamaha. He rules the country with an iron hand, with the help of his scholarly and able Prime Minister, Vidhura, who is also step-brother to Dhritarashtra and Pandu, but born of a palace maid, hence considered of lowly birth.
When Bhishma attacked Gandhara years ago and forced Gandhari to marry his blind nephew, Dhritarashtra, the patriarch, had committed a grave error in sparing the life of the young Gandharan prince, Shakuni – Gandhari’s brother. Shakuni has vowed to destroy Bharatavarsha (India, as he calls it). He is a foreigner, despised by many, but works his way through the politics of the Hastinapura court, moving his pieces dexterously to foment trouble.
As the orthodox elements impose a crushing caste system on the populace, a revolution brews in the forests of Bharatavarsha under the charismatic leadership of the Naga leader, Takshaka. Shakuni secretly helps the elements of destabilization, bringing the crime lord, Durjaya, back into action.
Ekalavya and Jara are untouchable Nishadas. Ekalavya yearns to become an ace archer, but Guru Drona rejects him as a pupil because of his caste. He learns archery by secretly watching the Guru teaching the Hastinapura princes. In time, his skill excels even that of Arjuna, Drona’s favourite. When Ekalavya finally musters the courage to demonstrate his archery to the Guru, Drona asks him to cut off his bow thumb as his gurudakshina, so that Arjuna remains unchallenged. Ekalavya burns with hatred and vows to become the better archer despite his handicap.
Jara becomes an accomplice of the crime lord, Durjaya. His life would have ended in the gutters but for a chance encounter with a pious Brahmin, when Jara arrives to loot his house. Jara has a change of heart when he discovers that the Brahmin and his family have been mercilessly killed by Durjaya’s men. He becomes a staunch devotee of the Yadava Prince, Krishna, whom many believe to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Thereafter, Jara roams the streets of Hastinapura with his blind dog Dharma, singing paeans to Lord Krishna.
Krishna himself wants a stable society and believes Suyodhana is dangerous. Though he does not promote caste hierarchy, Krishna believes each person should follow his kula dharma, which has been predetermined. Only then can society be peaceful, happy and prosperous. He is a charismatic leader, loved by many. Krishna’s elder brother, Balarama, is the supreme leader of the Yadavas, as well as Prince Suyodhana’s Guru. He wishes to expand cultivation, agriculture and establish new trade routes. He builds a model city, Dwaraka, on the west coast of Bharatavarsha. A pacifist, he is deeply fond of Suyodhana and wishes him to marry his sister, Subhadra as the two are in love.
The Yadava clan has migrated from the northern plains to the west coast to avoid further confrontation with the monarch of Magadha, Jarasandha, a sworn enemy of the Yadavas. He runs a tight empire based on merit. The untouchable Nishada, Hiranyadhanus, Ekalavya’s alienated father, is the Commander of his armies.
Meanwhile, Karna, son of the low-caste charioteer, Adiratha, wishes to study archery and become a warrior. Guru Drona and many other high-caste individuals of the court and clergy spurn him. However, Karna is determined. He travels on foot to the South to learn the warrior’s art under Parashurama, the supreme leader of the Southern Confederate. The Confederate, eyeing a takeover of Hastinapura, views Bhishma as a liberal who is negating caste values. Karna learns archery from Parashurama by posing as a Brahmin. He gains the supreme accolade of becoming the Dharmaveera but narrowly escapes with his life when his secret is blown, leaving Guru Parashurama prostrate and unconscious with shock.
Karna arrives in Hastinapura on the day the Kuru princes are set to display their prowess in arms. He enters the arena and outdoes Arjuna in every feat of archery, but is still ostracised by Drona and the other Brahmins because of his low caste. Prince Suyodhana steps in. Defying orthodoxy, he elevates Karna to become King of Anga on the spot, thereby earning the wrath of the Brahmins and Karna’s lifelong friendship and loyalty.
Suyodhana pays the price for his rash act when Subhadra rejects him and elopes with Arjuna, persuaded and aided by Krishna, leaving him devastated and deepening the enmity between him and Krishna.
Guru Drona demands that his students defeat and drag to Hastinapura in chains, his friend-turned-foe, King Drupada of Panchala, as his gurudakshina. Prince Suyodhana and his friends thus arrive in Panchala. To their surprise, King Drupada gracefully accepts his wrongdoing in humiliating Drona when the latter had approached him as a supplicant. In Panchala, Karna meets Princess Draupadi, the King’s beautiful daughter, and they fall in love. Suyodhana returns to Hastinapura bearing King Drupada’s apology to Drona as well as gifts from him. But the Guru remains adamant. He orders his favourite disciple, Prince Arjuna, to defeat Drupada. Arjuna’s men descend on an unsuspecting Panchala and wreak havoc. King Drupada and his sons, Shikandi and Dhristadyumna, are dragged to Hastinapura in chains. Bhishma intervenes to free them, but Dhristadyumna believes that Suyodhana cheated them by offering peace and then sending his cousins to destroy Panchala. He also warns Aswathama that one day he will murder Drona.
