Everyone needs a sense of their pasts - including their past as a nation but many may not even know it.We need to live and recreate our pasts , to hold the fragments of facts and lore together and see the assembled picture in all its glory -to make our todays meaningful.But it is a tough task .
When someone goes to a symposium on history or a curated art show on Ancient India they are already academically or intellectually versed and vested in ancient Indian history .But Academia also tends to keep things limited to their own tight, elite circle of like minded.Somewhere some elite has to take a leap of faith and show the treasures they cherish to the non -historical person .Hence the importance of the Indian Historical Novel : one that tells the story of the sub-continent's hazy past. A novel that spans the distance between the pretty but pretty cursory Amar Chitra Kathas of our childhood , the atrocious movie/T.V epics ,the spare and information packed NCERT books,and the weighty but dry texts of our college days.In India it seems that the more rich your past - the more the obsession with the future and the disenchantment with present .The dim past somehow does not count for much after the naming of roads or making of an obligatory movie has been done.
Consider, for example how many books are set in Ancient India as compared to those set in medieval Europe ?Thankfully, medieval India is more popular in popular fiction!It is a great joy to know that the era of the Ancient India Novel has been ushered in style by Sumedha Verma Ojha courtesy her novel Urnabhih ,set in Patiliputra of Chandragupta Maurya.She brings together devoted scholarship and rich imagination to weave a riveting narrative about the adventures of a fiery Ganika- Misrakesi,who is a spy working for Chanakya in the politically turbulent era when Nandas were overthrown by Chandragupta Maurya.While Misrakesi's adventures in Patiliputra of yore have all elements of mystery , romance ,intrigue and drama to whet the reader's appetite for stories , what the book gives you is much more than that .
The author imparts a historical sense to the reader .Which may be lacking in many of us despite our knowledge of dry historical facts.She does it by bringing alive the world of the ancient Sanskrit Texts from which most of us by circumstance or choice are severed,but which still resides in our collective un -conscious , in liturgy ,ritual and in vehement political rhetoric.
I had a good time reading Urnabhih :it is a light and racy read despite dealing with many weighty subjects. And it will turn you into a history buff too.No wonder I had a lot of questions to ask the author : a wearer of many hats : the tax woman , the financial consultant and the writer cum history pundit.Very patiently, Sumedha has taken the time to respond to each of the questions .Here they are :
Q: While reading Urnabhih , I had to put the book down from time to time to just marvel at how you have taken your material from the academic and classical works and infused it with so much life and colour .You have achieved a wonderful synergy of artful storytelling peppered with sharp facts .So I congratulate you for bringing the Mauryan era alive for today’s generation and for entwining every reader of the book in this silken net of drama, pageantry and upheaval.
Thank you, Varsha! I call myself the self appointed ambassador from the Court of Chandragupta Maurya to the 21st century. What I want from the bottom of my heart is for each reader to fall in love with the Mauryans!
Q: And you have done that in style ! Tell me , did you begin your research in classical texts with an aim to write a book or did the stories start leaping at you as you dug deeper into the research?
That’s a difficult one to answer. Ever since I was a child there has been a tradition of reading classical texts in my family (thanks to my mother) so that has been a constant. Ancient India and its history was equally a passion as was reading books and writing. I took a sabbatical when our family decided to move to Geneva and immersed myself in reading and research with a hazy notion of writing something at some time on the Mauryans as the focus of my interest was the Chanakya’s Arthashastra. Initial responses from publishing houses were downright negative (who on earth wants to know about Chandragupta Maurya. Why don’t you write NRI fiction like JhumpaLahiri, that sells etcetc). With time the idea of the book crystallised.
Q: At what point did you decide to write a fictional narrative ? When did all those facts start synthesising into an interesting, thrilling and human story?
I was happily drowning myself in Mauryanalia when I was nudged by my husband who would ask me when I was going to stop reading and start writing. So after a while I started writing with a good deal of hesitation as I had never written a book before.
