Ashoka, not a nice guy?: Ravi Shankar Etteth on his latest book, ‘The Return of The Brahmin’

How Ravi Shankar Etteth’s The Return of The Brahmin looks at the famed king’s disruptive side

October 01, 2021 03:13 pm | Updated October 02, 2021 09:01 pm IST

Ravi Shankar Etteth’s The Return of The Brahmin (Westland), like its predecessor The Brahmin (2018), is a historical thriller. However, calling it just that would mean not acknowledging the vast storyscape Etteth creates for his main characters — all of whom have grown in age and stature since the first book.

For the generations used to reading about India’s kings and emperors from popular comics, where they were distinctly white or black, this series shows what might have possibly been. In the process, the author also imagines how a king who perhaps did not show kindness or remorse is still revered centuries later.

Food and drink occupy an important role in the proceedings, and Etteth laughs when you mention that. Think medaka or rice beer, barley bread and butter, palm liquor, and the pork soup (believed to have been invented by the Buddha) that was “made from the flesh of succulent piglets cooked with butter and parsley, and a sprinkling of ginger and spring onions”. This series is pacy and teems with a certain grandness, much like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, as a reviewer for this paper wrote about The Brahmin . That makes it eminently adaptable as a web or OTT series — possibly why media company Endemol has optioned it.

Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you choose to write about Ashoka?

His benevolent unblemished personality intrigued me. There are good kings and bad kings, but there are no nice kings. You can’t be both nice and ruthless. Ashoka was ruthless, who killed 99 siblings and burned the crown Prince in a flaming moat. He built the beautiful Palace of Hell in Pataliputra run by the torturer Chandagirika where Ashoka’s victims, including his concubines who didn’t like his skin texture, were tortured to death. His favourite pastime was feeding people to crocodiles. So, it is difficult to fathom that he turned into a gentle Buddhist and shunned war seeing 10,000 Kalinga soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. In fact, he committed genocide of the aajivikas after he became a Buddhist. I was keen to explore how such a ruler could have tricked everyone into thinking that he had changed. Did he really? Ashoka was a disruptor, and he balanced Hinduism and Buddhism to retain supreme power.

While the novel is set in the past, in Magadha, the language is contemporary. Also, the relationships, even between Ashoka and the Brahmin, have a certain tone of informality. Was this intentional?

The relationship between Ashoka and the Brahmin has already been established in the first book. They are brothers and comrades even though Ashoka is the king, and this is something the Brahmin is conscious about.

As for keeping the narrative style contemporary, it’s because I believe a book and the story must be accessible. We are creatures of our time and it does not make sense to use archaic language. It is important to feature the idioms of the age, mannerisms, fashion, food, architecture, geography, rituals, etc. to provide authenticity. Today’s historians like Wendy Doniger, William Dalrymple, Walter Isaacson etc use contemporary language and adopt a narrative form that makes it easily relatable.

Your novel is as much about the food as it is about political intrigue. How did you reimagine the food of that period?

We do have records of food history in medieval India, but I have reimagined some based on the history of the region. Magadha is a melting pot of cultures and a trade centre too — there are Greeks and Persians. And because of Chandragupta’s relationship with Seleucus, whose daughter he married, you could imagine that the food served at the royal palace would fuse cuisines.

How important are facts when there is a certain element of re-imagination?

Facts form the endoskeleton of historical writing. That said, by and large, unlike European history which is well recorded, many aspects of some ancient empires are not documented thoroughly. Since it was all such a long time ago, the writer has to combine conjecture with history.

But you cannot tamper with facts. You can say that rice, wheat and maize were cultivated in Magadha, but not poppy. The architecture, city planning, horses, weapons and topography in the Brahmin books are real. I did take some liberties with the fashion and food.

Priced at ₹277 The Return of The Brahmin is available on

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