Happy New Year!
Books are a weakness and I am a book hoarder. Yes, I have a tsundoku problem. Despite having a large, unread pile of (physical) books in my home and (electronic) books on my kindle, I land up spending too much time in bookstores, real and virtual, and buying books. It could be because the jacket caught my fancy or the blurb seemed interesting. A couple of weeks ago, it was an article in Mid-day that caught my attention. Historical fiction is a genre that I thoroughly enjoy, so this book was one I definitely wanted to read. And so Urnabhih (Sanskrit for spider’s web) by Sumedha Verma Ojha landed up in my pile of books-to-be-read. And surprisingly, I did read it earlier than I expected to.
Urnabhih is set in the early period of the Mauryan dynasty, during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, circa 330 BC. The main protagonist is a ganika, Misrakesi, from Ujjayini who enters the Mauryan court with an intention to kill the royal mentor and Guru, Acharya Chanakya. Instead, she finds herself recruited as a spy in Chanakya’s well-established network of spies and comes in contact with the arrogant but handsome, Pushyamitra Sunga, the chief of the Nagarik Suraksha Parishad (incidentally, the founder of the Sunga dynasty at a later period of time). Together, they work to expose the enemies of the Mauryan state. So in a nutshell, it is a blend of a typical ‘office’ romance, mystery and politics.
What sets Urnabhih apart and makes it an extremely enjoyable read is the level of detailing. For any book rooted in a particular historical period to succeed, it needs to be anchored in the time it depicts. The setting and the minutest of details of the period need to be accurate and the period has to come alive for the reader. The setting of the story has to be as important, if not more, than the story itself. The story needs to be universal, as in relatable, and yet at the same time, very local and rooted to the time, place and age.
The author manages to achieve all this. The Mauryan times come alive in the pages – the various descriptions of Pataliputra, Kaikeya and most of Jambudweepa, the characters, their garments, ornaments, their food, festivals and lifestyle are vivid and evocative. The author has woven her meticulous and extensive research of the time period skilfully into the story. One gets an insight into the Mauryan society, a society in flux, where rapid changes are underway. From life in the palace to life as a Chandala and an outcaste, the various strata – find a mention and are depicted. The geographical setting is given as much importance as the story and the author gets it spot on. The story by itself is simple and racy. The characters, both, the main and the side, are delightful. Each one of them leave a mark – be it the Darcy like Pushyamitra, or the independent and self-willed Misrakesi, or that delightful Siddharthak and the enigmatic, gritty, Chandramukhi. Chanakya does not make that many appearances, but his presence looms over the entire story. He is referred to, by the various characters and in various flashbacks, and he holds the story and the characters together.
The one character I would have wanted to know more about was Sukesi. Sukesi was Misrakesi’s elder sister who committed suicide and whose death Misrakesi wanted to avenge. While Sukesi is mentioned a number of times, the reason behind her suicide and her relationship with Siddharthak is not explored. I would be interested in reading a prequel to this book with Sukesi as the protagonist.
The book begins a bit shakily and the first few pages are slow and unsure. However, the moment the author plunges into the story, the pace changes and the reader is hooked. The book turned out to be a racy page-turner and as unputdownable read. In part, a thriller, a historical Mills and Boon and a story of political intrigue, Urnabhih has a mystery element to it as well. All loose ends are tied up, the intrigues are effectively solved and the hero and heroine get married and take up new assignments in the large and growing Mauryan state – setting the tone for their next mystery, and a sequel to the book. Urnabhih scores mainly because, in addition it is a fascinating history of life in Pataliputra in the Mauryan age. It is a labour of love – Sumedha V Ojha has researched the Mauryan age extensively for eight years – and the effort shows.
All in all, a wonderful read. I will be reading Urnabhih again – no, not for the story, but for soaking in the minute, colourful details of the historical time period. Worth a read if ancient history interests you.