My thanks to the author Anuja Chandramouli and Rupa Publishing Co Ltd for a review copy of this book.
The river Ganges or Ganga is of course, the most sacred river in India, and in mythology she is also a goddess, who lived in the heavens but came to earth after a sage–king, Bhagirath, undertook a rigorous penance. This is the story of Ganga the goddess, taking us through many episodes in her life, from her days as a young girl living in the home of her loving parents, the mountain god Himavan and his wife Mena, and with her sister Parvati, Shiva’s consort, with whom she shares a difficult relationship, to the time that she occupies an important role in the events or story that we know as the Mahabharata. We learn a little about her life, her loves, her children, her friendship with Saraswati, Brahma’s consort, and how it is she who must console and rejuvenate whenever there is pain and tumult in the heavens or on earth. In the author’s interpretation, Ganga the goddess is quite literally a personification of the river—she is spirited and free, going and doing as she likes and refusing to be tied down in any way, by any other mortal or immortal, by custom or patriarchy. And in line with that personality, she is outspoken, questions all that is unjust about society, challenges “norms” imposed on women, who, whether god or mortal, are always blamed (and must bear the brunt) for all that goes wrong, no matter whose fault. But she is also magnanimous, ready to forgive every sin, to bring solace to those without any comfort (“And forever more, I will serve as a conduit for trapped souls, taking them where they must go, and I will never turn away from the cries of my children, be they ever so wicked.”), and ever ready to do her duty even when she has been wronged.
While I was familiar with many of the stories told in this book (though not all, by any means), a couple of them (Yami’s story from Yama’s Lieutenant and Kartikeya’s from her book on him) from the author’s earlier books, this was the first time I read of all of these events from Ganga’s point of view, and it certainly made the flow of events and the connections between different events far clearer (for instance, that her story with Shantanu and her children was connected with her story with Mahabisha and that of the curse on the Asthavasus, eight celestial beings, especially Prabhasa), and I enjoyed reading it. I hadn’t known that Ganga is simply another face of Shakti and so in that way too, connected with Parvati. I also liked the author’s interpretation of Ganga’s character, and one can well see her thought process and views being as they are, being a manifestation of the river. The cover art also captures this quite perfectly, Ganga emerging from the waters, a woman, and yet part of the waters.
It was also interesting to see how the gods/immortals aren’t very much different from human beings, with the same failings and flaws, and the same prejudices that us humans have. (Kind of makes you wonder why they are gods, then?—especially Indra, whose behaviour I’m glad the author questions. I still remain unconvinced why he is fit to be the King of the gods.) But because of this, the author is able to comment on some of the ills that have been ever prevalent in our world, and still continue—disrespecting women and our rivers (who are perhaps alike in more than one way, nurturing, and caring for everyone, and not getting their due despite all they give). I enjoyed the author’s writing, particularly her descriptions which I think are her greatest strength—she is able conjure up these really vivid images which enable the reader to visualise (even hear and smell) them as he/she reads. For instance, “The silvery river wound its way sensuously through the peaks, glistening and lustrous as a string of pearls against the blackness of the rocky terrain”; and “The first wave of the waters splashed with a merry tinkle, released from her fingertips, foaming and bubbling around her feet, deliciously cold and sweet to taste. Narrow streams that trickled down the mountainside like little children at play, laughing and caterwauling as they skipped, hopped, pranced and leapfrogged their way across the bumpy terrain, sure as mountain goats.” But of course (and this is something I’ve brought up in my reviews of her earlier books too) when these descriptions are of grislier aspects—war, and torture, and destruction—this does tend to get a touch too gruesome for my liking. Another small complaint was with some of the dialogue which felt to me somewhat “modern” sounding—perhaps it’s just me but when I’m reading historical or mythological fiction, I expect the language too to sound somewhat more appropriate to the times. But overall this was once again an interesting read for me!