To avoid further family friction, Bhishma asks Kunti and her sons to move to Varanavata, where a new palace is built to house them. Shakuni bribes Purochana, the officer-in-charge of the project, to use inflammable materials in the construction. Shakuni leaks this secret to Kunti through a spy. The Pandavas determines to outwit Suyodhana and entices a Nishada woman and her five children into the palace, which is then set on fire. The Pandavas escape but the rumour spreads like wildfire that Kunti and her five sons have perished in the fire. The Nishada woman and her sons who are the true victims of the fire, are related to Ekalavya, causing him to vow revenge. Ekalavya believes that Krishna is the reason for all his miseries.
On the day of Princess Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna is insulted once again for his caste when Krishna persuades Draupadi to reject him, even though he has won her fairly in the competition held for the suitors. Draupadi marries Arjuna instead. However, Kunti decides, in interests of family unity, that all the Pandavas will share Draupadi. Thus Draupadi becomes the common wife of all five brothers, and Yudhishtra, as the eldest, gains the first right to live with her for a year, followed by the others, in order of seniority.
To avoid any clash among the brothers over the beautiful Draupadi, Krishna persuades Bhima and Arjuna to travel to Magadha with him. In a duel that follows, Bhima kills Jarasandha and his general Hiranyadhanus, Ekalavya’s father.
Meanwhile, Suyodhana marries Princess Bhanumati, daughter of Chitrangada, King of Kalinga, and sires a son and daughter – Lakshmana Kumara and Lakshmana. Karna too, marries Vrishali, a charioteer’s daughter. Arjuna and Subhadra have a son, Abhimanyu, who grows up to be close to his uncle, Suyodhana.
To avoid war, Bhishma persuades King Dhritarashtra to hand over the forests of Khandivaprastha to the Pandavas, where they can build a new city. Krishna advises Arjuna to burn the forest and purge every living thing in it in order to enable a new city to be built there to rival Hastinapura. Arjuna and his soldiers kill thousands of Naga men and women but spare the life of the young architect, Mayasura, who bargains for the life of a few women and his foster father – Indra, the fallen Deva King. Maya builds a splendid palace and city but is then banished from his creation, being an untouchable. Indra, Arjuna’s biological father, refuses his son’s offer to live in the palace and follows Maya into exile. However, Indra decides to build a deadly new weapon with Maya’s help, to gift to his son. He believes that without it, his son is doomed.
The Nagas are incensed by the pogrom that killed their people. Shakuni fans the flame of hatred. Ekalavya is welcomed by Krishna’s foes, such as Shishupala and Shalva, and they decide to capture Krishna during the Rajasuya sacrifice being done by Yudhishtra to inaugurate his new palace. Suyodhana too, receives Yudhishtra’s invitation to attend the Rajasuya.
At the Rajasuya, Shishupala defies the Brahmins by seating Ekalavya near the holy fire. But when the Pandavas elect Krishna as their honoured guest for the Rajasuya, Shishupala stands up to accuse Krishna of many wrongdoings. Krishna kills Shishupala on the spot. In the tussle that follows, Ekalavya escapes. He and Shalva rush to Dwaraka with their army, intent on pounding Krishna’s city to dust. Krishna is forced to leave the Rajasuya to save his city. Unknown to him, Takshaka and his army of Nagas, have planned to ambush him on the way to Dwaraka.
Suyodhana reaches the Indraprastha palace angered by the treatment meted out to Mayasura and the other common folk of low caste. In the course of an argument with the Pandavas, he accidentally falls into a fountain. The entire Sabha bursts into laughter and Draupadi mocks his soaked nakedness. Suyodhana vows revenge for the insult and storms back to Hastinapura.
Unknown to them, Parashurama, the Supreme Leader of the Southern Confederate, has recovered from his coma and the southern armies are on the move towards Hastinapura to capture Karna.
Shakuni moves his pieces carefully. He persuades Suyodhana that defeating Yudhishtra in a game of dice is an easier way to take revenge than to fight him. At Suyodhana’s invitation, Yudhishtra arrives in Hastinapura for the game. One by one, Yudhishtra pledges his possessions, city-state, brothers, and even his wife, against the wily Gandharan, and loses them all. Suyodhana orders his brother Sushasana to bring Draupadi, who dared to mock and humiliate him, to the Sabha – to be stripped like a whore before all.
The story continues…