Banker, Ashok: Demons of Chitrakut

Gathering pace or marking time?

I can’t be the only reader who approaches the third book of any lengthy series with some trepidation. However much one has enjoyed the first two volumes, and despite the reassurance that Ashok K Banker’s retelling of The Ramayana is a definite seven-part tale, there’s always the danger of mid-story doldrums. We’ve all been there before, sadly. Fortunately, I found Demons of Chitrakut offered substantial progress for the overall narrative as well as adding new breadth and depth to this enthralling saga.

The book opens with new characters who immediately grab the attention, notably Vibhisena. This paradoxically pious Rakshasa is setting out to save his brother Ravana, in full knowledge of the demon lord’s evil yet bound to him by family love and loyalty. As the focus then shifts to Prince Rama,and his brother Lakshman, now returning newly married to Ayodhya, Ashok Banker skilfully exploits our apprehension at our wider knowledge. Will Vibhisena restore Ravana from his petrified undead state to attack our heroes once again, now bereft of the super powers they spent in defence of Mithila? These new perils running through the opening section of the book hold the reader so effectively that the concise recapping of events in the previous volumes slips deftly under the critical radar.

As the travellers approach Ayodhya we see the city through the eyes of another recently arrived character, the princess Sita, who becomes much more fully realised in this book. Her viewpoint gives us fresh insights into the relationships within the Ayodhyan royal family which become crucial to the unexpected twists of the plot as well as avoiding any air of repetition from earlier episodes. As in the previous books, the high heroic supernatural threats to Rama run in parallel with the menace of very human evil, personified by the malicious witch Manthara. At her instigation, Kaikeyi, second wife and selfish, deluded queen to the ailing king Dasaratha claims boons he promised her long ago, focusing her hatred on Rama in hopes of promoting her own son’s interests. Dasaratha is tested to destruction by the conflicting demands of loyalty to his word, his wives and his sons. There seems no honourable course out of this vividly portrayed and emotionally agonizing mess for anyone. Grief and anger could prove as lethal for the kingdom as evil magic.

Only Rama can see a way through and follows the demands of his conscience, resolutely heading for exile in Chitrakut. Friends and enemies alike struggle to see why he does this but as the latter third of the story unfolds, it becomes clear Rama has identified the least evil path open to him. Which nevertheless has its perils, both physical threats and the insidious danger that the differing attitudes of Sita and Lakshman will force Rama into making unwelcome and possibly unwise choices. We finish the book with that uncertainty hanging over us, when Rama cannot afford to make mistakes. Ravana’s demons are on the march again, with new leaders and new ambitions.

Themes of love and loyalty, earned and undeserved, running through this story make Demons of Chitrakut a rewarding read in its own right, as well as a satisfying continuation of the wider Ramayana. Ashok Banker’s skills in convincingly portraying the most fabulous mythic monsters as utterly real continue to impress, as does his ability to convey the depth of human hurt and confusion suffered by his heroes and ancillary characters. On the evidence of this volume, I don’t think I need have any doubts about the Armies of Hanuman.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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