The blood, intrigue that made an emperor

Jun 27th, 2010 — Pooja Sharma

History may be about the dead, but it is never dead. A young fact grows into a youthful story over time. It gradually matures into a belief, then turns into a doubt-ridden narrative to end as a fiction. A writer intervenes and recreates history during any of these stages. The facts about the Maurya empire are over 2,100 years old as Harish Singhal works on them to churn out his debut novel, King Asoka: A Love Story.
A great deal has been said and written about the Mauryas, much of it sheer theory based on fragments of evidence spared by time. In social memory Mauryan emperor Ashoka was one of the greatest Indian kings of all time who journeyed from being Chanda, or the terrible, to Dhamma, the righteous. While much information about Ashoka’s rule is drawn from the pillars erected by him and from Buddhist texts, few reliable facts are known about his personal life. So what happened during the Kalinga war that transformed the king’s heart? The most accepted answer, and one supported by the inscriptions on Ashokan pillars, points to the massive bloodshed during the war. However, storytellers over the ages have tried to add to the motive. In this novel, Singhal allows history its due place yet weaves a fine mesh of fiction around it.
The novel opens with a dramatic episode of the eleven-year-old Ashoka’s brush with death in Kalinga. With that we step into a marvellous recreation of ancient India. There is no dearth of action here with palace intrigues, princes scrambling for the throne and queens fighting for their sons while King Bindusar struggles to keep together the vast empire he inherited from his father, Chandragupta Maurya. This is also an India still under the influence of Greek and Persian conquests. In fact, with the western border of the Mauryan empire reaching Kandahar, Greek-Persian empires are now India’s neighbours. The signs of Alexander’s visit are alive in the queens bartered at war.
Ashoka is an unfavoured prince to begin with. His mother Suba is a simple woman, uncomfortable with the role she must play to project her son as a prospective successor of the king. In the fierce palace environment she herself falls prey to an ambitious Livia, a Greek queen of the now dead Chandragupta Maurya, who takes Ashoka under her aegis. Ashoka is a thinking youth, an upright prince whose relationship with women always lands him in trouble. Ashoka beats the crown price at a horse race, thus presenting his claim to the crown, but that is not enough. Crown Prince Sasima flees Taxila at the first sign of revolt. Ashoka, who is sent in his place, decapitates the rebel and presents the head to his father. However, Sasima’s mother, the Queen, manipulates the King to forgive her son. As the King inches towards death Ashoka must fight for his crown. The struggle culminates in carnage at the palace with the queens drawing the daggers. Ashoka becomes the King and though he has a wife and two children, Mahendra and Sanghmitra, he has not yet found the woman who will share his throne. He finds that woman in Anga, grand-daughter of a former Taxila governor, and marries her after a long pursuit. The Kalinga war looms after a period of marital bliss.
The cause of the battle has not yet been clearly established by historians. Singhal picks an interesting lead as he leads us to a battle to the death for the statue of Jina, the Jain god. The predictable bloodshed follows but a unique turn in Ashoka’s life leads him to adopt Buddhism.
Singhal sticks to realistic descriptions and relies on imagination. The result is admirable. He has a powerful story to tell and it works well till he decides to explain what is much known. That Ganga was worshipped or the horse was a sign of majesty aren’t facts that need re-telling, particularly when there is a remarkable story at hand. His characters are well-etched and consistent, but as war approaches he tries to throw a few commoners into the arena to evoke the pathos of war. The story is unable to digest these last-minute creations and the effect is lost.
The narrative loses steam after the war but the writer is in no mood to sign off. He details what is inscribed on the pillars and ends only after Ashoka’s death, not realising that for the reader the novel ended 20 pages back.
Bollywood’s big-budget 2001 movie Asoka also traced a similar story of the king. Despite a power-packed performance by Shah Rukh Khan, Ashoka emerges as a ruthless murderer who gives a kill-all order to his soldiers when he thinks his beloved is dead. In Singhal’s story, however, Ashoka is set for greatness: he is brave but not ruthless, a much more complex character. Contrary to the biopic he doesn’t kill for love, instead he renounces violence for it. Both stories have their own version of how Chandagupta Maurya’s sword passed on to Ashoka and of the love angle. Singhal’s rendition of the intimate is bold and exquisite while the song-and-dance element in the film falls flat.
From the Greek princesses to the tribals of Kalinga, the sheer expanse of the novel is exhilarating. Singhal churns together fact and fiction to produce a magical story of love. When Ashoka attacks Taxila to claim his throne, Livia tells her story as she waits for the first sign of his victory: the story of the Greek princess who was brought to India as a war bride of Chandrgupta Maurya. In the words of author genius, anyone can make history, but it takes a genius to write it.