When I read the first chapter of Ashwin Sanghi’s latest book, “Chanakya’s chant”, my jaw had dropped, my eyes were bigger than rasogollas, I was breathless and I was hooked! The words ‘fast-paced’ and ‘thriller’ seemed woefully inadequate, absolutely akin to calling Madhubala ‘cute’ or Van Gogh’s painting’s ‘nice.’ I thought to myself, how the hell was I going to write a review for a book that just bloody grabs hold of all your senses and plays puppet-master with you, using your guts entrails as puppet strings; sometimes words fall short.
The brilliance of this novel lies in the fact that there are two stories in this book, from vastly different epochs, with a common theme treading through the two narratives...political lust.
The first chapter takes us all the way back to 340 BC with an event that ultimately leads to Chandragupta’s coronation – the assassination of Paurus, emperor of Magadha. The subsequent chapters go further back in time, from the moment Chanakya, born Vishnugupta, India’s very own Machiavelli and father of the Arthashastra, vows revenge against the corrupt and debauched king Dhanananda for the brutal murder of his father, Chanak. The political cunning of Chanakya and his abetment in establishing a unified Bharat under the able leadership of his hand-picked protégé, Chandragupta, forms part of the novel. Running parallel, in interspersed chapters, is the story of Pandit Gangasagar Mishra and his machinations to make Chandni Gupta, a smart, lovely slum child from Uttar Pradesh, into the most powerful person of the country – the Prime Minister of India.
Sanghi demonstrates that the core of political thought and strategy hasn’t changed much over the years. So while Chanakya had a bevy of Vishkanyas at the ready, Gangasagar enlists the help of dancer-whores and B-grade film starlets. While Chanakya sends a tantric with a penchant for theatrics into the court of Mallayaraja, Gangasagar deploys a pavement astrologer to ‘prophesise’ future political events in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Blackmail, misrepresented facts and figures, gossip, torture and the bumping off of inconvenient human obstacles are all old hat in the art of statecraft and still remain popular means by which to run/rule a country. After all, human flaws and failings haven’t changed over the centuries...if anything, they have just gotten worse with time. And this is what Sanghi brings out brilliantly in “Chanakya’s Chant.”
But having said all that, I have to say, that after a while, the story, or rather the stories, become predictable. I guess the predictability stems greatly due to the fact that we are a nation bred on the greatest epic of all time, the Mahabharata, and the greatest entertainment industry in the world, Bollywood. The Mahabharata is undoubtedly a masterpiece and as anyone who has read it knows; it is full of political intrigue, treachery, trickery, lust, betrayal, revenge, blood and gore. So thanks to this and Bollywood’s obsession with political pot-boilers in the recent years, such as “Hu Tu Tu”, “Gangajal”, “Godmother”, the “Sarkar” and “Rakhtcharitra” series, and the blockbuster, “Rajneeti”, to name a few, after a point in time in the book, the twists turn out to be less ‘twisty’ and shocking, and you actually begin to not only expect them, but to predict them. And yet, despite this predilection for predictability, at no point does the book get boring. You still find yourself turning the pages in a reading frenzy, just like you would while on your 51st Agatha Christie.
There were some gaps for me which caused much crinkling of the forehead. While Chanakya’s bloodthirstiness is properly delineated, Gangasagar’s lust for power remains a head-scratcher, as does Chandini’s. A glaring incongruity in the book is the many 21st Century-isms mouthed by Chanakya’s contemporaries, inducing many an eye-roll and sigh of “Oh come on! Really!?!” Case in point? Well, phrases like, “The problem is that most things in life that are pleasurable are usually illegal, immoral or fattening”, mouthed by the repulsive, two-faced Rakshas, minister to Dhanananda. Or another ‘gem’ said by Chanakya himself, “No one’s a virgin, Nipunaka. Life screws them all.”
Two things I sorely missed in the book, were a list of the characters and a map of ancient Bharat. These two appendices would have greatly assisted the reader.
But there is a treat in store for the reader – a track of Chanakya’s chant, the Shakti mantra that appears throughout the story. Recited in Vedic tradition by Kushal Gopalka, the track has been composed in two parts; the first part with traditional Indian classical instruments and the second part, a more electronic take with fusion elements to give it a modern touch – very much in keeping with the structure of the novel, where modern mirrors the ancient. The track can be downloaded from www.chanakyaschant.com.
It is one of the many joys of this wonderful, double-tale of political savagery and intrigue in India. The final moral of the story? Some things just don’t change.