Book Review: Chanakya's Chant

Chanakya's Chant

Author : Ashwin Sanghi
Category: Historical Fiction

It is quite a difficult to tell one story in one book -and carry it off well, maintaining the pace of the story and the interest of the reader. When one comes across a book which does that, it becomes an enjoyable read... most avid readers would agree with me on that score. On occasion, authors' have used sub-plots within the main story line and carried it off quite well. However, the subplots tend to merge with the main story and are integrally connected with it, and aid the flow of the story - again making it an enjoyable read. But when you come across a book that deals with 2 different stories, unconnected stories running parallel to one another, the first reaction is likely to be of disbelief, or expression of doubt in the quality of the work, or some such reaction. My first reaction was, to be quite honest, along the same lines. I am quite fond of reading history - esp Indian history, and had been exposed to the concept of historical fiction earlier. But even so, I checked out several reviews before taking the plunge.  

That is what this book is about - Chanakya is reborn in India in the 20th century, who takes a poor girl under his wing and ensures that she rises to the post of prime minister of India. Running parallel to this story is the story of how Chanakya makes Chandragupta Maurya the King of Magadha. First off, the concept of 2 different stories piques your interest and serves to draw you to at least consider the book. Next, the base of the book is a blend of historical fiction and political thriller as a category... this further stokes your curiosity, for mixing these 2 unrelated concepts is indeed difficult. Has the author carried it off? This is what my review is about

First, Chanakya. Please remember that this is historical fiction: "Writers of histrorical fiction are not historians and they must depend on others for historical information. The narratives about Chanakya and Chandragupta in Chanakya's Chant are fictitious although their events and lives depicted may possibly have roots in history or mythology." - Ashwin Samghi in Acknowledgments and References. I cant put it any better that the authr himself! The story starts with Chanakya as a young boy whose father is beheaded - this leads the hero of our story to swear revenge. He duely reaches Takshila with the help of Katyayan, a minister in the Magadha Cabinet. Once there, his natural intellect ensures that he outstrips others among his peers and pretty soon acquires fame. 

The story mercifully fast-forwards to adulthood, when he returns to Magadha - and promply earns the wrath of the Nanda King, Dhanananda. He is thrown into the dungeons wherefrom he escpapes - again with help, and meets Chandragupta in whom he sees kingly attributes. Accordingly Chandragupta is taken to Takshila for his education. Chandragupta is the son of the senapati of the Magadha Army, who along with Katyayan set about helping Chankya... there is one significant hurdle, though. The Magadha Empire is the most powerful in India - so how does our hero fulfill his terrible vow? The rest of the book showcases the legendary skills of Chanakya as he sets about his task of converting a state-less, army-less young Chandragupta into the most powerful ruler in ancient India. I shant tell more - revealing anything more will be sacrilege, almost! Suffice it to say that everyone from Paurus to Alexander features in the events as the story unfolds! Read the book for more details... sorry!

Pandit Gangasagar Mishra
The modern story starts in UP - Kanpur of all places, and traces the life of the modern Chanakya from the lower - middle class environs of Kanpur to his becoming the most powerful man - the kingmaker - of India. The story parallels that of the ancient Chanakya perfectly, and you can see the similarities between the storylines as the story develops. Mishra quickly earns the trust of, his employer Agrawal (Gangasagar Mishra's father's patron) - and from there starts one of the most amazing tales of planning, plotting, calculating and most importantly brilliant execution that propels Gangasagar Mishra and his protégée  Chandini Gupta into the realms of national power. 

As earlier, revealing anything else will wreck the enjoyment of the book, for it is a tremendous achievement for an unconnected individual to to single-handedly enable a poor slum girl into becoming the Prime Minister. Quite a stupendous achievement - and this is one we can appreciate all the more since we are able to relate to the background of the story. In the case of Chanakya, the story is set in a background that we have only heard about, whereas the modern story is set on a stage that we are actually living and experiencing. For example, it is a common opinion that you need contacts, especially in modern politics. Then how has Gangasagar Mishra achieved what he did, seeing as he had no contacts to start with? The forms the core of the book - read it to find more!

The Analysis
The format of the book is the key point - it interleaves one chapter of Chanakya with one of Gangasagar Mishra. This heightens your appreciation of the book as well as the storyline. In fact, this is the core of the book, its USP and its punchline all rolled into one. Because of this style of writing, you can guage the similarities in the strategems of the twin heroes, appreciate their brilliance and spot the linkages / similarity in the sequence of events and tactics employed. The mirror image of the tactics of 2300 years ago can be readily seen in the modern tactics, which makes the book fun - and you end up looking forward to how has the modern Mishra implemented it. The similarities in the 2 lives, the events that occur have been superbly highlighted, and make this book the stuff of legend. 

Hidden in these 2 stories is one awesome realisation - the 2 heroes have never used the power or the wealth that came their way for personal profit. One has to appreciate the way in which both - especially Ganagsagar Mishra - enters the murky world of crime and the shady side of politics, dwells on the border between law and lawnessness, uses the weapons of the system he is fighting against that very system. Neither have they used the power the further the cause of crime, but have rather used the gains therefrom to overturn those very unsavoury people.  

The book is surprisingly racy-paced and well written. As you reach the end of one chapter, you are tempted - sorely tempted - to skip the next chapter of the other era and continue the story in the same era. Credit to the author that has managed to pull the reader into each interleaving. Then, as you see the similarities and the linkages, you forget abut skipping altogether!

In summation, this is a unique book - unlike any other that you will have read. It mixes 2 separate genres - Historical Fiction and Political Thriller - quite successfully, creating a memorable book in the process. It sets a racy pace, has a unique storyline, a unique concept, an engaging style of writing and is a thoroughly enjoyable read! As you set it down after the last page- the story tends to stay with you. What more could you want from a book?  I started with a question - has the author pulled it off? Answer - Yes, he has! 


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