‘He is the ruler who is the protector of the orphaned, refuge of the refugees, guide to the afflicted, protector of the frightened, the support of the unsteady, the friend, the relative, the master, the benefactor, the teacher, father, mother, brother to all.’
I was just back from a hectic but highly enjoyable tour when I picked up ‘Urnabhih’ by Sumedha V Ojha. Let me concede at the outset that I do not read much fiction, especially English fiction. My fiction reading is mostly confined to reading Hindi fiction, a language which comes naturally to me and with which I am comfortable. However, since the author Sumedha V Ojha is a close friend (more like an elder sister) I was both curious and anxious to read her work. In the last couple of years my readings have been mostly confined to the dark and gory world of terrorism and security studies so I was quiet sceptical as to how much I would enjoy reading a work of fiction.
As I started reading all my scepticisms dissolved. The book is simply unputdownable. Aptly titled, ‘Urnabhih’ (spider’s web) the novel is a historical fiction set in the ‘early’ empire building phase of the Mauryan times. The newly enthroned Chandragupta Maurya after overthrowing the Nandas is in the process of consolidating his empire with the help of his mentor and Guru, Acharya Chanakya.
Misrakesi, the main protagonist of the novel is a ‘ganika’ from Ujjaini who arrives in Patliputra to avenge the death of her sister Sukesi, but instead ends up working for the state as a spy under the Nagrik Suraksha Parishad. She has a caring but arrogant Chief in Pushyamitra Sunga who later becomes her lover and husband. Together Misrakesi and Pushyamitra prevent the assassination of the Samrat, solve the mystery of counterfeit currencies flooding the fledgling Mauryan Empire and upstage the brilliant Maha Amatya of Kaikeya Rajya to incorporate it into the Mauryan Empire of Chakravartin Chandragupta Maurya. Thus is fulfilled Acharya Chanakya’s desire of facilitating the political unity of Jambudweep (the name of ancient India). The soul of the novel is drawn from the writings of the period (especially Chanakya) and depicts the challenges to as well as responses of the newly established Mauryan dynasty very realistically. Acharya Chanakya is the main ‘sutradhaar’ of the novel. In the novel his presence in person is few and far between, but his ‘invisible’ presence looms large and carries the story forward. He plots, plans, cajoles, intrigues and blesses wherever needed.
The book is Sumedha’s labour of love for the Mauryan period and it shows. Apart from the taut and racy storyline, what really struck me is the deep research done by her on all facets of the Mauryan period in which the novel is set. Classifying it as a work of fiction would be simplistic and would overlook the deep insights that this book provides of Mauryan history, anthropology and sociology. Flipping through the pages of this brilliant work, the reader is transported to the Mauryan period; its dress, food, architecture and social stratifications, moorings and differentiations. ‘Urnabhih’ not only ‘tells’ a story but also makes you ‘see’ Patliputra and Kekayi. I have read very few novels where the settings of the period have as much prominence as the story itself.
One thing which struck me greatly is the status of women and the freedom (including sexual) enjoyed by them in ancient India. An orphan ‘ganika’ from a different kingdom with her wits and hard work could rise in the social hierarchy to nobility. The essence of a complete life symbolized by the important balance between ‘Arth’, ‘Kaam’, ‘Dharam’ and ‘Moksh’, somehow seems to have been lost to modern India under the pernicious purinitical influence of later Islamic and Victorian morals. Not having this book in your personal collection makes it poorer. It is a novel which needs to be bought, read and preserved.
The only complaint I have is that the novel did not answer the question as to why Misrakesi’s sister Sukesi committed suicide. What prompted her to do so? What was the mission she had with Siddharthak? While a follow up of this novel is coming soon, now that I am hooked, I would also like to read the precursor to this novel detailing Sukesi’s mission with Siddharthak. Sumedha, are you listening?