Pen over the sword

Pen over the sword

This is a fascinating portrait of an emperor who was a scholar at heart.

Emperor Harsha

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ L P Hartley’s oft-repeated line seems like an invitation for anyone wanting to travel away from these perplexing times. Did they really do things differently in that other country which is the past? Obviously, the people living there didn’t wake up and study the corona statistics first thing in the morning, or wear a mask every time they stepped out of their homes, but in terms of how they related to one another, what they feared and what they dreamed of, were they all that different from us?

While historical fiction has always been an inexpensive form of time travel, it is these questions that make it interesting. Emperor Harsha, Aditi Kay’s new novel, brings alive a grand figure from ancient India. The third book in a series about emperors, it is preceded by Emperor Chandragupta and Emperor Vikramaditya. Emperor Harsha transports the reader to seventh century northern India.

Mixed feelings

A hundred years have passed since the Huna invasions weakened the Gupta empire, led to its eventual crumbling and the subsequent rise of several feudatory kingdoms. Among them is Sthanishwar (modern day Thanesar, Haryana), a rich and fertile land, with Prabhakaravardhana of the Pushyabhuti dynasty on the throne. A crisis is brewing in the royal family. The princess, Rajyashri, has formed an attachment to Grihavarman, king of Maukhari, but her parents are keen on an alliance with the scion of the Malava royal family, Devagupta, whose ancestors had fought back the Huna invaders. The spectre of future invasions remain, and the heir to the throne, Rajyavardhan, spends much of his time securing the borders. While he is a warrior to the hilt, his younger sibling, Harsha, a student at Nalanda university, prefers the pen over the sword. Harsha is a budding playwright with a work in progress.

‘It was about a prince who wanted to give up everything and become a monk. But, it was becoming too much the story of his own life; a reflection of his own plaintive desires.’ Indeed, as his term at Nalanda draws to an end, Harsha, who is ‘fascinated by the Buddha’, views the prospect of returning home with mixed feelings.

Nevertheless, he takes charge of the preparations for his sister’s swayamvar, penning verses in the invitations for the suitors with the help of his friend, the poet and writer, Bana. (Banabhatta wrote Harshacharita and Kadambari, the latter supposedly one of the world’s first romantic novels.)

Involving poisons, secret treaties, treachery and constant peril, the action is predictable. However, it is in the conjuring of the story world that the author’s flair is evident. For writers of this genre, the specifics that make the plot credible are a particular challenge. Period details such food eaten, clothes worn, religion followed, languages spoken are just as important as creating characters caught up in conflicts that mirror the zeitgeist. ‘The dilemmas of duty vis à-vis one’s calling,’ sums up Harsha’s inner discord. It boils down to dharma, a loaded word for royalty, who must know when to deploy the different types of dharma — the dharma of battle, the dharma of peace — in order to act in the interests of their people. 

Competently told, weaving fact with fiction, the novel is about the transformation of Harsha from a monkish scholar, who never sought royal power, to a true blue warrior who, following the tragic death of his elder brother, became one of the greatest emperors in Indian history.