Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chanakya's Chant - Ashwin Sanghi

Ashwin Sanghi's 'Chanakya's Chant' (Westland, Rs. 195, 441 pages) reaffirms what I always felt about Indian writing - that once we scratch the surface, we have so many wonderful stories to tell. This story for example is a work of fiction that tells the story of Chanakya and his famous vengeance, while parallelly telling the story of a present day Chanakya, Gangasagar Mishra, whose political machinations make a slum girl from Uttar Paradesh, the Prime Minister of India. It is a well-researched, well-told story that offers a peek into the minds of politicians, into economics and into all that drives men in power.

More importantly to me it is the third book that I have read, works of fiction based on Indian mythology - 'Palace of Illusions' (the Mahabharata told from Draupadi's viewpoint in Chitra Divakaruni's racy style), 'The Immortals of Meluha' (Amish Tripathi's fictionalised tale around a tribal chieftain Shiva based on the Hindu God Shiva) and this novel based on Chanakya, the author of Arthasastra, India's greatest treatise on the Science of Wealth. Each one of these books is wonderful and should inspire many to go back and read the actual texts or works around the rich Indian mythology.

'At the heart of this novel lies a chant, a Shakti mantra that appears several times in the story' says the book blurb - the Chankaya's chant. It is this chant that the ambitious son of a poor school teacher in Uttar Pradesh, Gangasagar Mishra keeps reciting. When his father dies he is only fifteen, and has a mother and two unmarried sisters to take care of and Gangasagar joins Agrawalji, the businessman of the town, known to his father, to take care of accounts. He learns fast, all of Agrawalji's business tricks and also wins his mentor's confidence through several sharp deals. Soon he quits Agrawalji's business, though not his friendship and tells him that they will need one another - politics and business go together. Gangasagar promotes Ikram, a local mafia don in politics, uses his muscle power, Agrawalji's money power and the innocence and beauty of the daughter of a panwala Chandini Gupta to enter the state politics and later, the Parliament. How the wily and ruthless kingmaker manipulates and maneuvers his wards through the sleazy world of Indian politics to gain his objectives of making Chandini the Prime Minister, is what Gangasagar's story all about. Gangasagar's key to success is that he is always four steps ahead of the others in the political chess. There is murder, manipulation, sex, deceit, treachery, powerbrokering of all sorts.

Parallely Ashwin Sanghi tells us the story of how Chanakya, the young son of the learned Chanak who is brutally killed by King Dhanananda, a power hungry, vicious king of Magadha. Chanakya vows revenge, that until he dethrones the King of Magadha he will not tie his hair. And so the learned Chanakya plots and awaits his time to overthrow the powerful Dhanananda while preparing his wards Senapati Maurya, his son Chandragupta Maurya and several others whom he promotes and controls from Takshila University. 'I am a teacher of arthasastra - the science of wealth. The source of livelihood of men is wealth, and the science and the means of attaining ii and protecting it is politics,' says Chanakya. He has to deal with Alexander and his vassals in his final quest, uses vishakanyas, women, herbs, drugs, money, fear as he slowly but surely gains control of the board. At the end of the story is revealed the secret of Chankaya's chant, a curse by Suvasini, a woman he loved but one he does not free, for she is also the only one who controls Rakshas the demonic Prime Minister of Magadha - that if one chants the Chanakya's chant for a prescribed number of times, he will have access to all of Chanakya's powers which can be used to install a woman as a leader to unite Bharath. Gangasagar accesses that very power to unify Bharath just as Chanakya did.

It is a fascinating tale and amazingly well-researched. Ashwin Sanghi writes with an authentic voice, the confidence of having known whatever it is he is writing about - be it vishkanyas, herbs and drugs, weapons, sex, politics, sleaze, Oxford boat races and what not - he is constantly surprising the reader with little tidbits. His style is easy to read, a racy, smooth style of an extremely good storyteller. Full marks to Ashwin Sanghi on taking on such an ambitious project and pulling it off. It is easily the most complicated of the three books I mentioned, based on mythology, because not only does he need to have some idea of the story, he needs to understand the mind of Chanakya, his friends, his enemies, his motives, economics, human psychology, the art of war, the art of administration, the art of creating and protecting wealth. It is here that he scores with his deep insight into business (he is an entrepreneur and a Yale graduate to boot).

But having said that I felt that this book deserves to be some 900 pages if it has to do full justice to the scale conceived. The characters and their ambitions, the sheer numbers and content cannot be contained in 440 pages, especially when someone has the capacity to research as Ashwin does. It would have worked separately also for me, Gangasagar Mishra's story by itself (with Chanakya's background in a fleeting manner) or Chanakya's story by itself - both would have been equally rivetting. Maybe Ashwin could have considered a trilogy as well, to do more justice to this fantastic idea.

One other reason why, despite probably having the best plot, the best research and the best idea, and to a large extent the better voice among the three books, 'Chankaya's Chant' comes third to me in the above list, is that both Chanakya and Gangasagar go through almost unchallenged. None of the others who are affected by them seem to have any plans, any motives and do not seem to think these two Chanakyas are any threat until too late in the book. There is ample scope because all the people in power in Magadha and eve UP and Bihar are poliical Machiavellis themselves and easily resort to violence. It is that lack of danger to the Chanakyas and their wards, the lack of the 'villain', that makes the story rather linear - you know where you are headed - the win. Chandini Gupta's motives and her qualities to become Prime Minister are not brought out, other than she is beautiful and that Hangasagar has chosen her. And why Gangasagar treads this lonely path, what happened to his family, etc are all sacrificed.

I am certain that it has been sacrificed not because Ashwin did not realise that - he is too good a storyteller to miss that - but more due to length constraints and the amount of content he had to fit into it. If Ashwin had chosen to tell only Gangasagar's story it would have been fantastic and would have elevated the story far higher because then he would have planned out more detailed coups, moves and counter moves, and infused more drama into the book. 'The Immortals' scores here because he kept it simple and broke it up into a trilogy. 'Palace of Illusions' is a simple, racy narrative of the greatest story ever told.

But still, despite all that I am picking at, 'Chanakya's Chant' could not have been written by anyone else but Ashwin Sanghi. Not many can claim to have even some of the several skills and talents that are required to write about so many subjects with such authority, clarity and conviction - Ashwin Sanghi has that. To write a simple love story, a good versus evil story is another, but to write on how to use all facilities, knowledge and power to create wealth and to protect it through politics, requires rare intelligence. One can expect many more such books of such wonderful calibre from this young author and once again I feel reassured, Indian Writing in English will only hit the high currents with such talent around. Well done Ashwin Sanghi - take a bow. It is a wonderful, rare novel that you have written!

And all who want to listen to the Chankya's chant please visit
It is great to listen to. You can download the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dodging two different areas this book places too many characters at one place. Untill you go full concentration, easy confusion is on the cards. Politics is rampant in the narrative which can confuse and even bore the casual reader. choose it wisely as its much heavy interpreting this one.