Utkarsh Patel: Indra—The Rise and Fall of a Hero.
RUPA, New Delhi, pp. 295, Rs. 395/-
“Indra stands accused (of destroying the Indus Valley cities),” stated Mortimer-Wheeler categorically1947 on the basis of several skeletons excavated in Mohenjo-Daro. He was perhaps unconsciously influenced by euhermerism, the theory that divinities were actually human heroes and heroines who were deified. Euhemerus formulated this in the late 4th century BCE. K.M. Munshi was the first to write novels and several plays in Gujarati on Indian Vedic and Puranic heroes whom the public deified as avatars, translated into English as “Bhagwan Parashuram” and “Krishnavatar” in the early years after Independence. Acharya Chatursen Shastri and Vaidya Gurudutt authored several Hindi novels on the same theme around the same time. However, it is the new millennium, particularly the 21st century, that has witnessed a proliferation of novels drawing upon Indian mythology. In 2012 Rajiv Menon’s novel, “Thunder God: the ascendancy of Indra” was published which developed the story of Indra euhemeristically.
The latest in this genre is Utkarsh Patel’s novel on Indra. Patel is well qualified for the enterprise being a lecturer in Comparative Mythology in Mumbai University, who already has novels on Shakuntala, Satyavati and Kannaki. He is to be admired for daring to journey beyond the epic world to plunge into the misty regions of Vedic deities. The story describes how Indra develops into Shakra (the mighty), acquiring the titles of Vritrahan (killer of Vritra) and Devendra (lord of the devas), destroying a hundred fortifications, killing Vala and Namuchi.
Patel takes head on the toughest nut to crack: the birth of Indra. The novel begins with an impressively surreal world where a nameless mother in a forest struggles through the excruciating birth of an unusual son. Indra’s parents remain nameless and we are not told how he comes to have his name. Only his elder sibling Agni shows affection for him and a tribal elder named Mitra. The companionship with Agni is, however, not developed. Mitra becomes a benevolent advisor while the unruly band of Maruts are his friends. Varuna, the eldest sibling, is the presiding chief, a rigid upholder of codes of conduct he seems to have formulated, supervising through a host of spies. Indra is self-willed, challenging outdated rules, ushering in a new way of individualistic living. He questions Varuna’s rigid rules calling for Harishchandra to “sacrifice” his son or a substitute (Shunahshepa) for violating his promise. Indra is eager to fight for securing his tribe’s possessions. Finally, Varuna abdicates in favour of Indra who defeats the asuras and rescues stolen cattle. Indra’s other brothers (the puranic Adityas) are not mentioned. Indra’s growth into adolescence and budding sexual awareness is well sketched. Indra riding a bull and smashing the chariot of Usha drawn by a hundred steed out of unexplained envy is told quite dramatically. In Vala’s cave Indra finds a hoard of precious stones that he throws into the river to flow down to human beings—a very interesting take indeed. Vishnu riding an aerial chariot driven by the legless Aruna is an interesting innovation, because in Indian myth Aruna is the charioteer of Surya the sun. Indra’s building his capital on a mountain-top is a fine idea that needed elaboration. In episodes such as these Patel abandons the euhermeristic approach and gives free rein to the mythic element and his own imagination.
The society depicted is pastoral, subsisting on cattle and drinking soma juice in celebrations, with no food or hunting mentioned. Rudra and Brahma are absent, but Vishnu is a visitor from an island who makes friends with Indra because of his having won back the stolen cattle-wealth, but remains a bystander, not helping in his battles, which is a curious departure from puranic myth where they jointly kill Namuchi. Here Saraswati is given the major role in showing Indra how to get around the promise made to Namuchi. She also gifts him a new metal, lead, to make a discus with it for this. Patel makes inventive use of the imagination for Indra’s supernatural weapons, culminating in the vajra for killing the huge serpent Vritra. The episode of Vishvaroop’s decapitation has been very well imagined, as is the Ahalya sequence which is spread across an extended period, providing adequate psychological basis for the love-affair. This would have gained by juxtaposition with Indra’s failed attempt to seduce Ruchi guarded by her husband Devasharma’s disciple Vipul. Indra’s curing Apala of her skin ailment is particularly evocative and quite poetic in the narration. The Shachi-Indra encounter successfully fills in a gap in puranic lore where there is no mention of how Indra came to wed her. Patel innovates the Ashvins curing Indra of poison administered by Namuchi and thus be given a share of soma while the Puranas Indra stubbornly refuses Chyavan’s demand that the Ashvins be allowed to drink soma. Patel has the Ashvins discover honey as the “new soma” with healing properties. He incorporates the story of King Vasu who is gifted a chariot—a novel object on earth—and a staff by Indra. Planting this staff to symbolize the deity, Vasu organizes a public festival celebrating Indra around it (the Western counterpart is the Maypole festival) and because of the chariot comes to be known as “Uparichara”, one who moves above the ground.
Patel anthropomorphizes Indra, his tribe and their battles with the asuras, dasas and daityas, narrating the double-dealing of rishis who force Indra into expiatory exile and install Nahusha—a strategy that backfires and makes them re-install him. However, Agni’s key role in seeking out the whereabouts of Indra is missing. Patel lost an excellent opportunity of spinning a fine tale by omitting the story of how the king Raji replaced Indra as ruler of the devas who lost their kingdom which was restored only through the machinations of Brihaspati who led Raji’s sons astray into atheism leading to loss of Brahminical support and their ruin. Durvasa’s fury against Indra is merely mentioned without elaborating its consequences.
The novel proceeds apace with well-spaced interludes of romance and passion that tastefully avoid graphic details that litter so much of current fiction. It is the birth of the dark boy, Krishna, that heralds a major change, for this child directly challenges the supremacy of the god of rain and ushers in worship of the mountain Govardhan instead among the keepers of cattle. Patel lets the myth take over completely here climaxing in the boy Krishna upholding the mountain on his little finger for days, which leads to the cowherd community abandoning the worship of Indra.
The Epilogue in the form of a dialogue between guru and disciple seeks to explain the development of Indian theogony, the avatars reflecting the needs of changing times and the deeper philosophy of creation and dissolution. Iron weapons are in use although the Epilogue correctly mentions the development from implements and weapons of copper to bronze and only thereafter iron. Varuna having a palace with a hundred doors clashes with the pastoral picture painted. The glorious abode that Indra builds for his rule also strains verisimilitude.
The publisher is to be complimented on producing a volume with a striking cover. The printing is easy on the eyes, well-spaced, with no noticeable printing errors.