Author Ravi Shankar Etteth’s latest historical novel, The Brahmin, is not just a tale of espionage and political intrigue. It also offers many aesthetic delights and cerebral thrills, writes Pushpesh Pant.
Historical thrillers blurring boundaries between myth and reality, facts and fantasy belong to a genre that arguably has a readership larger than any rival can claim. There are few Indian authors like Ashvin Sanghi who have carved a niche for themselves in this realm. But not all historical thrillers are alike. Some “hook” the readers by dangling a contemporary bait—some sensational headline that can be used to peg the forgotten (or totally imagined) past.
Thank God, Ravi Shankar Etteth is a purist who does not season past with present. The classic unity of time place and action is scrupulously maintained. He works his magic more subtly—subliminally misdirecting the reader to shift focus—imagine what could have been happening behind the scenes as the events chronicled in annals of history unravelled. He isn’t bothered about arousing vulgar curiosity about “who done it”, or “when will the next corpse tumble out and whose?” The thrills he offers are far more subtle—cerebral verging on spiritual.
Why do men and women take up arms? Wars, as the UN Charter famously reminds us, begin in the minds of men, and isn’t mind the ultimate weapon? Warrior monks appear out of a haze to tilt the critical balance when the outcome of a dubious battle hangs by a slender thread—Who are they? What is their motivation? Their Master disarms the Brahmin with a throwaway sentence when asked who he is. “I was a prince once. They called me Rahul of Kapilvastu. I started my journey from the northern mountains, looking for my lost father, but in the end I found myself.” All of us dear readers, embark on journeys seeking what we covet most but how few are fortunate enough to “find” themselves? An unpolished priceless gem like this recalls the author’s The Book of Shiva that strings together many journeys and myriad quests to lead the seeker to self-realisation.
This thriller too raises tantalising existential questions.
The backdrop of the book is India in the third century before the birth of Christ—the period at times referred to as the “Age of Imperial Unity”. It was indeed “a time of violence as well as calm”. India was experiencing great intellectual and cultural ferment after encountering the Greeks in the wake of Alexander’s invasion. The master storyteller has woven a gossamer web that shimmers in shifting light reflected by “historical events” to entice the readers.
King Ashok is planning to invade the Kingdom of Kalinga but the ruler of Kalinga is on guard. He is plotting a pre-emptive strike to lay low the enemy. A tangled game of deceit is underway.
Ravi Shankar has been in his different avatars a cartoonist and graphic designer. The brief chapters in this unputdownable page turner appear to be crafted as scenes visualised for a story board of a film. The locale is invoked in few swift strokes—bold lines reminiscent of the author’s cartoons and characters etched in sharp angular lines. The technique is very effective—one is instantaneously transported to a different time-space without a long lesson revising history taught in school. Interestingly Ashoka makes only a cameo appearance, it is the enigmatic Brahmin his master spy who is matching his wits with the envoy of Kalinga playing a deadly game of mirrors. Loyalty has to contend with treachery and love with betrayal at each step.
The narration resonates at many levels. Thriller yes, but there are shades of romance refused due to call of duty or ambition. Details beautifully researched and utilised with a light touch will satisfy those looking for historical exotica. There are wonderful vignettes of low life from the underbelly of the dazzling cosmopolitan capital Pataliputra, with its dens of drug and vice just beyond the outskirts—with luscious boys and strapping Greeks in brothels to ensnare the rich and powerful, spy masters employing the poisonous vishkanya to seduce and mortally wound the soft target, and asides on technique of wielding a Greek cross bow by an expert archer are all there not merely to titillate but to propel the intricately plotted tale of intrigue to a dizzying climax. The Brahmin is not just a tale of espionage and political intrigue. It offers many aesthetic delights that—like a double-crostic, an adults’ jigsaw puzzle, or a set piece chess problem— call for “revisits”.
Do not miss this one. I hope there is a sequel.
Pushpesh Pant is a reputed academic, historian and scholar. A former Professor of International Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, his book, ‘India: The Cookbook’ (2011), was named by The New York Times as the best in its category