#Review: Mohini: The Enchantress by Anuja Chandramouli #Mythology

My thanks to the author Anuja Chandramouli and Rupa Publishing Co Ltd for a review copy of this book.

Anuja is a writer of both mythological and historical fiction; this work falls in the former category. Mohini, the goddess of enchantment is the female avatar of the god Vishnu, often seen as an enchantress, one who beguiles and captivates, and perhaps has little role beyond that. While one comes across her in mythological episodes and tales, especially the samudra manthan or churning of the ocean of milk by the devas and asuras seeking amrita or the elixir of immortality, it is others’ perceptions of her that we see in these tellings; this book, however, tells her story, not only bringing her into the centre but telling it in her ‘voice’. Apart from her nature or the perception of it told in a discussion between Vishnu and his consort, we see all other events, whether the relationship between the devas and asuras, leading up to the samudra manthan; the consequences and Mohini’s role in restoring balance; the story of Aravan, Arjuna’s son; her relationship with Shiva and the birth of her son, besides also stories to which Mohini is a witness, from her eyes.

In her voice, we hear not only the ‘dominant’ versions of these tales but both sides, Mohini often highlighting the injustices that these versions might attempt to hide or downplay, and in which the sufferer is almost always, a woman (but not always, for Aravan, Arjuna’s son—never acknowledged or appreciated, is at the receiving end of it too; as are the asuras often painted as evil by popular lore, yet ones who have stood for right as well at times, while Indra the ‘king’ of heaven perpetuates wrong after wrong, and injustice after injustice, and is rarely held to account). In fact, this is a major theme explored in the book—that of sexism, patriarchy, and the biases and discrimination women have to face, even where they have done no wrong—like Kavyamata, the wife of Bhrigu who stands up for what she feels is right, giving succour and shelter to the asuras (who have faced their own share of injustices), and must not only face being tainted by Indra’s words but also lose her life; Tara who is tied to the vile and brutal Brihaspati, and faces all form of violence and maltreatment, but who is seen as the criminal for simply walking out and finding herself some happiness. Mohini herself is not spared this either for while she might well be ‘used’ by the gods when needed (to restore balance when death has been banished, or even be a bride for a condemned man) but whose character is given whatever quality that suits them at the moment—a beautiful woman, one of dreams at one moment, an evil fiend at another. Few voices seem to speak for right, even among the devas.

Mohini is seen as cold and unfeeling, but when she tells these stories, one can see that this is far from the case for she feels the pain and injustice of these women. She also speaks for Bhumi Devi, mother Earth, who is used, misused, and even abused by humans and the devas and asuras alike, suffering so much damage and being given precious little chance or time to recover—this is a theme that comes up in some of the author’s other books too, and one that needs to be raised again and again, for we never seem to stop damaging our planet, except when situations like the current one arise. But not to divert, Bhumi Devi’s plight too is felt by Mohini. But it is not only the unhappy tales that make her feel, the bittersweet ones do too: in her words

Sometimes in the presence of sublime love, even the eternal dreamer finds the courage to leave behind the simulated reality of the dream for reality itself, the bitter pill that was coated with such sweetness that one couldn’t help but wish for a tiny taste.

The book also speaks for those who do not fall within ‘accepted’ human definitions and categories and as a result face mistreatment and discrimination, once again with few voices and people standing up for them. In the exploration of these themes, one wonders why it is that the world of these celestial beings is simply a reflection of our own with pain, hurt, prejudice and hate, and only a few voices who speak or stand up for right. What then is their role in our lives, one wonders?

But these more serious themes come through in the various stories or episodes Mohini narrates, which also have brief moments of happiness for their characters, and times with a dream-like quality to them, when reality vanishes or is blurred away for just a little bit, as they love or live out their desires—Mohini is the enchantress after all.  Of the stories, I rather enjoyed the telling of the samudra manthan episode itself, for what I knew of it, it seems, was just a bare sketch—the tale is a long one, with the devas and asuras (actually half-brothers) working together in a rare instance, and the ocean of milk bringing forth not just the amrita, but also many other gifts and treasures which once again bring their hidden natures and desires to light.

I think the author did a great job overall giving voice to and telling the story of a character whose perspective we never really get to see (and rarely even consider, for that matter), and through it bring out issues in mythology, which are not too different from what we face even today.

Have you read this one? What did you think of it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image: (for a change) my own picture.

Review: Following Ophelia

Following OpheliaFollowing Ophelia by Sophia Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
I picked this one because the description was on the same lines as another book I read last year―Wings over Delft (which was of course in a whole different time period and setting, and really a completely different story as well). This one tells of sixteen-year-old Mary Adams who arrives in London to work as a scullery maid, a job she isn’t really cut out for, but which is the only option available to her as she has lost her previous situation. But along the way, she catches the eye of a group of young pre-Raphaelite painters, many of whom wish to paint her. When one of them convinces her to be his model, Mary begins a double life of sorts, maid by-day, and artist’s model whenever she is needed. Her ‘second’ life takes her into society, parties, meetings with famous artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Millais among them, and she is soon the talk of the town. Soon enough she begins dreaming of a better life, and the path to achieving it seems open before her. But when trouble creeps into her life in more than one form, she must take some difficult decisions which might take life in a completely different direction.

