There are very few books that sustain a reader’s interest, especially in the genre of historical fiction. Historical biographies, if written well, can make for excellent reading and can also be adapted to the silverscreen.
E S Modak’s latest book, Beloved of the gods — A story of Ashoka the Great, is one of the best books that have come out on the great Indian monarch. The author, in his note, says ‘this book is more fiction than a historical treatise’, indirectly suggesting us not to delve too deep into this narrative and take it only as serious as you would take any other piece of fiction.
The book opens in 263 BC and the narrative is structured through the eyes of Tushaspa, the cavalry commander in the Takshshila army during the time of prince Ashoka. But why Tushaspa, after all a commander in such a vast empire’s army? This was probably to place a sub-altern view-point of events that shaped the destiny of the empire in the centuries to come. In circa AD 150, Rudradaman, the then king of Gujarat, carved an inscription below Ashoka’s inscription at Girnar, in Sanskrit, saying that ‘Yavana raja Tushaspa’ was Ashoka’s governor at Surashtra and that he constructed the famous gates at the lake of Sudarshana. For this meager knowledge of Tushaspa, we have no other clue of what he was like. But the author constructs a whole life out of this little detail and gives us an enjoyable read. So much so, more than the character of Ashoka, one empathises with the character of Tushaspa who comes across as a meticulous chronicler of every thing that ever took place during that period.
For the rest of the book, Tushaspa takes the readers traversing cities like Takshashila, Nalanda, Pataliputra, Ujjain and many other lesser known towns of the great Maurya Empire. The story takes you to several interesting characters of that period like the pampered prince Sushim, princess Revathi, Bhanumant, Padmavati, the many heads of the army, prime ministers, spies, courtiers, loyal servants, the high-priests of learning at the various universities, and last but not the least, the most famous astute mentor of Chandragupta and prime minister Chanakya, another much-revered and loved historical figure.
As forewarned, the author takes his liberties in constructing his fictitious narrative, nevertheless, based on real names, real places, real events and real facts, sticking closely to the original without tampering much or distorting it. With about 90 books added to his bibliography, Modak’s book comes across as one of the most comprehensive piece of fiction ever written in India about its great monarch. Other than the inscriptions of Ashoka, the author also takes the two Ceylonese works in Pali : Dipavamas and Mahavamsa, the tibetean work in Sanskrit called the Divyavandana and the Arthashastra of Kautilya. He gets his title of the book from a Pali title bestowed on Ashoka: Devanampriya, the beloved of the gods.
One of the important characters the author introduces in this book is the royal courtesan Vasavadatta. He argues that if Vasavadatta was a contemporary of Upagupta, she must have been a contemporary of Ashoka also. While there aren’t too many accounts in history if Vasavadatta did become a royal courtesan of Pataliputra, in this book, her character is dealt with very sensitively.
Centuries later, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore writes in his poem titled Abhisar (assignation) about how Vasavadatta encounters the Buddhist monk Upagupta and requests him to share a warm bed with her. Upagupta, in his reply, rejects the offer, saying he would act according to the needs of the time. Years later, when an old Vasavadatta, suffering from smallpox, is outcast by the people of Mathura, Upagupta cradles her in his arms and ministers to her saying his time of assignation had arrived. Such touching accounts of characters fill Modak’s book, time and again at melodramatic interludes. The book ends much after Ashoka embraces Buddhism and his demise, with the story once again seen from the life of Tushaspa.
Most books on Indian history have been filled with endless details on battles. Many more on this subject give undue importance to warfare and tactics of combat for no rhyme or reason and pull off as good literature. This is exactly where one can find a balance in this book which makes it unputdownable. The author’s depth of research, imagination and knowledge of the subject have made this book a fascinating read. This is a rare, coming from a police officer-turned-author. The book can benefit both researchers and film-makers alike.