Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Book Review: “The Legend of Amrapali” by Anurag Anand
Amrapali was a famous courtesan, pretty, clever, talented and everything else that courtesans are meant to be, who lived in the city of Vaishali, the capital city of the Lichchavi clan, one of the eight Kshatriya clans that had united to form the Vajjian confederacy. The Vajjian confederacy is reputed to be the world’s oldest democracy where the King was elected by an electoral college consisting of princes and nobles from the Kshatriya clans. Remember, we are talking of a time that was around 2500 years ago, when Mahavira and Gautama Buddha lived and preached. Incidentally, both these gentlemen lived in the vicinity of Vaishali. Lord Buddha is said to have visited Vaishali many times. The legend of Amrapali is well-known in India.
Bollywood has paid its homage to this legend.
Now, Anurag Anand, an upcoming author, has penned a novel which is loosely based on the legend of Amrapali. I say loosely because in the most well-known version of Amrapali’s story, Amrapali was declared to be the state courtesan or Nagarvadhu of Vaishali in order to avoid fights between her numerous suitors. Amrapali had an affair with Bimbisara, King of neighbouring Magadha and bore him a son. Later Amrapali became a Buddhist, as did her son. Anand's The Legend of Amrapali follows the most accepted version during Amrapali’s initial years when her adoptive parents found her abandoned in a mango groove (hencethe name Amrapali), but diverges drastically when Amrapali gets older. Anand’s version is racy and exciting, with a decent share of melodrama and suspense.
Manudeva is the King of the Vajji confederacy, a man who has been elected to power. Anand’s plot pivots around Manudeva’s infatuation for Amrapali, whom Manudeva glimpsed once while he attended a discourse by Gautama Buddha. Amrapali has a lover, her childhood sweetheart Pushpakumar, whom she wants to marry. When Amrapali’s father rejects the King’s proposal to make Amrapali his queen, Manudeva gets Pushpakumar implicated in a false case of spying and at the same time arranges to have Amrapali declared the Nagarvadhu, a position which would require her to entertain him as well as other nobles of the state. Pushpakumar is killed while escaping from prison and Amrapali is forced to become the state courtesan. The rest of the story revolves around how Amrapali attempts to take revenge against Manudeva for the murder of Pushpakar and for her own predicament. I won’t say any more about this and play spoilsport, but will leave it to you to read this novel and find out if Amrapali is successful and how it all ends.
On the whole, Anand is a good story teller, as good as Chetan Bhagat or Ashwin Sanghi, and The Legend of Amrapali is a good book, especially if you like the romantic genre. The plot is interesting, though I found it difficult to believe that Amrapali’s adoptive father would reject the King’s proposal, and Anand does manage to keep his reader engrossed till the end in Manudeva’s machinations and Amrapali’s quiet scheming. One of the things I especially liked is how Anand has brought out the corruption that existed even in the world’s oldest democracy. Politicians will be politicians after all! The one thing I liked the least was how Anand goes out of his way to have Amrapali reject Gautama Buddha’s teachings. Though Anand only expends a page on this rejection, I felt that it was totally unnecessary, especially since in the most well-known version of the Amrapali legend, Amrapali does become a Buddhist. Was this divergence the reason behind William Dalrymple’s interesting quote (given on the back cover) – ‘Amrapali is potentially a wonderful subject for a book.’ Dalrymple doesn’t comment on Anand’s novel per se or even mention if he has read it!
There were a few other things I didn’t like about this otherwise good novel. Anand uses a lot of vernacular in his narration. There are references to Pehar (a unit of time, 3 hours), Kanda (segment), Kootniti (politicking), Ranniti (the science of war), Muhurat (an appointed time, usually an auspicious moment), Viniccaya Mahamatta (Enquiring Magistrate) and the like, which is all very good and befits a story of this sort. However, interspersed with all that native terminology, one finds some modern vocabulary which stands out. There are references to “commandos”. Anand tells us that the ‘king or any other member of the elected council could nominate any girl they found to be suitable for the post on a suo motto basis’. I found this inconsistency disconcerting. The use of modern terminology while narrating an ancient tale is not something new. Stephen Pressfield carries this out to perfection in his Afghan Campaign. At times, Anand’s use of contemporary lingo works well. For example, we are told that ‘the government had attempted to counter the epidemic by calling in doctors from Magadh, Avanti and othe nearby kingdoms. Free medication was provided from dispensaries across the city. Medical camps were organised in the …..’ At times it does not such as when Anand describes how Amrapali found her father’s body after he committed suicide, dejected by his daughter having to become the state courtesan. Anand tells us that ‘Somdutt’s body was flailing in the air, with a garment fastened around his neck, its other end secured to a metal hook, protruding from the tall ceiling. A settee which he must have used to reach up to the height, was rolled over a few steps from his dangling feet’. I didn’t mind the use of the metal hook all that much, though I would have preferred a wooden crossbeam, but the mention of the ‘settee’ did unsettle me.
Just before the wedding ceremony where Amrapali was to marry her sweetheart Pushpakumar, just before everything went wrong, Amrapali accidentally spills some salt. Of course she immediately throws a pinch over her left shoulder, but it doesn’t help. Now, the superstition over spilt salt is a very European/Christian one, driven mainly by the fact that salt was a very expensive commodity in medieval Europe. Also Judas is supposed to have split salt during the last supper. Throwing it over the left shoulder is meant to hit the devil lurking behind. Of course, India has its share of superstitions and bad omens, but spilling salt isn’t one of them. I wish Anand had mentioned an ancient Indian superstition or bad omen rather than make Amrapali spill salt.
There is a reference to soldiers from Vaishali fighting the Huns ‘beyond the unassailable stature of the Himalayas’. From what I remember of my history lessons, the Huns came into contact with Indians only during the time of the Guptas – 5th century AD or so. Later in the tale, Amrapali acquires a posse of Mongolian Xiongnu bodyguards. We are told that the Xiongnu from Mongolia are ferocious fighters and later on in the story, they do perform spectacularly well. I doubt if any Mongolian mercenaries were found in India during the time of this story, but their presence doesn’t do this novel any harm.
Despite the nature of Amrapali’s job, there are no graphic descriptions or steamy scenes, which doesn’t harm the story in the least since Anand does keep the plot moving at a steady clip. Anand’s prose is functional, which soars high at times. There are also a few instances when I found his usage clumsy or even wrong, such as when Amrapali’s closest friend Prabha is snatched from bondage by the Mongolian Xiongnu bodyguards and brought to safety without a scratch. We are told that ‘with a scratch-less Prabha and bodies of the three fallen guards heaped on their horses, they began their return journey to the palace.’
The hitches pointed out by this nitpicking blogger are minor and let me reiterate that on the whole, The Legend of Amrapali is a good read.
PS: Could the publishers fix the glaring typo on the inside of the front cover?