Adity Kay tells a fictional but believable story of the legendary Chandragupta Maurya, who rose from obscurity to reign over an empire.
Writing historical fiction is a challenging task. The research, the language, the construction of an era far removed from one’s own isn’t easy. But especially when writing about a famous, almost legendary figure there is a need to separate myth from reality. It’s not a simple case of discarding what is obviously myth and reading only ‘historical sources’. Legendary figures have a way of attracting sycophants who are more than willing to write exaggerated hagiographies.
Adity Kay takes up the challenge in Emperor Chandragupta. She tells a fictional but believable story of the 4th century BC ruler who rose from obscurity to reign over an empire. Aided by his mentor, teacher and political advisor, Chanakya, Kay’s Chandragupta goes from being an orphan from a tribe of peacock-tamers, to a warrior who brings together an army to topple the tyrannical Dhana Nanda of the Magadhan Empire. The establishment of the Mauryan empire, the alliances with the Greek invader Alexander, later relations with Alexander’s satrap, Seleucus, Chandragupta’s wives, Durdhara and Helen, the administrative system, the quest for peace and for a definition of dharma – all come together and are touched upon to a certain extent in the novel.
Even in a book that’s nearly four hundred pages long, it is hard to do justice to the multiple facets of a singularly eventful life. The narrative begins when Moriya (the name he goes by until he later adopts the more grand-sounding ‘Chandragupta’) is a boy. His journey from there to his role as emperor is a long one filled with adventures. Chandragupta and Chanakya’s travels in disguise, their search for allies while trying to evade Nanda assassins, the rise to power and the conquests that bring Chandragupta gradually closer to the prize that is Pataliputra – all this forms the bulk of the book. It is interspersed with battles and skirmishes, betrayals and the teachings and philosophies of Chanakya are woven into the plot as observations and remarks at appropriate moments.
The most impressive part of Emperor Chandragupta is the evident research that has gone into the book. Besides the political and martial angles, Kay also carefully builds an ambience – the deodar woods of the mountains, the quiet halls of the university at Taxila, the grand palace at Pataliputra and Alexander’s grand camp. The era comes alive vividly and believably, aided by language that manages to avoid being archaic, yet evokes a sense of period.
Also skillfully wrought are the two main characters, Chandragupta and Chanakya – both in their shared goals and in their divergent paths and thoughts. Chandragupta’s ambitions, his fears and uncertainties, the growing sense that dharma and duty entail more than just establishing a great empire and making it a realm of peace. And Chanakya’s rather more inflexible ideas about how a ruler should behave and how a state should be organised, a war fought and enemies subdued.
Chandragupta’s relationships with several of the other characters — Megasthenes, Durdhara, Helen, Seleucus, Bhadrabahu — however, have not been fleshed out very well. Megasthenes, for instance, is frequently referred to as a friend of Chandragupta’s, even though the development of this friendship is too cursory to be convincing. Chandragupta’s love for Durdhara also lacks a believable progression from an instant attraction to something deeper. To do justice to Chandragupta’s many relationships though, would require a much longer story.
But in a book that is otherwise absorbing, this does tend to take second place. Emperor Chandragupta is a fine example of storytelling that attempts to provide a logical explanation even for myths. The story of Chandragupta and the lions, for instance, makes sense when you consider Moriya’s past as a boy brought up in the forest.
History? Mythology? Emperor Chandragupta is a little bit of both, and blended together in a fast-paced and engrossing tale.