History has gaps in it that allow a fiction writer’s imagination to flow through. However, recreating a credible story world set in the distant past is a challenge for even the most seasoned writers. Ravi Shankar Etteth’s earlier novel, The Brahmin, proved that he is up to the task. It took us to King Ashoka’s realm, Magadha, on the eve of war against Kalinga—a seemingly calm period rife with underlying tensions, assassination plots and what-not. In short, it set the stage for Ashoka’s wily spymaster, and the novel’s eponymous hero, to play a masterly game. In Return of the Brahmin, the game is upped several notches.
Kalinga has fallen, Ashoka has converted to Buddhism but his life is far from serene. An implacable unknown enemy known as the Khandapati—the Broken Man—heads a Resistance movement against him. ‘He presided over the Kalasutra of vengeance—the Mahayana hell in which devils chopped up their victims along a homicidal grid.’ Such is the zeitgeist that riots break out in prisons, corrupt government officials are assassinated, bandits roam the forests, thugnas, worshippers of the Goddess Kali, kill wayfarers, and Ajivikas, a harmless religious sect, are persecuted.
To this turbulence add a colourful cast of characters: Nirmukh, the Faceless Man, a mysterious political prisoner concealed in an impregnable Dark Hall somewhere; a vishkanya or poison maiden; a soldier of fortune; a necromancer named Pretnath; killer Salukis; warrior monks; somatophylaxes and anetras who are ‘deaf, dumb and blind fighters trained by master warriors to fight using only their sense of smell and subtle shifts in the atmosphere’. And voila! You have all the makings of a weird and wonderful tangle that only a true-blue master of espionage like the Brahmin can untangle.
The author is a well-known political cartoonist and journalist. While this may explain the ease with which the shadowy world of conspiracies and counterplots is sketched for us, what is remarkable is the artfulness in blending a wealth of period detail into the narrative. This lends a vital but intangible quality to the storytelling: atmosphere. Like lifting the veil of history but for a modern spy thriller-savvy audience. It is advisable to keep your search engines running as politics and history are served alongside information about weapons, road transport (pusyarath, bahlts, buggies), ships, poisonous plants, foreign martial arts—such as bokator and pankration—dress codes, food and wines. Exotica fill the pages, making the past, indeed, a foreign country, but one in which everything, including characters, theme, plot and pace, falls into its right place.
Another reason this is a thriller to savour is the deft characterisation. Sample this passing exchange between a bandit and an innkeeper who is describing a soup on the menu. ‘It is made with the flesh of succulent piglets cooked with butter and parsley, and a sprinkling of ginger and spring onions. I believe the Buddha himself invented it.’ ‘They say the Buddha died eating that soup,’ the bandit chief barked. The Brahmin is an engaging protagonist. He is the inscrutable Outsider whose perspective and tactics have an out-of-time quality. ‘The wrinkles around his mouth spoke of suppressed cynicism as if the whole world was a joke but he wasn’t laughing.’
While he is the quintessential spy hero, as adept at martial arts and espionage as he is at understanding philosophy, he is also different. For instance, he comes from an ancient line that includes two formidable Brahmins—Ravana, the mythical king of Lanka and Chanakya, advisor to Chandragupta. In addition, he has an unshakable loyalty to Ashoka. The relationship between the two men is endearing. Special, too, is the portrayal of Ashoka as emperor ‘with a face that concealed the pain and confusion that constantly conflicted with his greed for greatness.’A well-executed political conspiracy plot with a liberal helping of history. That’s two for the price of one.