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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chanakya's Chant

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]


Shilpi said...

I’m very glad you wrote this review although it still feels a little surreal reading it. It was a relief to read this and to know that there are Indian writers who are serving good fare, and by dipping into history. I know at some point in March I was feeling particularly miserable and sad that I didn’t know any history, and then a month ago…if I did – I’d probably try writing a bit on odd matters. I’ve had a terribly interesting time reading all the books you wrote reviews and recommended through the whole year, beginning last year with ‘Debjaan’, which went into my favourite book list and parts from it rise to the foreconscious every now and then (I haven’t been able to get a used copy of Liddle’s book as yet, sadly enough even though I searched with renewed vigor when Pupu told me a bit on Muzaffar Jang). ‘Cuckold’ shot straight to the top of my favourite books list. In terms of reading about unusual characters and matter written by unusual characters – this year stands out sharply in my head…It’s been terribly rich.

That part of parallel story telling in this one sounds especially interesting and that’s the part that feels surreal to me although the historical-imaginative tale sounds terribly at this point. It’s very embarrassing to think I tried reading the Arthashastra once in my life (while sitting cross-legged in the library here) but I’d probably get around to reading more of a biography on Chanakya once I read this one or go about hunting in the libraries. I know I actually read more on Shiva after you wrote the Shiva trilogy review although I knew more about him than I’d thought I did – so I realized when I read the books I’d carted back from the library.

I remember I liked Ghosh’s ‘The Calcutta Chromosomes’ and didn’t quite forget his chilling ‘Shadow Lines’, and people who liked his ‘Sea of poppies’ told me that his ‘The Glass Palace’ (which I haven’t as yet read nor ‘…poppies’) is very interesting. I think you might like reading Vikram Chandra’s ‘Red Earth and pouring rain’. I read it some years ago, and only remember that I identified with the typing monkey of the tale and could feel the battles, bloodshed, and the rest that he types through the telling of his tale. It was sort of a historical imaginative tale with the monkey talking of his past lives.

I’ve wondered about politics and was rather fascinated by it in high-school; that I didn’t take up Political Science as my Major in college and took up sociology instead was more of an accident - but I’ve never gotten closer to understanding real world politics, sadly enough. But the big business and politics being comfy bedfellows is something I sensed and got to know a bit more about.

I’ll keep chanting that some other books by Indians are published too and that Indian authors become worldwide celebrities, and for a day when the terribly talented ones can make a career from writing alone. As for history being not ‘cool’, I hope the band of sociologists move away from the chimps and engineers although many will probably yell at me and pelt me with some stones for saying this…

A very long ‘Ah’ would be appropriate for your concluding thought for this piece. That in part is what makes reading this review somewhat strange in a way. There seems to be a book on Chandragupta by Rajat Pillai that’s been released this year. I just found out while searching for a used copy of ‘Chanakya’s Chant’.

More than many thanks for writing this one, and after writing a very long comment I shall take leave for now.

P.S: I’m almost wondering whether somebody will give you some recent historical-imaginative fiction on Chenghiz to read next …or Richard Burton or Omar or King Arthur or Leonardo or who knows.

kiran karar said...

Hello sir,
Although this comment is not related to your current post still I would want you to see it.
Few days back I was going through the behavioral pattern of chimpanzees and kangaroos.
I saw that the chimpanzees move in a strange pattern. They form a square in which the weaker ones of the herd are at the perimeter, the stronger ones near the center and the best male member with his queens at the center.This process is undertaken, such that if the group is attacked by predators the weaker ones die and the bad gene gets eliminated.
Similar thing is observed in the kangaroos where the mother gives birth to six joeys but she has only four milk teats.So the stronger four who are able to reach them survive but the remaining die.
These observations clarify Darwin's law: survival of the fittest.Nature has provided us various ways to make our next generation safe(that is what these two creatures do) but we the humans with drugs help the bad gene to survive and so violate the simple laws of nature. It results in economic crisis,health crisis and vengeance.
So I concluded that these puny,dumb creatures are much more educated than us and also got the answer of a question which you often ask "ARE WE EDUCATED?"
Sadly I say: "WE ARE NOT"
(present student--ICSE batch 2013)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

There is a basic but very serious mistake of perception in your comment, Kiran. No crime: people much older and wiser than you make that mistake very often. I don't think other readers will be interested in a long discussion here; so I shall keep the explanation for the next class. But many thanks for writing.

Sunup said...


Thanks for posting yet another review -- you were my first and still the only person who recommends genuinely good reads. Now coming to think of it, did/do we have a Chanakya of politics in our times? The person most befitting that title is our current President, and the same has been acknowledged by many. But then even he isn't a true 'Chanakya' in the sense that he didn't have any 'sishya' or protege who made it big. Then there are some who consider the shrewd Digvijay Singh as a Chanakya. But unfortunately his protege Rahul Gandhi seems to be reluctant or doesn't have any big ambition at all, like Sir's students including me :-). The other Chanakya contenders like Arjun Singh, PVN Rao, Vajpayee etc. -- just can't put them in Chanakya category.
As for people who consider history uncool -- well, most Indians think it's 'cool' to consider history 'uncool'. And this trend mostly started in the 70's and 80's and is going strong now. Even people who ideally should consider history 'cool', like people with the ASI, are least interested. They just put up boards near historical monuments and allow them to rot and be vandalized. Same with some among the breed of historians too. They are too busy pleasing politicians by 'twisting' history and 'tweaking' history books.
Once again, thanks Sir for recommending this. HomeShop18.com is retailing it for Rs. 133 and I have a Rs. 50 coupon of theirs waiting to be redeemed. So let me put it to good use.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sunup, good to use those coupons and assorted discounts, go for it.

