Book Review: The Secret of the Nagas

August 24, 2011 9:59 am

The success of The Immortals of Meluha, a novel by first-time author Amish, took everyone by surprise last year. Few had imagined that a story in which Shiva is reimagined as a Tibetan stoner, told by an IIM graduate, had the makings of a bestseller. The book became popular within weeks, and fans have been eagerly anticipating the sequel. The Secret of the Nagas is the second part in Amish’s Shiva Trilogy.

The Shiva of The Secret of the Nagas is not the unsure and ambiguous nomad from the first book, but a happy, confident man. He has left behind his homeland and settled into the role of being the saviour quite comfortably. Sati and he are happily married. The weed in the plains is better. The one dark spot is Shiva’s need to avenge the murder of his friend, Brahaspati, who was killed by a mysterious Naga assassin in The Immortals of Meluha. Despite the snake on the cover, the Nagas have little serpentine about them. They are all humans with physical abnormalities who have been abandoned by their family because the law demands Nagas be exiled. The Nagas have their own kingdom and the exact location of their capital, Panchvati, is a carefully guarded secret. In the course of The Secret of the Nagas, Shiva learns that appearances can be misleading. The identity of the Naga assassin and Panchvati are discovered, and among the new additions to Shiva’s entourage are Kali, Ganesh, Kartik and Parashuram.

There are a number of reasons why The Secret of the Nagas is a disappointment, particularly to anyone who liked the first book of the trilogy. The Immortals of Meluha had two strengths: a reasonably solid plot and unambitious storytelling. The Secret of the Nagas has neither. Amish wrote using simple sentences. His characters were interesting and spoke in modern, everyday English, which actually gave them an air of easy credibility rather than sounding jarring. The Immortals of Meluha sought to tell a story that made you interested in finding out what happens next. In The Secret of the Nagas, there’s little suspense and by the end, one feels little curiosity about the finale.

It seems that while writing The Secret of the Nagas, much of Amish’s attention was upon language. There are obvious and woefully inept attempts at literary flair that make the novel a tiresome read. The book suffers from a rash of exclamation marks and unnecessary italics. Sentences have been sliced to create weak, dangling fragments (“Parashuram charged. Followed by his vicious horde.”). Instead of simply talking, people bellow, scream, whisper and fall silent. They are flabbergasted, they pirouette in the middle of a fight, and use words like “exponentially”, “garagantuan” and “plethora” in their speech. The net result is text that is laboured, trite and awkward.

Amish’s retelling of myths in The Secret of the Nagas is not particularly fun or clever. Unlike in The Immortals of Meluha, getting Amished in The Secret of the Nagas leads to far less interesting versions of both Kali and Parashuram. Ganesh is perhaps the worst hit because so little of his story actually makes sense. The uncomfortable relationship between Shiva and Ganesh in Hindu myths gets beaten to flat simplicity. More subtly hit is the Bengali community. A substantial part of The Secret of the Nagas concerns Brangas, who are Amished Bengalis from an ancient era. The Brangas are clever and rich but are afflicted by a weird plague for which the natural antidote is peacock blood. So, in order to survive, Amished Bengalis have to kill the national bird and drink its blood. Plus, the prime minister of the Branga kingdom is a man festooned with gold jewellery, whose name is Bappiraj, thus bringing music director Bappi Lahiri into the Shiva Trilogy.

Amish’s attempts at philosophy are as half-baked as the characters and plot. For example, he suggests thoughts are radio waves that could be communicated by temples, which were actually powerful transmitters (see pages 111-112). Unlike Bappiraj, who is clearly an attempt at humour, the temple-transmitter theory is elaborated upon in all seriousness. Now, thanks to Amish, we’re seeing the temples of India as the Facebook for ancient priests.

The Secret of the Nagas by Amish, Westland, Rs295. Buy it from