I was part of a group of writers who met every month in Geneva and this group was most encouraging. Expectedly the first two chapters were very difficult to write. After that the story kind of flowed out and I finished writing the first draft of the book in long hand.
Q: Most history books are narrations of facts by movers and shakers who are mostly male .Was it very important to you to have a protagonist who was a woman and a commoner?
I have never subscribed to the idea that men have shaped history. It is probably just that history has been portrayed from the male point of view. If you read carefully and with discernment and interest the role of women becomes clear. Subaltern history has interested and intrigued me , the voices of those who have traditionally been thought of as voiceless excite me. And then of course, I am a woman. My first book was bound to be something that emerges from my own sub conscious; I have probably poured out more of myself in this book than I ever will again. So, yes, a woman and a commoner as the heroine was really important for me.
Q : You portray Misrakesi as a strong independent woman, second to none in intelligence , enterprise and bravery . She does not derive her power by being someones’s wife sister or mother .She has a powerful sexuality -her career as a ganika and a spy is supposed to utilize this to the advantage of her bosses.But she is no mere tool.At every point she chooses what she wants to do or not do .She is in a system but she believes in working around that system .She is in charge of her sexuality and believes in giving her lover a figurative finger in the solar plexus if he ever dares to treat like a Ganika by discussing her prowess publicly.Is there any precedent in the ancient classics( to which you give a nod) for such a character ?
To immerse myself in the characters and situations which would have been common 2 millennia ago has been one of my most important literary aims. One aspect has been Sanskrit plays, poems and other texts. A very important text in this context has been the Kathsaritasagar which we know of now as an 11th century Sanskrit collection of stories by Somadeva and also Kshemendra but which has an even more hoary past; probably written down in the 6th century bce in a language which was not Sanskrit but paisachiprakrit. It is indeed an ocean of stories ( 10 volumes in English!) and I have read it to gain an idea of women from times past. They are never victims or helpless spectators but active and clever players of the game of life even with the dice loaded against them.
One example from the cycle of stories related to the famed King of Kaushambi ,Udayana. He was Krishna-Kanhaiya and Adonis to the power n in ancient India and his political and romantic exploits were legendary. So you had this princess of a foreign land who decided to marry him (he already had 2 wives at the time) inspite of opposition from her parents. With the help of a lady friend with magic powers she transports herself to Kaushambi and plonks herself next to the King’s castle to insist that he marry her. This throws the King and his establishment into a tizzy ( you can imagine his two wives objecting and so did his chief minister for political reasons) and they play for time. In the mean while she gets tired of waiting and has a short fling with an unknown man who strikes her as similar to the King and catches her fancy. She becomes pregnant and marriage with Udayana is now ruled out. So she settles down there, has her child, a daughter, and when the daughter grows up marries her to Naravahanadutta, the equally famous son of Udayana! How’s that for a post modern story? I have so many such stories to tell which have shaped my perception. Maybe I will tell them one of these days!
Incidentally, the character, Chandramukhi, is from the Vetaala Pachisi cycle of the Kathasaritasagar, although I have embellished the character and extended the story.Even our so called submissive icons like Sita are hardly that. Read their stories written in different times and by different authors and sometimes their strength of character shines through. The Sita of Raghuvansham and of Uttararamacharita for example would be unrecognisable to someone who is only aware of Tulsidas’ take on Sita. Don’t forget that she was a courageous and strong single mother in very different times from our own; never a victim.
Q :This is most interesting ! Sumedha .
I find that in your portrayal of the Age, you acknowledge the divisions in the society but you give a lot of freedom to your characters to transcend their stations in life by their actions and agency ( Chandrakanta, Besant)for example. And Misrakesi’s caste is shrouded in the mystery of her orphan status.I find this much more interesting than a routine critique of the caste system or position of women in the society JIs this a literary trope or was the caste system really that fluid ?
