Thursday, 2 February 2012
Book Review: Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi
Chanakya’s Chant has been on my reading list for some months now, but it was only last week that I managed to start on it. A very unusual book, I am yet to make up my mind how I feel about it. Should I recommend it to others or should I consign it to the heap where other bestsellers such as Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas have been dumped?
The author of Chanakya’s Chant, Ashwin Sanghi has created two Chanakyas – the original one who lives in 340 BC, at the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of India and his modern day avatar who was born as Gangasagar 2,300 years later - just before India’s independence. Both men are king makers and unashamedly so. The former wants to make Chandragupta Maurya the ruler of a united Bharat. The latter wants to make his protégée Chandini Gupta the Prime Minister of a strong India. Both Chanakya and Gangasagar are Brahmins from humble backgrounds, very shrewd and cunning manipulators who would stop at nothing to get what they want. We are told that Gangasagar was born in 1929 in Cawnpore, but, post India’s independence, Sanghi takes away the reader’s grip on dates and we never get to know the year in which Chandini Gupta becomes Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and later Prime Minister of India.
Sanghi writes well. On a comparative note, I would say that he is a far better writer than Amish Tripathi and a lot more imaginative. Chanakya’s Chant is reasonably well researched with a vast array of characters ranging from Alexander the Great and his generals to Paurus the Indian King who fought him (and lost) to scores of fictitious characters, kings, prostitutes and commoners, rich and poor, businessmen, gamblers, crooks, dacoits, goons, men, women and children, politicians and plebians. Sanghi’s descriptions are especially good. For example while describing Paurus as he faced Alexander’s army:
‘We are being attacked,’ yelled the vanguard of Kaikey’s massive army. Like an echo, the message was relayed through a series of shouts until it reached the ears of the towering Paurus. His name was derived from Purushottam – Supreme Being – and he looked nothing less than that. Standing over six and a half feet in height, the king had a radiant glow on his face that was accentuated by his curled and oiled moustache, in the typical fashion of Rajput warriors. He wore his military armour and regalia as though it were an intrinsic part of his royal personage. His muscles rippled with every move he made, his chest puffed out with muscular pride. His fair skin was wet from the rains, but each droplet clung to his frame as though it were in love with his body, refusing to let go of the physical contact. His jet-black hair hung down to his shoulders and was held in place by a ruby encrusted helmet that covered half his face. He was the mighty Paurus. Having subdued the hill kingdoms of Kashmir, Mallayrajya, Kuluta and Sindh, he was rightly entitled to the title – Parvateshwar.’
Sanghi does take a few liberties with history, especially when describing how events unfolded after Alexander the Great’s death. However, despite all that, one doesn’t get the feeling that Sanghi has mangled history, unlike in the case of Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha.
The best thing about Chanakya’s Chant is that it manages to capture the reader’s interest and hold it till the end, which takes place on the 441st page. There are minor plots roughly every five pages and Sanghi switches between the past and the present with ease and fluidity. The plots are devious and interesting, but some of them are out of the world.
On the flip side, Chanakya and Gangasagar appear to have superhuman intelligence and cunning when compared to those around them. They both win every round and that too with ease. The people around them are made out to be either duffers or in awe of Chanakya and Gangasagar. This applies even to individuals like Chandragupta. When faced with page after page of such easy victories, I was tempted to give up, but as mentioned earlier, Sanghi does manage to hold the reader’s interest and my curiosity to know how the novel ends made me read on and on.
Some of the sub-plots and sub-stories are too farfetched to be true. For example, there’s a scene where Chandini Gupta, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and her secretary Shankar are driving to a meeting in interior Uttar Pradesh (the State helicopter is out of service) when they are accosted by gun wielding dacoits on horses. Chandini has two bodyguards, but they are both killed by the dacoits. However, Shankar manages to get the better of the dacoits, killing two of them and drives Chandini to the safety of a government guest house, where the telephone isn’t working. A grateful Chandini allows Shankar to make love to her. Days later, a livid Gangasagar gets Shankar killed.
Both Chanakya and Gangasagar are not only men of intelligence and cunning, but also possess a great deal of wit. Since they never explain in detail and treat everyone else as idiots, they both come across as very arrogant. Which is fine, but the frequent one-liners and PJs which they crack from time to time when asked for explanations, managed to irk me. Also, Sanghi has used quotes from over a dozen famous personalities ranging from Thomas Jefferson to de Gaulle to Mao Tse Tung to Oscar Wilde to Napoleon to Churchill. Since almost all of these sprout forth from Chanakya and Gangasagar, one gets the feeling of extreme plagiarism, which isn’t really true since all such quotes are systematically acknowledged towards the end of this novel. However, the feeling of originality which this audacious book richly deserves, is much dented on account of those borrowed quotes.
The ending comes with a surprise, one which wasn’t fully expected. I was hoping to see some action after Chandini Gupta becomes Prime Minister, something magical which she does with Gangasagar’s help, which would push India into the ranks of developed countries. Nothing of that sort happens, which makes me wonder if all that manipulation and puppetry was worth it. At least, the ancient Chanakya may legitimately claim that he unified India and gave it a strong ruler in the form of Chandragupta Maurya. There is nothing about Chandini Gupta which gives one the feeling that she is destined to be an exceptional prime minister.
Despite these various shortcomings, on balance, Chankya's Chant is an eminently readable novel.