Historical Novel Reviews

Ashoka on the rocks: Anil Menon reviews ‘Asoca: A Sutra’ by Irwin Allan Sealy

Ashoka Chakra at the Wat Thai temple in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In its plot outline, Emperor Ashoka’s life resembles that of many modern Indians. He grew up with parental pressures to join the family business, got married off to a person who wasn’t necessarily his first choice, had children in quick succession, quarrelled with his siblings over family property, aced performance reviews, and then, out of the blue, was hit by a mid-life spiritual crisis, eventually leading to self-conscious attempts at a writing career — in his case, a series of status updates he self-published on numerous rocks. Ashoka’s ideas have endured because rocks endure and noble ideas endure and because Indians are an enduring people who live their history. His ideas are now part — a much contested part — of what it means to be an Indian.

It would seem that such a typical trajectory wouldn’t attract much literary attention. But plot isn’t story. The details matter. Ashoka’s life has attracted, and continues to attract, the attention of politicians and scholars, reformers and educators, filmmakers and novelists. Irwin Allan Sealy is the latest author who has attempted to retell Ashoka’s story in a contemporary idiom.

Sealy’s Asoca begins with the eponymous hero as a princeling, indulged and bullied by his older brothers, and ends with his final days as a monk somewhere “in the land of jade and rubies and fragrant rice,” presumably Burma. The book’s 160,000+ words, distributed over 77 chapters, each not more than 2-4 pages in length, is narrated entirely in the first person, from Ashoka’s point of view.

Thoughtful cosmopolitan

Asoca could be classified as a historical novel, but it is better to think of it as a novel about a historical figure. Such novels are difficult to write because the author is constrained by historical facts. They also attract the kind of pestilent reader who simply cannot proceed with the story if, say, the author has gotten the drachma-rupaiya conversion rate wrong.

Sealy has some room to play though. Though we know a lot about the Mauryas and their empire, Ashoka himself is shrouded in royal posturing, Buddhist myth-making, and Brahmanical slander. In Sealy’s telling Ashoka comes across as a thoughtful cosmopolitan who is able to appreciate different points of view, and though unafraid of war and violence, also someone who is quite aware of the limitations of force.

Ashoka on the rocks: Anil Menon reviews ‘Asoca: A Sutra’ by Irwin Allan Sealy

Stifling p.o.v

Sealy devotes a lot of attention to recreating the mid-third century BCE Mauryan world. He mostly succeeds, but perhaps the ambience is a bit too contemporary. Sealy seems to be ambivalent about just how seriously he wants readers to take his English. In one place, he’ll tell us about the correct pronunciation of ‘Ashoka’, but at another, he’ll have Ashoka say “A man likes to feel he is earning his bread”. The metonymic usage of bread for ‘living’ or ‘wages’ is peculiar to Europe; here, roti would have been a better fit. While such liberties are easily excused, less excusable is Prayagraj telling his brother Ashoka that Taxila is “desi soil”.

Kiran Nagarkar in his note to Cuckold remarked that he chose “an easy colloquial currency of language”, that is, “a contemporary idiom”, because he was “striving for immediacy, rather than some academic notion of fidelity, at best simulated.” However, the matter isn’t academic. When an author puts modern language and modern values in the minds and mouths of historical characters, they risk turning them into moderns. In fact, it’s a problem that plagues contemporary historical fiction. It undermines a key pleasure in reading this genre, namely, immersion in a non-modern consciousness, not just a different past or place. A historical novel succeeds despite its language, not because of it.

Sealy’s decision to use Ashoka as his first-person narrator is the work’s overarching limitation. The vast and gorgeous canvas of third-century India is entirely filtered through what Ashoka thinks or feels or perceives. I found it stifling. It forces Sealy to rely on letters and reports and dialogues, which are largely info-dumps. And it isn’t even Ashoka really who is doing the perceiving; he notices the things Sealy thinks we’ll find interesting or relevant. That’s why Ashoka tells us about the layout of rooms, useful facts about Ujjaini, or the wood not needed for the cremation of “Uncle K” (Kautilya). All these awkward issues arise because Ashoka has to be Sealy’s vassal and the “emperor of Ind” at the same time. This novel, precisely because it is a novel about Ashoka, needed many voices, many points of view.

That said, Asoca has its delights. Sealy is writing for readers, not fellow writers; it’s an unpretentious book free of stylistic fits of madness. The Gupta/ Maurya age is when Hindu civilisation had its moment in the sun; Sealy’s portrait of a bold and self-confident civilisation strikes a refreshingly different note. It is a literary novel still interested in telling a story. That is rarer than one might think, and perhaps for that reason alone, Asoca is a book to be read as well as recommended.

Asoca: A Sutra; Irwin Allan Sealy, Penguin Viking, ₹699

Author of Half Of What I Say, the reviewer has a collection of short stories forthcoming from Hachette.

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