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Published on: 12/1/16 6:48 AM


Book review: The Book of Shiva by Ravi Shankar Etteth

The Book of Shiva by Ravi Shankar Etteth. A Harper Element publication.

This then is a spiritual travelogue. You can, if you wish, make comparisons to Phaedrus` journey in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or, at a long stretch, Alex Garland`s  revelations in The Beach. Be that as it may, here we have a monk of indeterminate age, a monk given the name Asananda by his omniscient, omnipotent and quite charming guru.

Asananda is on a quest, he needs to go to Kailash to find the Book of Shiva. But no, this book does not detail the many adventures that befall Asananda on his way to spiritual enlightenment; what we get instead,  is a modest portfolio of tales the monk collects en route.

These tales are not entirely new takes on old shibboleths and legends but we absorb them quite happily along with the monk, because these are the tales that go on to make up the spine of religious myth and folklore, hence totally irresistible, fascinating, stuff we will listen to repeatedly.

Etteth opens with a great hook, telling us that the monk overslept on the very morning he was to set out for his grail. You wonder at his guru indulging him so but as you turn the pages and get to know Asananda better, you see him for what he is: the seeker, the quest and the moral, all rolled into one.

At times the desi reader might well find the explanatory style of the narrative a tad baffling. Sentences like this appear often: `From her jharoka — a traditional balcony that juts out of the wall, supported by corbels and embellished with trellises on the sides —.` But maybe it is meant for western seekers? Or for Gen Next of Indian readers who were not told these tales by their grandmothers?

And so we have the tales unspooling one after the other, some dealing with the divine, others carrying a definite corporeal weight. The tale of the Canutha ruby linked to a small and happy family which is about to be scattered to the winds very soon.

The familiar story of Pandora and her box, given a new twist. Hanuman, the avatar of Shiva who lived in the mountain (aka the Yeti or the Abominable Snowman), Shiva, his consort Parvati, Ganesha, the jealous Ganga the river of unbearable pain and of hope, Yama, a bunch of aghoris.

A boatman and the rich merchant`s daughter  who fell in love with his song; a handful of troubled human beings including  an American named Paul; Narcissus, not given any twist. Even a closer look at Icarus.

This Shiva is not very accessible or too normal unlike Amish`s Shiva. We walk beside the monk as he makes his way past Rishikesh,  touching  Shivpuri, Devprayag, Srinagar , Nandaprayag, Joshimath, Kedarnath, and onto past Mansarovar to Kailash.

The travelogue part comes into dazzling play as when Etteth talks of the mountains thus: The monk…had a vision of endless snow that segued into the sky, forming a great cupola lit by a cold, silver sun. He saw the mountains as a great calligraphy of ice and white rock, and the glaciers and frosty rivers were a part of the gigantic Himalayan landscape.

Or thus: Darkness condensed softly on the conical hills above Devprayag, permeating the conifer and sal trees, while the mountain  ranges afar remained gilded with the remains of the day. The hillside formed a sweeping crescent along the Alaknanda. Ashrams , homes, hotels and shops tumbled down towards its table-shaped shore, framed  by large rocks.

Etteth is a consummate story teller and this book is a lyrical tribute to Shiva. Enlightenment comes in incremental doses. Faith is likened to a path in the fog that leads you not to god but back to yourself. We learn that without man, god cannot fulfil his own destiny. That most of us cast spells on ourselves. That there are no new stories, only new lessons taken from old stories. That the universe is united by the same stories.

These are hoary tales neatly arranged, each trailing off with some threads adrift, only to be gathered up with a light hand in the next tale.  As for the Book of Shiva itself, long before the denouement, the reader gets more than an inkling what it is all about. Then again, getting up there is more than half the fun.

fictionguruMansarovarMount KailashShivaspiritual talesspiritual travelspiritual travelogue

Sheila Kumar • December 1, 2016

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  1. Geetha Jaiprakash December 2, 2016 - 5:10 am Reply

    Would like to read it.will check in the library.

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