INTERVIEW Literary Review

The strategist returns

Timeri N. Murari

Timeri N. Murari

The first time I heard the name of Timeri N. Murari is when I saw it! It was while watching Amol Palekar’s film Daayra 17 years ago that the name of Timeri N. Murari popped up on screen as the screenplay writer. Turned out he was an executive producer too. The film got rave reviews, critical acclaim and I was among the lucky viewers who managed a morning show ticket for the Nirmal Pandey-Sonali Kulkarni starrer. The film, a niche offering, ran for seven successive weeks at Rivoli cinema in Connaught Place. It was no mean achievement. Daayra was no ordinary film. 

Timeri N. Murari. My memory, a little better than a sieve, could retain the name only for a while. A few years ago it all came back together in a happy confluence. The book The Taliban Cricket Club was making more than the usual ripples preceding a new arrival. The subject intrigued me. I picked up a copy of the book. The author? Timeri N. Murari. This time I remembered the name.

Could I just meet the author please, I asked his publishers. They tried. But I couldn’t meet him. The opportunity half presented itself at The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai this year. I saw him. Then I heard him as he came on stage for a little speech preceding the announcement of the winner of the prize.

However, the opportunity came with Timeri N. Murari’s new novel Chanakya Returns . For a history student, the name of the novel rang a bell. My mind immediately went back to Pavan Varma’s Manifesto which he had penned not long ago, underlining the qualities of Chanakya and how they could prove useful to our times. That was a passing thought. My mind actually went back to Romila Thapar’s coaxing, but ultimately hugely gripping book on the history of the Mauryas wherein she enunciates matters of state policy as outlined by Chanakya. A piece of advice has stayed with me since my college days many summers ago. The clever statesman is supposed to have advised the king not to attack the foe in the centre, rather concentrate on the flanks. “We don’t begin eating the dish from the centre. It is the hottest there,” Chanakya advised.

All the years went away in a blur and I found myself engrossed in Chanakya Returns . In the book, Chanakya is born as a farmer’s son, meets with an accident, falls into a fire, his face gets scarred and his mental faculties become very strong. He realises Chanakya has taken over his mind. And according to him, God does not exist. But then, nor does Satan.

Chanakya does though. He too almost didn’t. We Indians had forgotten him, for centuries giving credit to Machiavelli for all ways clever and cunning. Then came the British who discovered our very own Chanakya or Kautilya. “Machiavelli wrote his treatise some 1700 years after Chanakya. Yet Chanakya went into obscurity; we have had apologies rather than history. The British discovered Chanakya and they found that he was always thinking of people; he was a king-maker who would rather not be a king. Then it was said, Chanakya was so ruthless that Machiavelli appeared like Mother Teresa. But we had forgotten who he was, what he was up to, how he advised the Mauryan king,” says Murari in a chat one summer morning. His Chanakya is multi-layered, a strategist with rare cunning, a wily politician with great perspicacity, a lover with endless ardour. Talking of love, isn’t Murari’s Chanakya guilty of not respecting his own advice of not taking anything down the centre, rather from the flanks? 

Murari differs. No, Chanakya does not ignore the periphery. Only his definition of the centre is different. “What he does here is, she (Avanti) is on the sidelines, from outside, he is pushing her to the centre. Avanti is on the outside; the centre is the father. So, he is following his own advice even if it appears that he does not.”

The way Murari crafts the relationship between Avanti and her father in the novel reminds one of many real life powerful families. Like say Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi or Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir. “The resemblance is incidental. But talking of resemblances, you could go on. Look at our new Lok Sabha. There are five members of one family representing a party (Samajwadi Party). You could look at the DMK. But at the end of the day, all we have is a feudal democracy.”

And can we put Sonia Gandhi as the modern-day Chanakya-like king-maker and Manmohan Singh as the king, I sneak in. Counters, Murari, “Not quite. One modern-day Chanakya I can readily think of is Amit Shah.”

He gets me thinking. And the allusion to Amit Shah sets my mind on how Murari has chiselled out the character of Avanti’s father, a top-notch leader in ways reminiscent of Narendra Modi. In his own words, “Her father has an imperial look. His skin slightly pale brown, almost cream or off-white. He is an immaculate man. Despite the journey he looks fresh as if he’s stepped out of the dressing room. His kurta neat, stiffly ironed, not a wrinkle. The advantages of power — out of air-conditioned jet into the air-conditioned car waiting on the tarmac.” Does the characterisation not seem very similar to Narendra Modi? 

“I finished the book last year when Narendra Modi was not so big, not so much part of our vision. But why only Modi? You could say that about Jayalalithaa too. Or even Mayawati with all those huge statues of herself all over the State.”

Point taken. But isn’t Murari’s Chanakya different from the one we have read in history books. There he comes across as a shrewd advisor who used the king rather than merely guiding him. Here he is a more layered man. And with enough attention on his love life to make one wonder whether he wrote Arthashastra or was he toying with the idea of penning Kamashastra too?

“Chanakya had many layers, many facets. He was an ugly man, as I say in the book. But like any other man, he had a sensual side. If he lived long enough he could have written Kama Sutra of his own. But, in the book, he did write on sensual matters, adultery, divorce, love and corruption. On the subject of corruption he advocates that the hands of the guilty be chopped off. If we were to apply it today, so many people would be going around without their arms. He was an environmentalist. He talked of forests. He understood that one needed to burn forests in war, but emphasised that we must look after trees.”

Aren’t we then guilty of reducing him to a mere political strategist these days?

“He was much more than that. He was in love too. Power is an aphrodisiac but contrary to common perception he did not love power. Else why would he have starved himself to death?”

Indeed, Chanakya made room for both love and power. As Murari puts it so eloquently at the beginning and end of the book: “Love, I tell you, and I speak from experience, is fragile as rotting silks, and will disintegrate when infidelities, jealousy, betrayals, impotence infect it. The heart is not to be trusted as it is brainless and mistakes lust for love, while the loins mistake love for lust. Love is a watery foundation on which to build one’s life…”

As Timeri N. Murari prepares for his tennis session in the afternoon, I sit alone and wonder what have I gained over the past few minutes, what have I loved about the book. One thing is sure. I won’t forget the name of the author ever.


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