This year has given me some really good reading of new Indian writers in English spinning yarns on quintessentially Indian themes, and writing well. This book is the latest in the broad genre of historical fiction that I have just tackled, and I am very upbeat about it. I finished reading it in a single day, and that is already saying something. Given both my work schedule and the background of reading that I have, not one book in a hundred can grip me so firmly these days.
This book, like those of Nagarkar, Tripathi and Liddle that I have mentioned approvingly earlier on this blog (and also like Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies), is an imaginative recreation of part of our hoary and glamorous past – in this case, the saga of how the worldly-wise sage Chanakya destroyed the Nandas of Magadha and united almost the whole of India for the first time in recorded history under one emperor, his brilliant and devoted protégé Chandragupta Maurya, in the late 4th century BC. But where it deviates from the others is in telling two parallel stories – the ancient one constantly alternating with a modern-day version, where a wily, ruthless, farseeing, personally humble but politically über ambitious mentor’s machinations, exactly in old Chanakya’s style, ultimately put his most promising disciple on the throne – read the prime minister’s chair – in New Delhi. The closest comparison I could recall is Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel.
Sanghi has done quite a bit of research – hugely aided by the internet! His language is less adolescent than Tripathi’s, though in my opinion it is still quite unnecessarily bespattered with coarse expletives and slang which serve no literary purpose. But there are flashes of intelligent wit and lots of allusion which would appeal to the educated reader (if such a sub-species still exists). He has put so many smart aphorisms in the mouths of his two gurus, borrowed from every kind of famous source, Napoleon to Mao ze Dong, Al Capone to Yes Minister, that he just might have been sued, if only he had not taken the trouble to acknowledge his sources.
Some loose ends remain. I shall mention just one – how did Gangasagar Mishra die so soon of old age and disease while his much older one time patron Agarwal-ji was still going strong? But I shall not play the spoiler; let the reader find out more for himself. I guarantee that will not diminish his enjoyment of the book.
I am glad that the book simultaneously reasserts two eternal truths about politics: that it is the last refuge of scoundrels, and also that it can be the noblest profession. It also clearly shows how big business and high politics make cosy bedfellows – so much for naïve folks who think that businessmen are ‘good’ people and only politicos are bad. Besides, it is delightful to see that so many contemporary young people are working hard to give the lie to the stupid canard that history is not ‘cool’. A time will come soon, I am hoping, when only chimps and engineers will think that way…
Sanghi has written only three books yet, and already I can draw not-absurd comparisons with masters like Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Jeffrey Archer. I think he has a glorious future in writing. And to think he balances a life of ‘entrepreneur by day and author by night’, an MBA too! More power to his elbow. May he give inspiration to many of my old boys. And may the Indian publishing industry now go all out to make our writers celebrities worldwide, so that a day might soon come when the most talented of them can make very paying careers out of writing alone, and be shining beacon lights to youngsters growing up in their shadow.
The Chanakya legend, by the way, has a very special appeal for me, because I have in vain looked for a worthy disciple like Chandragupta all my life, and now given up, for my pupils, I have now accepted, have no big ambitions at all.
Many thanks to young Hindol Bose for having lent me this book to read.
[Chanakya’s Chant, by Ashwin Sanghi, Westland Ltd 2010, pp 448, Rs. 195, ISBN 978-93-80658-67-4, Rs. 140 on flipkart]