Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chanakya's Chant

A book that has been on the bestseller list for about a year now. A book that is among the list of “Crossword Recommends” and “Landmark Top 10” and all the others. A book that has been called everything from “mesmerizing” to “very engaging” to “unputdownable”. And offered to me as part of “Sponsored Review” program. All the hype makes it very difficult for me to tell the world that 1) it is very much putdownable 2) it was just about average. But then, I believe in honest reviewing. So let me tell you at the start that this book is very much like a Bollywood movie- all plot and masala. And without even the ethics that Bollywood tries to have.

So if you are looking for a book that has a good plot but nothing else to offer (oh yeah, you get to flaunt to friends that you read a historical novel and sound intellectual), this is a very good Indian book. If you want to read a book that doesn’t tax the intellect or the conscience, and shows you the worst of India, this is again a good choice. If you have read enough history to know it well, or if you have some little morality left in you, this book will leave you with a bad aftertaste. 

Getting on to the plot.. As the cover says it is a parallel story of Chanakya and Gangasagar Mishra. The former wants to crown Chandragupta (Maurya) and the latter Chandini Gupta. (Yes, it really IS that obvious!) Both use unconventional (read most unethical) strategies to achieve their goals. Not only bribing prostitutes (which is still ok) and hiring eunuchs to castrate a man , but also falsifying documents, double-crossing friends, murder- just about every wrong thing you could dream of is there in the book. Of course, you know they will win in the end. And you know it in the first scene when Chandini is sworn in as Prime Minister. (And if you did any history at all in school, you know Chandragupta also became an emperor). So not much of a mystery (which is why I found it putdownable). But yes, the plot moves fast, and Ashwin untiringly thinks up newer and newer “strategies”. The plot could have been better if Chanakya or Ganga failed at some point, and the reader would want to know how they shot back. But Ashwin makes them invincible, which also means unreal.
 
Characters.. The beauty of the story is that nobody has any sort of character (not even a bad or evil character). Like their strategy for winning elections, the character is to have no character. The only character I remember is the honest ex-home minister who is the only one immune to Ganga and who appears in the story for about 2 lines.

 
Theme.. Politics and history. Unfortunately, the politics shown is so dirty that at no point of time do you sympathize with Ganga. If the other guys are bad, he is worse. Why would a reader want him to succeed? Because he is the protagonist? That is so typically Bollywood movie type logic, which I am quite incapable of. And history. I can write a separate book on the number of anachronisms and wrong language usage in the book. If it was supposed to be a historical comedy, they would have been appropriate, I guess.

 
What makes the book really bad is that it was a very promising plot. A good writer could have created a masterpiece with memorable characters and real mind-blowing strategies. And yes, he could have used original quotes. There is no fun in reading a book where almost all the witty lines are lifted from brainyquote and thinkexist*. Google can do that. The talent of a good writer lies in his originality. If the plot was historical, one could have given it a fresh perspective. And one could have sculpted characters who nobody would forget. All I can say to readers is- if you want to read a real strategy story on Chanakya, read MudraRakshasa. And if you want a real modern day political novel, read The Prodigal Daughter (it has really amazing and “original” quotes and a pretty good plot, which is why Archer is such a successful writer.)

 
Sorry Chanakya’s Chant, but no donuts for you this time!

* As one can verify from the appendix, many of them are not even from Chanakya himself. And the few Chanakya quotes available are not among the best of his.

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6 comments:

  1. I have read part of this book. I don't think it is that great, either. But your review is well summarized, attacks each fallacy perfectly, and lets people know what exactly is wrong with the book.

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  2. Three cheers for your alternate, but honest opinion. I bought the book after reading about it and hearing about it, and regretted it. From the horrible cover to poor language to bad characterisation, not to mention the two parallell stories, the book was a bad buy. I actually sold it to a second hand book seller at the first chance I got.

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  3. @Sudha: Thanks! :) And yes, I was also quite misled by most reviews, but I am keeping the book as a reminder of how sometimes reviews can be completely the opposite of reality!

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  4. Thanks I agree overhyped. The plot is good because its borrowed from mudrarakshasa and the subplot the writer creates has no surpises. And I hated his stealing quotes from yes minister and other places. Whatever happened to originality.\Your main plot is stolen, quotes stolen and the sub plot of Gangasagar crap and still he gets credit of a bestseller!

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