Rahul Vishnoi reviews Ashoka: Prince of Mauryas by Ashok Banker (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2023)
Before writing anything about Ashoka: Prince of the Mauryas, it is inevitable to write about its eponymous author. On his Wikipedia page, Ashok Banker is credited as the mind behind India’s first indigenous English series A Mouthful of Sky. He is also the one who developed Malaysia’s first English series. With dozens of Hindu mythology titles under his belt, he is India’s original mytho-fic writer, if you ignore the current mainstream crop.
It is no less a task to fictionalize the life of the emperor Ashoka whom every Indian knows and revers. His aversion after the bloody battle of Kalinga and subsequent embracing and popularising the teachings of Buddhism are read by the kids in textbook.
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Having not studied his actual life in detail, I can’t vouch for the veracity of the events that occur in Ashoka, I, however, can safely say that these events pack an entertaining punch. Ashoka, after all, is a historical fiction with emphasis on the latter.
Ashok Banker – Writings & Research
Ashok Banker begins right at the beginning, when Ashok—second in line to the Mauryan throne upon which his father Bindusara sits—is a ‘young stripling boy’ who when enters a battle arena, unbeknownst to the uproarious crowd, is laughed off and invited by strangers to ‘sit upon their laps’.
From here, it’s a whirlwind. Ashoka’s character is established in the same vein as a fighter and an athlete bestowed with a clever mind which, though, is at peace with the world and doesn’t want to have anything to do with the royal throne.
But a conspiracy is afoot and Ashok must crack it to thwart the attempt on his father’s life. The confederacy of Lichchavi, it seems, is hell-bent on breaking its wartime agreement with Pataliputra. The root of this mayhem must be discovered and dowsed with acid pour. But Kautilya, the mastermind who could help Ashoka, is living in forest, banished because of a mysterious conspiracy.
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Ashoka is written as we know him now: brave and a man of principles. But in royals, principles were considered weakness. In the words of a character, he’s described as:
‘You are a great lover and an extraordinary fighter. But you’re a naïve, idealistic, people-loving, animal-loving fool when it comes to politics and ambition. You don’t have the iron in you to take hard steps, to kill when killing’s needed, even if it’s a friend or family member…or mother.’
To this, Ashoka replies, ‘A day when I’m willing to kill my own mother to further myself politically is a day that will never dawn for me.’
Ashok Banker’s writing shines when he writes about the time his book is set in. The expansive city of Patliputra, which ‘is not a city but a Metropolitan’. He relishes in explaining the impressive architecture (again, no claims for its originality) of the fort, the hard-like-iron wooden walls that surround it. Use of Sanskrit words in the text was surprisingly interesting.
Lion is Vyag, Crane (Saras) is Krauncha and so on. It’s always interesting when the book you’re reading challenges you to pick up your phone but for altogether different reason.
But while dealing with the story, Banker often times sacrifices the characters at the altar of pace. Some plot-points are written effectively, bringing a twist when none was expected, especially Ashoka’s meeting with his ladylove. Others, particularly fight scenes, read like they’ve been inspired from the scenes we have already watched on the screen. Banker could have introduced a different way to pit them.
The villains are sex-crazed debauched people and it seems author is servicing a stereotype. Banker should be lauded to introduce an all-female force ‘Chandikas’ that guard the fort, but he brings sensuality to this too, suggesting the female force took pleasure and lovers amongst themselves. And it is not to be frowned upon, but this piece of information should have been embedded into the story and instead of coming just as an exposition. This writing, impressive yet sometimes hollywoodising the characters feels unsatisfactory at times. Like being served daal-chawal in a Michelin restaurant.
First published in 2015 and then 2017 as Ashoka: Lion of Maurya and Ashoka: Satrap of Taxila, Ashoka: Prince of Maurya is a trilogy that combines the first two and concludes the story. A thrilling and a befitting conclusion to the epic it began as. I wish more writers delve into the Mauryan period and write engaging contemporary fiction with historical background.