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11 March 2018

The Rise of an Emperor

I have been generally writing my book reviews on GoodReads. But I decided that I'd intially begun this blog to write about music, movies and books. So far, my book reviews on this blog had been limited to books on cinema. That changed when I reviewed Madhu's latest book recently. I'd like that to not be a one-off. Therefore, another review of another book not related to cinema - that I read recently and enjoyed very, very much.

My introduction to Chandragupta Maurya, as for many of my generation I wager, was through Amar Chitra Katha, the illustrated comics that we devoured by the dozen. As I grew older, history texts gave me the dry facts about one of the greatest emperors of all time, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, and a man who is said to have been an enlightened ruler as well as a great conqueror. As my interest in history grew, so did my awareness that there really weren’t very many interesting records of our past. The few there were, were dry academic tomes, guaranteed to put anyone but the most diligent history buff to sleep. My interest in historical fiction arose as a direct offshoot of my interest in history. There is a certain joy to a tale well-told, that takes real people from history and puts them into an imaginary (but well-thought-out) world. Unfortunately, reading most historical fiction reveals the severe lacunae of research. Many authors place their stories in a period of which they have very little knowledge except for the myths and legends that abound in popular culture, and therefore, the books abound in anachronisms.

What sets Emperor Chandragupta apart is the painstaking research that has obviously gone into the preparation of the story. Taking cognisance of both recorded history and myths surrounding the man (the lion nuzzling him awake, the blessing of a rogue elephant), Anu Kumar –  writing under the pseudonym, 'Adity Kay' has fleshed out an engrossing tale of a complex man, who lived during one of the most chaotic times in Indian history.
Hatchett India
Pages: 408
Chandragupta, from all reliable accounts, rose from humble beginnings to become possibly the first ruler to consolidate a vast empire – vaster than any other. In this, he was aided and abetted by Kautilya Chanakya, a Brahmin who had his own axe to grind. Chandragupta also brokered for peace with Seleucus Nicator, a former general of Alexander the Great, and married his daughter, Helena. This much is fact.

What Anu does is to retell the (fictional) story of this man, whose beginnings are shrouded in mystery, using known facts and her imagination to weld together a compelling tale of a young boy from a tribe of peacock tamers (and therefore known as ‘Moriya’) who overthrows Dhana Nanda, the tyrannical ruler of the Magadhan empire.

It is not easy to limit the man’s life, his relationships – with his mentor, his peers, his wives Durdhara and Helena – or to cover all aspects of a ruler – conqueror, administrator, warrior – in one book. But Anu attempts to at least give you a glimpse into every one of these facets even as she focuses mostly on the rise of a young man with a sense of his own destiny.

Anu begins from where Moriya, already a leader of the boys of his tribe, has an unexpected meeting with the man who will be instrumental in the shaping of his destiny. From there, she draws us into a gripping tale of tyrannical kings and missing princes, of courtly humiliation and a thirst for revenge, of secret machinations and spiralling ambition.

A major part of the book deals with Moriya's quest to reach the prize that is Pataliputra – the capital of Magadha. For that, the boy-man and his mentor need an army; they need money, and they need alliances that will hold them in good stead. As Moriya and Chanakya try to keep one step ahead of Dhana Nanda’s spies and assassins, one is drawn into a world where duplicity is necessary to survival. Skirmishes, battles, alliances, are all part of this long journey to their shared goal.

Since one cannot talk about Chandragupta without also mentioning Chanakya, it is interesting to see how dexterously Anu sets about showing us how similar the men are, yet how different. While Chandragupta is shown to mull over what will happen once he becomes emperor (that he will, he does not doubt), what the duties of a ruler are, and how best to serve the people he will rule over, Chanakya’s ideas are more rigid – his precepts (which were codified into the Arthashastra, the manual that out-Machiavellies Machiavelli) are woven into the advice or dictums that he offers Moriya through the book.

Alexander and Megasthenes make appearances in the book as well, and so do a host of peripheral characters who I wish had more space in the story – their connections to Chandragupta needed a little more fleshing out. Especially his wives. Durdhara, the imperious princess who marries him under duress – when did she fall in love with Chandragupta, and how did their relationship progress? Helena – did she really hate Chandragupta or did she really marry him to escape her father? (That Helena was disturbed by Durdhara’s presence in the palace was a nice touch.) Even Chandragupta’s relationships with Seleucus and Megasthenes, especially the latter, seemed rushed. (I did enjoy the characterisation of Megasthenes as a somewhat Mercury-like character, though.)

These are but minor peeves, however, in a story so well-knit together. Anu's strengths lie in making us feel for the man behind the ruler. It is hard not to feel the Chandragupta’s sorrow and his regrets as he finally renounces his kingdom in search of an inner peace.

Along with a facility for language (that suits the tale, yet is neither too archaic nor too modern), Anu has put in enormous effort in backing up her fiction with hard facts, as well as in creating an ambience that brings to life the terrain and period, as well as the blood, sweat and tears involved in establishing an empire. 

I'm looking forward to Vikramaditya the  next book in Anu Kumar / Aditi Kay's Emperor series.

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