Yes, alas, a total lack in matters historical has become a hallmark of our culture. It didn't use to be so bad; recall that India produced some world-class historians and history-based writers around the turn of the last century, and Nehru's passion for history matched his dream of turning India into a technologically-abled nation. The people who really get my goat is the type who have the gall to claim that ignorance of history is actually needed for whatever they mean by 'progress' and 'development'. I tell them go and look at Germany, France, Japan and even the United States. They pretend they haven't heard...

ananya mukherjee said...

Chanakya's Chant is indeed a gripping read Sir. Ashwin Sanghi has deftly equated ancient Bharat with 'modern' India which seems to be as riven as ancient Bharat by class hatred, social callousness, corruption, greed and most importantly the unthinking multitudes. It is quite true that some things never change.I wish our so called politicians and history instructors were literate enough to go through this daring analysis of the political condition of India.I agree with Chanakya when he says"Politics is far too serious a matter to be left to politicians son."
Besides being informative this book is also quite thought provoking(please pardon my incoherent rambling):
Chanakya's Chant clearly shows that politics requires a very good understanding of the human nature. Chanakya's greatest asset was that he could plumb the lowest depths of the human mind due to which he could completely outwit Ambhi and the petulant Paurus and win over the population of Mallayrajya by using Nipunaka's skills in psychology, drama and theatrics.

A true politician must be sharp eyed or observant. Chanakya had the keen ability to learn from quotidian incidents.He learnt the brilliant strategy of conquering the adjoining kingdoms before invading Magadha after seeing an illiterate mother telling her son to eat the edges of the porridge first because the edges were comparatively cooler than the center.

Thia book also explores the ideal relationship that can develop between a teacher and a student. It never fails to amaze me that even after becoming the emperor of almost the whole of India Chandragupta always gave the first priority to his teacher (Chanakya) and kept returning to Kautilya's dimly lit modest hut to seek his advice.

To some extent this book makes us aware of what it means to be a true Brahmin.A real Brahmin is the one who is always willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of mankind or for the fulfillment of one's noble ambitions and obviously such Brahmins are not judged on grounds of caste or religion. Anyone who is interested in Indian History will certainly know that there were only a handful of such Brahmins in India.

The concept of Artha or the acquisition of wealth which is one of the Purusharthas or goals of life has been described nicely in this book. The root of wealth is economic activity the failure of which can completely and unexpectedly disrupt social life. I agree with Chanakya when he says"In the manner that elephants are needed to catch elephants so does one need wealth to capture more wealth."

Well, I feel that the fascinating Brahmin Raghupati (Rajarshi)bears striking resemblance to Kautilya because both are shrewd, have attractive personalities and are driven into politics by the death of their loved ones.

And Sea of Poppies ( Ibis trilogy part 1) has become one of my favourite books.It is a must read for all avid readers.I have finished reading almost all the books of Amitava Ghosh(of course The Shadow Lines tops the list) except River of Smoke and the second part of Ibis Trilogy and I feel that most of his books make us rethink the boundaries that divide people and the generic boundaries that divide narratives.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I am almost on the verge of finishing the book and I too was wondering about the age of Agrawalji! Other than that, it is indeed a gripping and thoroughly researched book, Sanghi has taken care not to alter the important facts unlike Amish Tripathi's Shiva Trilogy. I absolutely agree on your view of using expletives. I don't know what makes the authors, (and perhaps, readers too) think that using these can make a book 'cool'.
I have a question, though. Should the end justify the means, as Chanakya and Machiavelli proposes? Or are they interconnected as Gandhi states that means are an end in itself, that politics should not be separated from ethics or morality?

Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Yes, it's both so crude and utterly unnecessary, isn't it, Sayantika? Does an author who wants to be taken seriously by grown-up readers need to demonstrate how he can swear and abuse like a drunken navvy or college-goer?

As for your question, I do not subscribe to extreme idealistic positions, because they simply don't work in the real world. There are so many situations where we must work on the principle that the end justifies the means - hurting an infant with a vaccination for instance, knowing a little passing hurt will do it a great deal of good for a lifetime. But when you consider how monsters have used the same argument to wreak havoc on countless human lives, as with Hitler trying to wipe out the whole Jewish race because he believed (or claimed to believe-) that it would 'purify' the rest of humanity, or what the communists did with their pogroms and their gulags, I can and will very firmly say that I don't believe the end always justifies the means. I shall vote with Gandhi there, because I have learnt, with Cromwell and Russell, that it is not good to be too sure of myself, especially when I am dealing with others' lives, and especially on a vast scale, because I might be terribly wrong, if nothing else....

sayantika said...

Thanks for explaining that, Sir. Your explanations always make me feel that I should have thought that way. I forgot to add in the comment on Nivedita di's post that after my father, Sir is the only person whom I ask such random questions which come to my mind.
With regards,