Book Review: Chanakya’s Chant

Chanakya’s Chant is Ashwin Sanghi’s second attempt at historical fiction, a thriller that has two sagas running parallel to one another.

One, as the name betrays, is the account of Chanakya’s manipulative journey of installing Chandragupt (better known as the grandfather of Mauryan emperor Ashok) on the throne of a united Indian empire, set 2,300 years ago from today.

The other is Pandit Gangasagar Mishra’s scheming tale of establishing Chandni Gupta (the similarity of names is laughable) as Prime Minister of India, as we know today.

The point Sanghi’s trying to make through the two stories is that Chanakya’s strategies still have a relevance and place in Indian politics and can be used fruitfully to “reunite” the country, if someone seriously takes to it.

Ad-man Prahlad Kakkar writes in praise of the book, “I wish our politicians were literate enough to read it.” It’s questionable whether our politicians would use it for any good of the country, even if they could.

The two gurus use every conceivable trick and scheme to achieve their ends and that includes lies, deceit, blackmail and even murder of innocent pawns. Clearly a case of “ends justify means”, if the ends are as majestic as uniting a country. For a thriller, I would have liked more twists and turns because the story becomes predictable after a while.

There is a fair sprinkling of humour across the book, even a Princess Diaries-style tutoring of Chandini to groom her in a finishing school in London. Though sometimes, it just falls flat: “I am aa-nerd tomit you. I studied in ko-liage yin Kerala, now looking to yearn many in job with you.” That was Gangasagar’s assistant from Kerala for you!

So what makes the book an interesting read?

The small capsules within each chapter keep the story moving fast. There is no melodrama or arguments over morality and righteousness. The characters are shown to be ruthless, almost having no conscience as they throw morals out the window.

A strong opposing voice at this point would have worked wonders for the book and not made it seem like two super teachers leading one-man armies towards the success of their respective pupils.

I was surprised to see the extravagant use of American slang and swearing in a historical book about India, even though it was mostly restricted to the “present day” tale and not Chanakya’s dialogue.

Coming to which, Sanghi mentions that many of the witty one-liners that came from his characters’ mouth were actually “inspired” from quotes by Benjamin Franklin, Al Capone, Mao Tse Tung, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain et al. Using others’ famous quotes for the two main characters of your novel, one of whom is a real historical figure, shows lack of originality in scripting dialogue. The author fails to hide his lack of research on Chankaya, his thoughts and statements (brainyquote.com does not count).

The chapters alternate between what happened in Chanakya’s life in the past and what is happening in Gangasagar’s life in the present. The book might as well have been two separate novellas. And if that, I would have opted to read Chanakya’s tale for the characters there, are more well-defined.

Chanakya’s motivations behind his actions are well known — avenging his father’s death and uniting the country against an invasion of Alexander. But, Gangasagar just realises, “that one day he would also possess the power to make or break empires” after a chance meeting with Gandhi.

Ironic, since Gandhi advocated ’ahimsaor non-violence, and that, means should always justify the ends.

The same goes for their pupils’ characters. While Chandragupt is understood to have all the desired traits of a good king and shows extraordinary tact as a child, Chandni Gupta is an ordinary girl with good debating skills and attractive looks (I have no clue why that detail was important to the plot) to her credit.

Why Gangasagar chooses her is a mystery to me.

The author volunteers one reason — her gender. The omnipresent (including the title) chant in the book calls upon the power of the female and if Gangasagar wanted the chant to work, he could only help a woman gain power. The scared feminine, anyone?

I wish the author had dwelled deeper into the chant’s origin and other significant details around it. I pick up a book titled Chanakya’s chant and come out knowing only its literal translation from Sanskrit to English, which I admit was easy to understand.

Similarly, the author just touches upon feminist issues in some places in the book but doesn’t ponder over the significance of the feminine in the chant.

Then there’s a shocker of an incident when Gangasagar orders an attempt to rape his pupil when she’s just a little girl. Why? Just to fire her up and make her want power so that no man could ever try that again on her or another woman in India. Absurdity to all my senses!

Over all, it’s a light and fast read based on the age-old question of “Do ends justify means?” Don’t go looking for much meaning or enlightenment in this one. Unfortunately, the Chant couldn’t cast its spell on me.

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