CHANAKYA’S CHANT by ASHWIN SANGHI
Sometimes you pick up a book that just compels you to write a review; that agitates your mind so much that you know that you need to share the various thoughts and sentiments that it kindles in order to be at peace. This is what happened when I picked up Ashwin Sanghi’s latest offering, Chankaya’s Chant.
Why did I pick up the book from the horde of new releases that pass my table every day? Not sure really apart from the fact that the synopsis on the back cover seemed interesting and different. Also as one of our regulars on the blog pointed out, I do seem to have a soft spot for historical fiction. But Chankya’s Chant is different from the other books in the genre. It is both historical as well as contemporary. For there run through the book, two parallel stories – one that is based in current times and another that dates back 2300 years. Taken individually both these stories are complete and do full justice to their own genres. And that is one of the strengths of the book. None of the narratives leave the reader feeling short changed. Both are fact paced, compact and use the language of the era they are situated in. In Chankya’s Chant they come together as two equals, their union sanctified by the (un)holy quest for power that consumes the main protagonists. The reader is left with the distinction impression that when it comes to politics and power play, not much has changed in the last two millenia.
So 2300 years ago when a young boy is forced to flee after his father is insulted and beheaded for protesting against the excesses of a philandering king he pledges revenge. He distances himself from every emotion and relationship and embarks on a single minded quest for power. He chooses a young, eager and promising boy – Chandragupta -to instrumentalize his revenge and to save Bharat from the clutches of the Macedonian conqueror Alexander. And as “ends justify the means” he uses any and every trick conceivable – and mostly inconceivable – to get to his goal. No price is too large, no sacrifice too big and no relationship sacrosanct.There is only one rule in his game- winning. So he willingly sends off the only woman he loves in to the arms of men he detests; forces his protegee to seduce a Macedonian princess; poisons a well used by common people and cattle with white arsenic; plans political assassinations; encourages kingdoms to fight one another, creates religious differences that lead to the murder of many innocents – all in the name of the greater good. Of course, having followed his actions through the book one can’t help wondering if his purported goal of unifying Bharat is simply a guise to hide his all consuming need for revenge and power; to keep his force of “righteous and wronged” would be emperors on his side.
The second story revolves around a history professor from Kanpur who uses the exact same tactics that Kautilya employed 2300 years ago to wrest power in today’s world. From being a mere professor Pandit Gangasagar Mishra goes on to become the most powerful man in the country. How? The answer is quite simple – by doing whatever it takes. He firmly stands by what Chanakya told his beloved students: “In the world of politics you can ill afford luxuries such as a clear conscience.”
Reading Gangaprasad’s story is like watching the politics of today. From deals with corporations and scams that topple governments to fake and real assassination bids; from liaisoning with mafia dons to bribing the judiciary everything is part of the script. At times you can almost draw parallels with contemporary events and people. The characters, settings, maneuvers are all very real and this is what makes Chankya’s Chant a very compelling read. It is much akin to reading a blow by blow account of Indian politics today. Of course as Chanakya’s story so aptly shows, it is not very different from Indian politics 2500 years ago either. So really the scams, scandals, corruption, collateral damage, war mongering, innocent deaths, communal riots – all the ills that we accuse the modern day politicians of -are nothing new. Nor is their use for gaining power a particular characteristic of our “depraved” leaders. Power has always come at a price and the price as Chanakya points out is not just one’s emotions but one’s conscience as well. This is the message that flows out of Chanakya’s Chant. Every page of the book builds towards this message and carries many interesting pointers calmly stated by the astute Vishnugupta aka Chanakya and the wily Gangaprasad. To cite a few:
“Politics is war without bloodshed and war is simply politics with bloodshed.”
“Everything is always all right in the end. If it isnt all right, then it isnt the end.”
“Worry is like a rocking chair; it keeps you in motion but gets you nowhere.”
“Chanakya loved anger. It was a wonderfully productive emotion that could be used very productively if channeled in the right direction.”
“It’s foolish men who die for their country. The intelligent ones make others die for their country instead.”
“War is all about deception. Direct force is a poor solution to any problem. That’s why it is used only by little children.”
“You can only stab someone in the back if you are standing behind him.”
Do some of these sound familiar? Don’t worry towards the end of the book Sanghi not only acknowledges that many of these pithy sayings are inspired or taken from others, he even cites sources. Nonetheless these “strategy pills” administered at frequent intervals in adequate doses – the author does not over do it- keep the reader engaged and engrossed.
With well etched characters, tight writing and an intriguing storyline that is bound to appeal to a generation disillusioned by the 2G and other scams, Chanakya’s Chant is definitely a recommended reading. It touches upon many contemporary issues – from communal riots to guerrilla warfare. In fact in one scene Chanakya patiently explains to his student what guerrilla warfare is and why it is a good strategy (and not an unhonourable one). It even has some very interesting and innovative suggestions for managing contemporary problems – like use of enunchs for debt recovery and handing over salaries to the wives of bus drivers to prevent accidents due to drunk driving. Are these solutions practical? Will they work or will they simply reinforce stereotypes about heterosexuals and lead to an increase in domestic violence? I do not know but they are definitely worth mulling over. Yet for all its strengths I found Chanakya’s Chant to be oddly depressing. Perhaps it was the tone of inevitability in the book. The suggestion that the scams, the killings, the power plays that continue to make headlines in our world are here to stay. That everything in this world is about give and take – there are no free lunches. That those who are honest can not be a part of the system -they are either converted or bumped off. That success can only be attained by carefully studying people, identifying their weaknesses and then playing them; by backstabbing and lying. That even the “good” deeds carried out by politicians are really just means to an end- the end being power. Perhaps I am too much of a romantic. Perhaps I still believe in the innate goodness of human beings – in their ability to not just hurt but to heal. Perhaps my discomfort is born of the fact that the book very effectively- and at times, almost cruelly -destroys all illusions. I do not know.
Before I end the review however, there is one more thing that needs to be acknowledged – the sheer strength of Sanghi’s main protagonists (at the expense of other characters like Chandragupta Maurya, for instance). The two characters are so real that even as one loathes their actions one can’t loathe them. Yes they are ambitious, yes they are ruthless, yes they are wily. And perhaps a little strangely they are always successful. Yet they are human. So even the seemingly heartless professor who did not hesitate to get his own protegee shot twice or to get one of his dearest friends arrested could not help exclaiming, ” As God’s my witness, I loved the rogue.” Perhaps therein lies the hope.