Anuja Chandramouli’s latest book, ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ begins on a note of sibling love. Agni and Varuna are burying their pet goldfish over thoughts of separation and death. ‘I will never leave you!’ promises Agni, at the end of an innocently poignant scene, making Varuna happy. Little do the twins know (or the readers realize) how swiftly their promises will be thrown into a world beyond their imaginations, with mysterious events and creatures who will change their lives, and even deaths, forever.
Agni Prakash, languishing in depression after Varuna’s death, is summoned to be Yama’s lieutenant. What he thought was a strange dream becomes a stranger job – that of sending the inhabitants of the thousand hells, who have escaped to ruin the three worlds, back to the torture chambers. While fulfilling a mandate he little loves, he chances upon a manuscript his sister wrote before she died. It’s the story of the celestial twins Yama and Yami, re-told! Connections and coincidences start appearing, as we read about Agni’s deadly journey and also the chapters from Varuna’s manuscript. They form two distinct plot-lines in the book, ‘taunting with veiled hints of the things they concealed’. That is until Agni figures out how they both trail towards the epicenter of an action-packed climax.
Fantasy, yes. And also reality. There is much of both in ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’. Which one wins our hearts?
The real and the fantastical primarily merge at the level of the story, where mere mortals are given magical powers and powerful roles to play. They don’t just coexist but are interlinked tight! Suspend all disbelief. The world in 'Yama’s Lieutenant' is not for those ‘corrupted with the taint of science and logic’. It is about ‘magic which will reflect the heart and soul of the wielder’ and which will always ‘extract a price’. Out of mythology and arcane lore come creatures which exist beyond rational realms, like fiendish Narakamayas and Hatakas, necromancers like Naganara, guardian angels and benevolent goddesses, all making the real human world of Agnis and Varunas their own. How? By spreading evil, or contrariwise giving destitute orphans like Minothi ‘powers’ for good.
Much creativity has gone into making the many fantastical scenes in the book come alive. The names of places are naughtily close to real places but their descriptions so magnificent that they are not just a pleasure for readers who appreciate good language but also successful in making the readers become a part of them. From the beautiful to the macabre, from descriptions of hell to idyllic palaces and icy caves, fantasy in the book is a visual treat which draws you in! Epical, really!
It is because of this power of fantasy that all coming-back-to-reality scenes in the book - of big cities, riots, murders and suicides - feel like a sudden leap. While some readers may see that jump as a not-so-seamless merging of fantasy and reality, others would commend the author for making us get lost in a highly invented world as if it were the only reality we knew. While Anuja has also made her book pregnant with the realism of (and subtle social commentary about) lower-caste reservation riots, honour killings, mob frenzy, superstitions, labels like dark-slut-witch and even the evil of child-trafficking, we cannot help but see ‘Himsa and Adharma (which) have taken control of the world’ not as concepts from the human world but as ugly monsters from mythology that now walk the earth.
Of course, there’s Agni to deliver us from such evil! But then, is he the hero of this story? Alone?
At the beginning of the book Agni is a lanky, long-haired depressive who had ‘trouble articulating exactly what it was that he had been chosen to do’. Except, he knew that time was always short, and ‘he was no longer flirting with death so much as consummating his union with it,’ as he went about the world making people pay the price for their actions. By the time he begins battling the dark army the intoxication of magic starts making him feel ‘like a god on earth and more’, who not just captures but destroys!
However, while Agni may have been gifted Yama’s danda and the title of this book, the powerful women in the book outshine his valor, for this reader, and lend the book a unique touch. Most women who play a part in the story rise from states of oppression and suppressed desires. Sanjana, Surya’s consort no less, frees herself from the bondage of being used and abused. She turns into a horse so she could roam the three worlds, wild! There’s Minothi, born to a mother who ran for days to save her child ‘nobody ever knew how’, who then becomes a pivotal magic wielder in the book, ‘a typhoon of unstoppable destruction’ but who could even ‘nurse a dying tree back to life’. Yami, Surya’s daughter and Yama’s twin, knows that ‘marriage and its attendant horrors are not for me’, neither is having sex with a stranger ‘just because Father promised me to him!’ There are Nitara and Dharami and there’s also Varuna who ends up doing the unthinkable taking all of us by sudden …
The mention of Varu reminds me of another important observation.
Anuja Chandramouli’s previous books have been what I have called ‘mythology from below’, using delightful wit and satire as a subversive tool to make a social comment by pulling down the gods to the level of humans. ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ makes you miss that irreverent wit. Yes, Varu’s voice in her manuscript reminds you of classic Anuja-isms (from her previous books) but that’s about all in this department. However, two important aspects from the previous novels do make prominent appearance in this newly-tried genre by this author.
One, humanizing gods till we cannot tell their fates and plights apart from mortals, and which then also helps twine the two plot-lines together. If foolish humans believe in happy endings, gods ‘are cursed with the knowledge that “forever” is a long time and heaven is not all that it is cracked up to be!’. Both mortals and immortals are shown sharing dreams, dislikes, disastrous habits and set destinies. No wonder then that the sibling relationship of Agni and Varuna mirrors that of Yama and Yami. After all, ‘gods and men alike are always in a state of conflict, either with themselves or with those around them because it is in their very composition.’
Secondly, profound ideas discussed or debated in dialogues appearing at important junctures in the book. Anuja’s ‘Shakti; The Divine Feminine’ had enthralling dialogues on contentious ideas. ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ may be a poorer cousin in this regard, but it comes with its own share of thought-provoking conversations tucked within. You read you question - Is the author saying a certain divine-deadly ‘madness’ is behind the violence on earth, and not people’s own deeds? That men are but ‘playthings of fate’ or puppets to a sorcerer’s will? Then what about free will, if it is the soul which ‘propelled the individual to the allocated destination’? And if that is indeed true, why does Anuja, in a rather self-contradictory way, blame man for rising to the ‘top of the food chain with a savagery’ in a different part of the book? When Agni bemoans the deaths he inflicts are you looking at a perpetrator of violence or a victim himself? ‘The only thing worse than unanswered questions were the unpalatable, soul-crushing answers.’ So answers we get none, even as we dwell upon the many questions.
What didn’t work? A glossary of mythical names would have helped, at least in keeping the initial chapters less confusing. I found a discrepancy between the barricaded world that Sivagami Math was and the language, slick expressions and even city-knowledge that the women seemed to acquire there, somehow. As an off-shoot of that, how Agni and Minothi go sassy in deadly situations breaks suspense, and thoughts like those of having a bath or losing weight in the necromancer’s cave seem misplaced. Most importantly, while the reader has been privy to Varu’s manuscript throughout, at some points near the climax Agni just admits to having read some important-to-the-plot instructions in her book, when the reader never did. Also, the all but final war that Agni fights, and which the book was preparing us for, seems to be won all too easily.
When Agni is given the role of Yama’s Lieutenant and told about how mankind will be wiped out at the hands of evil forces, he ‘shook his head in disbelief. He could not help thinking that if he had read such a thing in the pages of a novel, he would have thought it ludicrous.’ The strength of this book is that it is not ludicrous! By marrying reality to fantasy it holds up a mirror to how we live and hate. It provokes us to question free will, ideas of justice, significance of death and the role of violence. It even leaves a lingering message - are we so far gone in our destructiveness that only magic of the most powerful kind can save us now? By the time you finish reading the book, you ask, as Agni does – ‘creatures from the world of fables and mythology! Can it really be possible that they walk among the living now?’ You might catch yourself saying 'It's possible!'
‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ by Anuja Chandramouli is a Random House India publication, 2016
[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]