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Tales of the blood flower

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Tales of the blood flower

The Brahmin

Author - Ravi Shankar Etteth

Publisher - Westland, Rs 350

This is a period novel that combines skilled storytelling with serious research. It has elements of epic genre, which go well with the representation of an underexplored aspect of Emperor Ashoka and his kingdom, writes Gautam Mukherjee

Ravi Shankar Etteth — journalist, political cartoonist, illustrator, author, bon vivant, has recently offered up his fifth novel. The Brahmin is anchored around the spymaster in King Ashoka’s Court, at Pataliputra in legendary Magadha. It is a frolic of a book with the Chanakya-like figure of the spymaster as the main mast. There is therefore a good deal of cloak and dagger, combined with swashbuckling action. And relentless description, fuelled by powerful, visual, imagery. Description that appears carefully researched and appropriate to a period novel. At the same time, there is the constant and unsettling politics of war, in the presence of the fantastic and ambitious — the chosen method of advancement in that setting and time. But marinated, from the first word to the last, in the juices of myth and epic possibility as the final ingredient.

The individual characterisation however, is overwhelmed by the narrator’s voice and omniscience throughout. There is a great deal of tell, and not an awful lot of show. And as a reader, you want the characters to speak, more often than not, for themselves, however clever they are made to sound by their agent — the narrator. Colonel Tom Parker may have over- managed Elvis. Hindsight and criticism reveal all. But leaving this aside, it is a gripping intermingling of stories, of shadows and murders, and concealed motives. And story-telling comes naturally to this author. It represents his imaginative fecundity. As proof,  it has already run to five novels in a period of just sixteen years. This, in addition to a cluster of day-jobs in the media.

There is little mention of the historical Emperor Ashoka’s moment of epiphany after his winning and very killing battles with Kalinga. No mention of his subsequent conversion to a pacifist and infrastructure-building Buddhism. Certainly, that would have complicated the plot of this book and nuanced its pace, perhaps fatally. Or perhaps Etteth is saving it for a sequel. This then, is the bloodthirsty Ashoka, though he plays, even less than his queen, only a cameo role in the book. It is of the period before he turned over his philosophical leaf, and he appears glowering, unpredictable, full of threats.

 There is thrilling skullduggery of the Game Of Thrones variety in this book on the Magadhan times, woven in with  ninja warrior clones who are in fact,Chinese, and stay-on Greek soldiers, from Alexander the Great’s visit. Mention of Ravana, the great Lankan king, comes and goes in the narrative, along with his nuclear weapon — the golden scythe. In fact, by the end of the book, we learn there were two — a good scythe and a bad one, and the Brahmin plus the queen, on their travels through the mazes and corridors of power, secure both. It is a touch of the Holy Grail in duplicate, for God and Satan, one of each, in a Temple of Doom kind of way.

The mysterious Blood Flower, a woman, but naturally, is definitely a stealth phantom dealer of death, the very best, in the conceptual and practical hierarchy of assassins. That she gets killed in the Brahmin’s presence, at court, even as a scheming Ambassador of Kalinga is exposed, by her own sister warrior no less, is what the script writes for the hero. A hero that escapes a knife attack himself by a whisker of well-judged movement in the self-same climax scene. At times what’s going on in the book is a bit of a blur. It is difficult to follow the sequence of events. It makes you long for it to be turned into a screenplay, and then a movie, that becomes easy to keep up with. One can rewind to learn who is doing what to whom. Besides, a book that would make for an interesting movie or a TV serial is good news. If I were the author, I would be smiling at this, wouldn’t I? 

But outside the book’s purview, is the enduring historical legacy of Ashoka, besides the wide roads he built, that the author does refer to. There is the suggestion of strength, rule-of-law and justice, made by Ashoka’s best known symbol — the Ashok Stambh, almost the official symbol and seal of the Republic of India today.

In the end, it is a simple thing. The warrior spymaster’s most trusted bodyguard and assassin, the Chinese woman Hao, whom he had rescued from execution, is the Blood Flower Dao’s sister. The Blood Flower, quite the professional, has been killing members of the harem and other important members in the inner circle. Most of it has the imprint of the known suspect — neighbouring Kalinga, and its agents, about to be conquered by Ashoka.

That’s where it starts, with a signature murder, breach of security, and threats to Ashoka’s queen Asandhimitra. The queen too has her secrets, in a sub-plot of her own —something to do with the gloves she wears to conceal a bracelet, and a certain crescent shaped birthmark just above her wrist. And wait, the spymaster Brahmin does meet the Buddha in the closing pages of the novel. There are blessings, gifts exchanged, and the fragrance of flowers. Then there are the war horses for Hao, (who, by now, tends to rest her head on the Brahmin’s shoulder from time to time), and Himself; and the need to ride away to another adventure. Heigh Ho, Silver Away!




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