Around the 6th century bc , the world was in a ferment, especially in Asia. Improvements in agriculture and extraction of greater surplus was throwing established orders into turmoil. In India apart from Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Makkali Ghosala and many others were re interpreting and creatively disrupting the existing society and polity. In addition the ‘caste’ system existed as a flexible framework with people and groups moving up and down and laterally as well. It was only with colonial interventions after the 16th century that many of the flexible structures changed. ( But that is a separate and long story) So this is far from a trope and most emphatically rooted in reality. For instance, the Mauryas themselves had a Brahmin Senapati serving Shudra King !
Q: Now for some crafty questions :) Describe your typical day of writing .
Well, I am also a householder and run a financial consultancy firm apart from writing so it often becomes a matter of snatching moments to write. ( I wish I could be like Jane Austen; she reputedly wrote on scraps of paper whenever she had a few minutes free which then metamorphosed into her timeless books!)However, I write in a more structured manner. When I was concentrating full time on writing I got up around 6 30 and despatched the kids to school, finished my yoga and meditation and breakfast and then wrote for 2 hours. Then break for cooking and eating lunch and other household work. After that another 2 to three hours writing till the evening. I usually did not write in the evening and night (althoughmy family did complain that I was hardly listening to anyone and would remain abstracted not answering when spoken to etc!) unless there was some pressing inspiration fighting to get out.
I wrote and continue to write long hand on loose sheets of paper with a fountain-pen gifted to me by my husband 12 years ago.
Then came the tedious typing and editing bit , of course. It took about 4-5 months to write and a few more months to type and edit.
Q : How smooth was Urnabhih’s journey from conception to delivery ? Did the words flow from your pen in a set time frame or did you touch despair and writers block at times ? If so what/ who helped you tackle this ?
If so what/ who helped you tackle this ? How many drafts did you do ?
Yes, there was a set time frame. I am a very disciplined writer and write a set number of pages every day, no excuses. Application of butt to chair method!No, I did not have any writer’s block, cant really remember any despair in writing.What did happen, of course was that I was not always satisfied with what I had written so I junked it while editing/reviewing.
There was one long hand version, one typed and edited version and one revision before I sent it off to the publisher. (With the publisher there were multiple rounds of editing over two years!) But I do need an appropriate atmosphere to write which means, for me, solitude and Ustad Amir Khan or KishoriAmonkar or D V Paluskar or Kumar Gandharva. Classical dance is also a source of inspiration. Geeta Govinda a constant companion. So maybe you can call them my talismans against writers block and sources of inspiration.
Q :Were (are) your dreams alive with Misrakesi’s Patiliputra ?
My fondest day dream/wish is to be living in Pataliputra at the time the great game of the melding the sub-continent was on. The awakening of a people, the aesthetics and heroics of the period, different swirling and whirling colors of life,are captivating. There was a verve, a forward impetus and the impulse to build which I find tremendously attractive. Modern life is so mundane!
Q :Your book tells us that bureaucracy makes or destroys Kingdoms . Is it only Arthashastra or is it your experience as a bureaucrat speaking there .
The Arthashastra details an administration which is obsessively bureaucratic and it seems clear that the entire humongous edifice of the Mauryan state was predicated on it. I have an intuitive understanding of bureaucracy but on balance it seems to me that the nature and support of this structure was organic in Mauryan India and seems grafted on to the state in today’s India. Without this kind of support the Mauryan state would not have survived because it was the only system available to maintain such a complex, giant and geographically spread out empire. Parts of the Arthashastra were very real for me given my own experience as a bureaucrat. Some things just do not change! So I guess it is both of these things.
Thank you Sumedha ! It's been a pleasure to talk to you .
Readers if you enjoyed this interview , you will definitely find the book fascinating- one that I highly recommend. The television rights of this book and the others in Sumedha's forthcoming Mauryan series have already been sold .