I found this book to be a fast-paced, engrossing read, pretty much from the start. Mary was a likeable character, coming across as a believable sixteen-year-old, and one finds oneself rooting for her throughout. The other characters too develop realistically rather than as ‘storybook’ ones―people one likes may not always turn out as one expects them to (although that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘bad’ people, just people), and friendship and help at times comes from completely unexpected quarters. And that indeed is what can be said about the plot and the story as well. I enjoyed the world of art that the book takes us into―although it doesn’t go into it in depth (I couldn’t help comparing it on this count with Wings over Delft); while it creates the atmosphere of the world of art/artists, it remains a light read. What adds to the atmosphere the book creates, and lends it more authenticity, is the combination of both fictional and historical figures (the artists, their muses) in the story which was another element I really enjoyed about it. While I do like reading books on art etc. (the Great Artists Series, especially since it gives one a good introduction to different artists and their works, styles, etc.), the pre-Raphaelite movement was not one I was familiar with, and reading this led me to look into it, and the paintings mentioned in the book. But it is not only art, poetry and poets, and Greek mythology are also elements around which the story is woven. But at the centre of it all is Mary’s story of course, which I found interesting throughout, and it would be fun to see what the next leg of her adventures leads her into (we already know where!).

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Review: Kartikeya

Kartikeya: The Destroyer's SonKartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son by Anuja Chandramouli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thanks to the author for a review copy of this book.

This was a book that I was interested to read because its focus is Kartikeya, the older (though in some accounts younger) son of Shiv, the god of destruction and his consort Parvati. It is their younger son, the elephant-headed Ganesha who is more popular. In fact, I knew very little about Kartikeya except seeing his idol in the Durga Puja where he stands, with his mount the peacock, alongside his mother, brother, and other deities; a little from mythological shows on TV; that he is more revered in the South of the country; and the only story I’d really read/knew of before was really to do with Ganesha’s intelligence. So, of course I was keen to see what this would tell me of Kartikeya. The book tells the rather unique tale of Kartikeya’s birth, his early life at Mount Kailash with his parents, and the prophesy that it is he who will bring an end to the rule of the three asuras―Soora, Simha, and Taraka―over the three worlds and restore the king of the devas Indra to power. We are acquainted with his prowess in war, his compassion towards his “enemies” (some of them, anyway) and also, perhaps, some of the more infamous tales associated with him, which the author interprets somewhat more positively, as in keeping with his character, his infinite capacity for loving and being there for any that needs him, rather than a flaw as one might ordinarily view it. We are also told of how he acquires his rather loquacious mount, Chitra the peacock, at once fun and annoying, and his meeting with his consorts Devasena, Indra’s daughter and Valli.

Kartikeya is handsome, compassionate, and while a warrior, keen also to maintain peace. In fact his is the only rational voice in his family, his parents being more tempestuous and inclined to fly off the handle, much too easily for their own good. When in war, Devasena helps him see the less violent way to give the asuras their just desserts, but he doesn’t shy away from giving those that deserve it a worse end. Also he is not power-hungry like Indra, and in fact, prefers to leave it to others who he sees more capable of bearing it. It was interesting to learn how it happened that Kartikeya headed to the South but as another reviewer has also said, I would have liked to have learnt more of his adventures there. We are told that he endeared himself to the people there but not why.

What I enjoyed in the book was really the various legends and stories about Kartikeya and his family, though being mythology in its full-blown form, it does tend to get explicit, which I could have done without. While I knew of that the devas were indeed subject to the same failings as mortals, it was interesting that even the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva aren’t quite free of these. In fact, their lives aren’t all that very different from ours, affected by jealousy, anger, and unfortunately also, the women among them being at the receiving end of injustice. It in fact, even makes one wonder why the distinction between gods and mortals, when they seem essentially the same. Of the devas, Indra the king is a rather debauched, depraved and treacherous soul making one wonder why one so unworthy was ever made king (haven’t read enough mythology to know much of his story―more his misdeeds that anything positive). The three asura brothers are far better people, as while they may well have been responsible for much violence and pain, it is Indra that has provoked them into it with his own reprehensible acts. Not only that, the asuras realise that power or even the fulfilment of one’s deepest wishes brings with it unhappiness and discontent, not what one was seeking.

Chandramouli’s descriptions are vivid (even the gory ones, some of which send a chill up one’s spine) and her command over the language very good, though there were places where colloquialisms creep in (for instance Kartikeya “showing up” somewhere) which seem somewhat out of place in a mythological setting.

Three and a half stars.

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