Historical fiction can be great in the right hands. Too bad this one fails on all counts. LATHA ANANTHARAMAN
P robably the most wooden way to write fiction is to start with an ideology and then put that ideology into the mouths of characters. The last time that technique worked elegantly was in the Bhagavad Gita. Most of the time we find fiction like Ayn Rand's, or worse. Such novelists may do justice to their ideologies, but they do violence to fiction.
Ashwin Sanghi wrote The Rozabal Line under a pseudonym and it turned out to be a bestseller; at least that's what he claims on the cover of Chanakya's Chant. This novel, boldly published under his own name, fictionalises the life of Chanakya, or Kautilya, or Vishnugupta, the teacher from Takshashila University who helped build the Mauryan Empire. Chanakya wrote the Arthashastra, which taught monarchs from the 2nd century onward the art, science and brutality of politics. Sanghi says the idea of writing a book on Chanakya was suggested to him by a friend. Then he read up on the subject, mostly on the Internet from the looks of it.
Sanghi also weaves in the story of a modern king maker, Gangasagar Mishra, who uses Chanakya's principles to turn a slum girl into India's prime minister. In that thread of the story, the writer throws in everything from the newspapers of the past four decades, from military armaments scams to hijack dramas. In Sanghi's fantasy, Gangasagar always does the smart thing and he has all the answers. He orders assassinations, stages abductions, and frames his enemies, all in the service of his protégé. In reality such a person would channel his money into the Cayman Islands, but here his purpose is supreme, no matter how muddy his tactics.
The dialogue is what reminds the reader so much of Ayn Rand. Most of the characters are gormless cardboard cut-outs who say, “But why, Acharya?” or “And then what?” so that Chanakya can answer them with one-liners. The same happens with Gangasagar and his entourage. Those one-liners are not only from the Arthashastra. They are formulas from management books, Dilbert jokes, chicken-soup platitudes, Jewish-mother aphorisms, things you see on the bottom of the page in Reader's Digest, and the stale sentiments that your unemployed friends forward to you by email. You may wonder whether all that is quite legal, but the author actually acknowledges his borrowings at the end of the novel. In decades of flipping through novels with shiny covers, you have probably never seen anything like such sincerity combined with such bad writing.
The writer shows some mean-spiritedness. Gangasagar has a secretary, Menon. (Just Menon, no first name or initials.) Out of all the characters from UP and Delhi and Bihar and Bengal, Sanghi has trouble only with this one character's accent. That's not satire, it's just plain bigotry. But mostly it is just his style of writing that offends.
Historical fiction has an excellent reputation, and rightly so. Many 20th century writers have not only brought to life a long-dead figure but also immersed the reader in that person's time, civilisation and ethos. For the writer to convincingly recreate that lost time, he has to have assimilated it all himself. It takes years, and skill. Sanghi has instead crammed assorted facts into his head as if for an exam and he spews them out in the same way, undigested and arranged without meaning. His plot contains the stalest clichés and no redemption.
All this makes one wonder why paperback writing is not seen to have its best practices, like law or accounting. Businessmen and medical students write what they consider novels, but surely someone would yelp if, say, Sydney Sheldon picked up a scalpel, or even attempted to file a company's tax returns. Even the kind of fiction that is sold off a cart on a railway platform ought to offer more than scraps collected from Wikipedia. Sanghi is studying creative writing now, and the third time round he may show us whether he has learned anything.