Spicy retelling...

Retelling of stories from Indian mythology seems to be the flavour of the season for Indian writing in English. First there was Ashok Banker with his retelling of the epics, then there was Amish with his Meluha series, and Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwini Sanghi.

Now we have Bali and the Ocean of Milk by Nilanjan P Choudhury, a reimagining of the amrit manthan episode cast as an allegory on political power, spiced up with raunchy irreverence, campy language and contemporary in-jokes. 

The story opens with Indrah, the king of the devas, drained of all his male ardour, failing to respond to Urvashi’s amorous advances. In another part of the universe, the asura king Bali has been the victim of an assassination attempt and is battling for life as his queen Avani takes temporary charge. The needle of suspicion falls on Suketu, the rebel priest of the Mahakali temple, leading an outfit called ‘The Brotherhood’.

Viru, the more articulate and wiliest of the trinity at whose sufferance Indrah lords over Amaravati (Jai and Samba being the other two, and no points for guessing whom the author is alluding to here), offers the only solution: the mythical nectar. Bali is co-opted into the enterprise and a team comprising six devas and six asuras embark upon churning the ocean. But things go horribly wrong and Bali is forced to join hands with his arch-enemy Suketu, sacrificing his liberal reformist ideology. There are many twists and turns and plenty of high voltage action before the kingdom of Tripura is set for a new beginning.

It is a rollicking read from the word go and a compelling page-turner. Choudhury manages to humanise the gods and the demons to an extent where we can empathise with their every psychological motivation. His prose is lean and muscular. He also has a great flair for bringing alive action sequences as well as locales with vivid, camera-eye descriptions. But where he falters somewhat is in tying seamlessly the threads of the two narratives — the original amrit manthan episode and the imagined one built around the social engineering project of Suketu.

Even in the second segment, there are some touching human insights like the little girl Tara yearning for discarded bright coloured saris (contrasted against the pristine white dictated by asura culture). The effect of the ‘Moral Cleansing Process’ on an ordinary couple too is depicted with chilling effect. But there are sections here that are a little strident and force-fitted. The rush to the hyper-kinetic action climax also leaves the core political issue somewhat stranded. But what makes up for these lapses and makes Choudhury stand out from other re-tellings of myths, apart from the sheer narrative gusto, are his campy comic turns. The team of six devas and six asuras churning the ocean is referred to as ‘The Ocean’s Twelve’, the project to assassinate Bali is code named ‘Balika Vadhu’ (Bali Ka Vadh Undetected) and the hair dye used by Indrah to impress Urvashi is called ‘Molten Midnight’ by So’Real. The narrative is peppered with references to animal rights violation, low-fat milk, Menaka’s low-waist saris and even a bit of kinky stuff with silken blindfolds and bondage.

So go ahead, dig into this spicy concoction of myth, human drama, social satire and raunchy humour. You won’t be disappointed as you revisit our ancient  myths, discovering their contemporary resonance with plenty of chuckles along the way.   

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