King Asoka: A Love Story; Harish Singhal, Har-Anand Publications; Rs.695
Singhal’s Asoka is, in many ways, a novel that reclaims the grandeur of story-telling.
The author vows this is a work of fiction: “No claim is made for historical veracity”. That’s a disclaimer we must keep in mind as we read the book, holding on as it bucks and twists beneath us. Harish Singhal writes, “This time around, Asoka had a rather unkingly beginning — he spent his time in my company.” That shows.
What goes around must come around. So the book begins in Kalinga where Asoka and his brother Tissa run into cannibals, and Asoka is almost quartered and eaten when he attempts to save a young boy, the human repast for the night. And it’s, of course, the Kalinga battle-field that plays a definitive role in Asoka’s transformation from ruthless ruler to humane propagator of Buddhism.
Between these two events lies a rollicking roller-coaster of a book that thrills, touches our emotions, disappoints, dips to the ridiculous, enchants with its descriptions; and generally shows us how much Singhal has appropriated this larger-than-life historical figure for himself.
Singhal, settled in San Fransisco, writes for a universal readership. His Americanisms, slang and casual contemporary references jar but growing accustomed to his flow, we simply see them as personal tools that bolster the robust retelling of his part-historical, part-whimsical saga. It works if we can take the novel as given, studying it within its own framework of reference.
Though even that often becomes difficult. At times, he gets beyond himself: A seller of animal glands tells Asoka, “Then I recommend a walk in the garden. You will be…gland.” During a festival, “people fussed and fumed and did the turkey trot.” When the Kalinga prime minister’s son Sisupal returns from a tryst with a prostitute, he says: “She bilked me of forty-five pana……it was highway lechery!” Asoka tells Tissa to “stop shaking in your pants.” And this: “The queen was shocked — no lightning rod was attached to her head.” Soon, the typos and the simply unedited get inextricably woven together. An editor could well have saved the runaway writer from himself.
For a modern audience
Singhal showcases Asoka for a modern, universal audience using their terms of reference. This might irk the Indian reader and historian but, when it comes to story-telling, Singhal is on top. One is often reminded of life-sketch fictions patented by Irving Stone. Singhal is at his best in his broad, colourful sketches of character and descriptions of nature, his grasp of emotion and easy depiction of grandeur and dream, love and loss. Occasionally, though, that’s but a step away from the maudlin.
Needing tighter control and general pruning, Asoka yet stands up as a sweeping epic of adventure, statesmanship, love and emotion, the offering of an artist taking a loving look at a towering historical figure. Asoka’s journey from self-doubt to replacement of faith is sparked by colourful and, for the most part, interestingly etched characters. His mother and the ambitious choti maa (Chandragupta Maurya’s queen from Greece, named Livia by Singhal), his father King Bindusar, friends and brothers, and the beautiful and enigmatic Anga are characters that stay with us. Asoka is, of course, the pillar. He emerges as a complex character, torn by early experience and the vision of his destiny, twists and turns that take him from the wonder of ambition to the wisdom of achievement.
The Kalinga war is depicted with rare energy. Asoka and Anga’s love story is charged with emotion, and wrought with poetic prose. The death of Anga and Asoka’s anguish cap an ethereal bond that can only be replaced by something equally — or more — significant: his reaching towards the new-age religion, Buddhism.
From a boy jailed for rape, Asoka rises to become a conqueror egged on to violence by his own people, and finally a visionary who must lead them to peace and tolerance. Singhal’s Asoka is, in many ways, a novel that reclaims the grandeur of story-telling.