There comes a time in every writer’s life when he comes up with the perfect story, the perfect setting, the perfect plot and the perfect dramatis personae. Ravi Shankar Etteth’s fifth novel The Brahmin is just that perfect story. It has flesh and blood, gore and gristle, love and lust, murder and mystery, and conspiracy and commitment. It has legend, fable, and a historical context to the great Indian empires that laid the foundation of the India we live in today. It has mythology.
It has the sense of the silent spread of Buddism that was sweeping through Central India at that time and vivid characterisations of monks who also wield the sword. Its kaleidoscope narrative has quick-shifting locales, a motley gathering of kings, a queen and other flotsam royalty. It has concubines and eunuchs, assassins and warriors, not to mention harlots and horses. Most of all it has its central character, the charismatic clever allegiant, “Brahmin”.
It is BC 260 or thereabouts. Ashoka the Great, the Emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, the grandson of Chandragupta, is preparing to wage war against the kingdom of Kalinga (modern day Odisha) ruled by a boy king who is controlled by scheming courtiers, a dark arts Mata Hari and several scheming double crossing spies. There is a loathing fear of the wrath of the Maurya Empire with its cruel ambitions of hegemony despite the great King Ashoka’s reputation of being an Emperor of peace.
The Brahmin is a Chanakya, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Miyamoto Musashi, all seamlessly fused into one. Pitted against the Brahmin is the over-ambitious, treacherous and obsequious prime minister of Pataliputra, Radhagupta, whose depths of political depravity is surreally matched with his penchant for young boys. The Brahmin is the quintessential spy who trusts no one, spies on everyone, and never wavers in his loyalty to King Ashoka. To quote the following paragraphs:
“What is his hold over me ?” the king wondered. As if in response to his unspoken question, the Brahmin looked up at his monarch with the conspiratorial affection of old comrades. The answer hit Ashoka in the pit of his stomach like a rush of air. “Because he doesn’t need anything from me!” He was the king of Magadha, the arbiter of vanquished kingdoms and the head of an army so powerful that nobody had seen the likes of it before, yet here was one man who did not need his favour. The realisation made him feel small somehow. For a moment, he felt an intense dislike for the man standing in front of him.”
The Brahmin’s lingering love and dormant feelings for Ashoka’s queen—the languid and luminescent Asandhimitra—is a tender cadenza, which she in her own limpid way encourages, as the plot to assassinate and defeat King Ashoka and his Queen unfolds. There is also a poignant almost father-daughter relationship with the Brahmin’s ace protectress Hao, a ferocious knife-wielding warrior of Vietnamese lineage.
It would be an injustice to bracket Ravi Shankar Etteth’s novel as a work of historical fiction. It’s a statement of the life and times of the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka, reputedly ‘a man of peace’ who in reality waged cruel and merciless wars against his enemies. The Mauryan world of that time can as easily be transposed into the life and times of Delhi today with its machinations, conspiracies, treachery and cunning. Every empire has its Brahmin.
Ravi Shankar’s ‘Brahmin’ is just that much more only because of the Brahmin’s purity of purpose and his selflessness of service. A human quality we so wish existed today in the narak nagarika of present day Delhi.The test of a great novel is whether it can be read in one or two sittings. Its test is also whether after it is read, it leaves the reader wishing he was living in that time and age when honour and true faith mattered. The Brahmin is that novel.