BOOK REVIEW: EARTHEN LAMP JOURNAL/URNABHIH by SUMEDHA V. OJHA




Love in the shadow of intrigue

Urnabhih/ by Sumedha V Ojha/A Mauryan Tale of Espionage, Adventure and Seduction
Publisher: Roli Books
Genre: Fiction
Extent: 351 pp
Price: Rs 350


Sumedha  Ojha  has set this fast-paced thriller in the Mauryan age, a little after the adventurer turns king and is crowned Chandragupta Maurya. The story gets off to a somewhat stilted start and the awkward language (more about that, anon) only serves to drag it down. However, the turnabout comes well before  the halfway mark and it is an effective turnabout. After which the tale picks up speed, the characters come to life and the book has the reader well and truly hooked.

The narrative  is one of derring-do, a political thriller with the right doses of mystery, romance and strategems,  The main protagonists are the young and comely Misrakesi  of Ujjain, who comes to the court of the newly crowned king in Pataliputra with just one aim: to avenge the death of her beloved sister. She holds none other than the fabled Chanakya, Chandragupta`s powerful preceptor, to blame for her sister`s death. Well,  she contrives to be alone with the astute guru  in his chamber but far from plunging her small dagger into his heart, Misrakesi quickly joins the ranks of his devoted acolytes, and turns spy for the Mauryan empire, one more cog in Kautilya`s endlessly cogitating wheel. The man who manipulates people and circumstances now, in a deft maneuver, holds her in his palm.

What makes Misrakesi`s life in the shadowed  lanes  more interesting is that she is a courtesan and  soon sets up a pleasure house in the heart of the city. Enter the hero, Pushyamitra Sunga, tall, dashing, deadly… and Misrakesi`s immediate boss. Pushyamitra heads the Nagrik Suraksha Parishad. It is of course,  just a matter of time before both  these strong-willed people fall headlong into love with each other. In the best traditions of thrillers, however, this is where the tale takes another twist, and the couple sets  off to the neighbouring kingdom of Kaikeya on a dangerous mission, a mission vital to the plans of the Maurya king as well as his guru.

Ojha fills in the many details with a precise hand, and the result is a pleasure as the words come alive in glorious Technicolour on the page. Tempestuous Misrakesi, who is as beautiful  as she is intelligent, is a great foil to the brawny yet brainy Pushyamitra. Above them all looms the shadow of Chanakya: wise, all-knowing, all-seeing and all anticipating, too. He remains a shadow though, and the reader gets the impression that this is a deliberate act of restraint on Ojha`s part.  All the other characters who walk onto the pages of this novel leave their mark: Misrakesi`s  attendants Mrinalini and Manjari at the Apsara Sabha; Sreelekha, who is unaccountably jealous of our heroine and starts some incendiary rumours about her; Chandramukhi,  the living  ghost with a mission of her own; Siddharthak, Pushyamitra`s aide whose  swagger and posturing hides a keen mind and an agile body; the sagacious and austere Kaikeya Maharani Shailanandini; the wily Maha Amatya of Kaikeya Narsingh Dev,  and a small host of others, including a fascinating cameo by a Vish Kanya, no less.

Urnabhih means a spider web, and as the story progresses, the reader is indeed put in mind of an all-encompassing web. The plot twists are clever, intricate and somewhat trellis-like but the reader is always taken into confidence regarding the various political intrigues. The wealth of descriptive details are consistent, and sometimes become  positively lyrical. The thin thread of mystery is stretched taut but never so tight that it snaps. The sexual tension between Misrakesi and Pushyamitra is well- wrought, a smouldering  live wire all through. She is Mata Hari crossed with the apsara Menaka, and she has in her lover, a serious and seriously sexy Pushyamitra. What they have between them is flammable yet they subordinate themselves and their emotions to the one cause: the cause of their motherland, the unity of Jambudweep. The cause of their king, and yes, the cause of the omniscient  guru, Chanakya. 

While the spotlight may be on the clandestine methods Misrakesi and Pushyamitra need to use, first in Pataliputra, then in Kaikeya  to further  their own ends, it is occasionally pulled back into a wider beam, allowing the reader a keen look at palace politics, the lives of the poor and the marginalized, the part played by religion in all lives across the board, the declining fortunes of the Nanda dynasty even as the new king Chandragupta strengthens  his hold on the land; there is even mention of Alakshendra and his Greek soldiers, who, not so long ago, ruled this part of the country. And of course,  there are glimpses of the enigmatic Chanakya`s eternal vigilance and strategizing.

However, to hark back to that awkward language, the absence of a sensitive yet ruthless blue pencil is keenly felt. Far too frequently, sentences run like this:  …the brush strokes revealed their oneness with the sculpting on the wooden pillars; the princess has been convinced to marry the samrat; I am grateful for you taking out the time to meet me; they were for survival but will do well for his end; he expanded like a bubble in the breeze of her appreciation; yes you do have a look like hers.  
People`s expressions stiffen, they are `edgy with` themselves; an outfit `accents` the swell of muscles on someone; yet others are `given a pause,` or are `clutched at` as a saviour. 

But the story wins through. The book has all the panoply of historical fiction, and has been painstakingly  researched but in the end, it is a lovely love story. That it has as background the court of Chandragupta Maurya and Royal Advisor Chanakya, is the bonus for the reader.

Remember Misrakesi, Ojha apparently has plans to bring her back in a new adventure.

Ad copywriter turned journalist turned writer Sheila Kumar  is the author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications). Her short stories have appeared in  several anthologies. She edits  copy for a brace  of technical  magazines  and reviews  books every month for a couple of national newspapers.


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