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Oct 12, 2013

Acharya Chatursen

Source: journey-though-the-labyrinths-of-time/

Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu by Acharya Chatursen
Acharya Chatursen paints a vivid picture of fifth century B.C. India in his novel Vasihali ki Nagarvadhu. His canvas is large and he fills in every inch of it with brush strokes of fine prose to bring together a story of epic proportions. The author combines history and fantasy, war and love, politics and culture using a multitude of characters and interlinked stories to create an enchanting web which gives a legendary quality to this novel.
The novel begins with the story of Ambapali, a courtesan in the republic state of Vaishali. Though the novel is titled after her, the book soon moves beyond her life to other sub-stories based on social and political themes. These help to describe the Indian landscape of the later Vedic period when many large city states both monarchies such as Magadh and Kosal and republics such as Vaishali and Gandhar prospered in northern India. The leitmotif remains Ambapali’s life–the mystery of her birth and her bitterness towards Vaishali for her disgrace, which break out to the surface time and again from the thick undergrowth (the metaphor seems appropriate because much action in the novel takes place in deep tropical forests) of other detailed and descriptive accounts of political intrigue, caste conflict, and the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. The convoluted sub-plots and sharp turns and twists in the story ensure that the societal upheaval and turbulence of that time are felt acutely by the reader as they negotiate the crossing paths of conspiracy and war on one extreme and love and passion on the other.
Although Ambapali’s central position in the story remains unrivaled, the other female characters are sketched with the equal depth. It becomes somewhat disappointing when these women disappear from the novel rather abruptly. Somprabh- a warrior from Magadh who is hinted to be Ambapali’s brother, Bimbisar-the king of Magadh, and king Udayan of Kaushambi are the three male protagonists in the story and Ambapali’s real feelings for each of them, by clever design, remain a conundrum till the very end of the novel.
The author effectively depicts the pace and thrill of fight and chase. Darkness, danger and movement are dramatically described which gives the novel its ‘page-turner’ quality. A significant feature of this novel is the use of myths and fantasies which bring in a larger than life scale. The antics of a poison-woman ‘vishkanya’, the invasion of the spirit of a human being by supernatural apparition, and the handsome submarine horses that are washed ashore from the sea, enthrall the reader. War strategies and ways to destabilise an enemy country using guerrillas, spies, paid mercenaries, civil war etc. are also well described.
In the middle of the excitement and drama the author has tactfully woven interesting philosophical discussions into the narrative. Should a warrior be loyal towards the king or the kingdom; the status of women–comparisons between the women of Gandhar and Vasishlai; what is better, rule of a king or governance by elected representatives, are some of the discourses which occur as dialogue between the major characters. These discussions climax with the one which takes place in the assembly of Vaishali where the members debate about the kind of government that is suitable for Magadh state who they have just defeated in war. Here some novel insights about the nature of a monarchy and a republic are presented. The monarchical dynasty is compared to a human being’s life with stages of infancy, youth, middle age and old age which, after two or three generations shows signs of aging and is overthrown by a new dynasty. The republic is considered appropriate for homogeneous people with uniformity in race and rank—‘rakt aur shreni’ and therefore it is concluded that the republic system will not work in Magadh where a person is called a Magadhi because he is ruled by Magadh and not because he is Magadhi by clan or tribe.
The book affords another important reflection on the effect of mixing of castes on the Aryan race. The decay of the Aryan race is a cause of worry to the powerful Aryan Brahmin priests who fear that the new castes of mixed blood are mentally and physically stronger than pure bred Aryans.
The appeal of this novel lies in its overreach though the breadth of its narration does lose the reader at some places. The convoluted story-telling becomes frustrating especially when a particularly engaging sub-plot loses connection with the main story and a major character turns out to be actually a disguised version of another character.
With four hundred fifty pages of chaste Hindi, the book may be difficult to fully comprehend for some but Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu of Chatursen still is, without doubt, well worth a read for keen readers of Hindi Literature.

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