Paul M M Cooper’s River of Ink is the tale of a reluctant revolutionary—a poet who believes that poetry makes nothing happen. Asanka is the court poet of King Parakrama and was enjoying the high life when the ruthless Kalinga Magha usurps the throne of Lanka, and sends his existence plummeting into a world of endless turmoil and abject fear. Reluctantly, he accepts the tyrant’s order to translate a Sanskrit text on Shishupal, into Tamil (a dubious decision, given the bloody history between the Tamils and Sinhalese) and discovers that words do have the power to galvanise and may just triumph where the sword has failed.
It is a potent premise, and mildly absorbing. Yet, it falls well shy of delivering the goods. Perhaps, it is because while Cooper is clearly earnest and sincere in his attempt to chronicle a slice of Sri Lankan history, his alien sensibility is an intrusive presence that prevents complete absorption in the colourful narrative he has almost brought to life.
For instance, it is hard to buy the typically thankless character that is the wife, who just refuses to be understanding while her husband is carrying on with a comely maid. Madhusha walks out on Asanka, helping herself to his money and leaving a curt note. I did not believe it for a second.
Women of that era, used to the perks of a cushy life, did not usually go traipsing off into the surrounding war —torn country in a huff, like the feisty belles so admired in contemporary times with their husband’s money unless they had an especial desire to be gang-raped and murdered. Besides, Madhusha was a country mouse with no taste for life in the capital city of Polonnaruwa. It seems unlikely that she would know how to write.
The monstrous Kalinga Magha is equally problematic. When he is not lopping off heads, gouging out eyes, and suppressing rebels with an iron fist, the tyrant is keen on promoting his brand of art and indulging his appetite for pretty young things. Which is why it hardly makes sense that he would want to marry the maid, the very same one, Asanka is so passionately in love with and vigorously making love to when she is not furious with him. Given his rampant displays of megalomania, one wonders why Magha would opt to make her his Queen, fully knowing the status quo, thanks to his excellent network of spies, when he could just order her into his bed instead. This sort of thing, plus the weak explanation for the doomed lovers’ lame attempts to escape make the entire thing seem hopelessly contrived.
Cooper has clearly spent a lot of time on research and yet in the chapter on Yudhisthira, there is a glaring factual error. The eldest Pandava talks about the grand horse sacrifice which he claims was conducted after twelve years spent in exile, which was the result of a lost game of dice to the trickster, Shakuni. In Veda Vyasa’s epic though, the Pandavas had taken Vidura’s council and disappeared into hiding after Duryodhana’s infamous attempt to burn them alive at Varanavata. The Ashwamedha is performed only after the Pandavas are spotted at Draupadi’s swayamvara and are given five small villages to start afresh. The infamous game of dice took place shortly after.
In this fashion, The River of Ink, meanders on along its improbable course, pausing briefly to allow us glimpses into poignant, intimate meeting between the lovers and the increasing cruelty of Magha, while clumsily setting up a twist that the discerning reader can follow through to its conclusion, almost at the moment of its introduction. A valiant if disappointing effort from Cooper.