Nala Damayanti is a timeless tale of love from the Mahabharata that seeks to impress upon impressionable young girls, that they must love their spouses unconditionally. Even/especially if, said spouse is a whiny, weak loser who irresponsibly gambles away his entire Kingdom before abandoning her in the forest, to fend for herself. Husband dearest might be a rapist, murderer, and afflicted with every kind of awful trait there is but the wife must put up with his crap not just with superhuman stoicism but with a loving heart and devote every waking moment of her existence to pandering to his unworthy whims, enduring his gross embrace, and bringing forth sons by the dozen. She must also refuse to entertain even the thought of another man let alone his advances, because according to the ancient incels who wrote the scriptures while under the influence, a woman’s chastity must be safeguarded at all costs even if it entails eking out a miserable existence without an orgasm in sight, leave alone happiness or fulfillment.
Anand Neelakantan takes this material, and working within these crippling limitations does his utmost to redeem it. The fate of humanity, which is dangerously close to extinction, thanks to Brahma, the original dirty old deity, rests in the dainty hands of Damayanti, and her ability to love a man, who is hardly worth her toenails unconditionally, while fighting her way past the many barriers, that loom on their way to a doubtful happy ending. She is aided in her hopeless quest by Hemanga, a golden swan with a beak that just won’t quit jabbering. The lovers face untold hardships, thanks to the wily machinations of Kali, a God of darkness, who emerged from the sum of humankind’s fears and insecurities as well as Indra, Agni and Yama who toy with humans because they can and since immortality does not seem to have rendered them immune to boredom.
The story chugs along pleasantly enough. Here, as in the epic one wonders what Damayanti sees in Nala. We are told that the way to Damayanti’s heart is through her stomach and Nala as an amazing cook, manages the feat with a little help from Hemanga, in whose wake chaos usually unfolds. This isn’t quite convincing, but the reader goes along because of the charming mirth present though the proceedings. Nala is a self – made, irritatingly noble soul who has made a better life for his people but his achievements notwithstanding, he suffers from a severe inferiority complex on account of belonging to the Nishada tribe. He and his people are constantly dehumanized over their lower caste status. Neelakantan explores this recurring theme common to most of his books with the sensitivity and sharp wit he is known for, making Nala a sympathetic figure when he is not being an insufferable one.
In contrast to the self – pitying and almost ineffectual Nala, we have King Rituparna of Ayodhya who towers over the story with his brashness, bawdy tastes, and ferocious appetite for life. A truly memorable character, he appears to be a stand – in for the author himself with his irreverence and impatience for those who are so filled with fear about the torments of an afterlife that may see them in hell for their sins, that they forget to savor the joys of the single life allotted to them and fail to fill it with love and worthy deeds. He is the perfect answer to false Godmen and priests who play on the human penchant for being foolish for personal profit. Too bad, Damayanti doesn’t ditch Nala for Rituparna, but an epic tale can only go so far and thanks to Neelakantan, the modern reader will hopefully emulate Damayanti’s intelligence and gritty resolve to extricate herself from impossible situations in which she lands up thanks to idiot males without ever losing sight of the power of love to fix almost anything.
This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.