Review: Siddhartha; The Boy Who Became the Buddha by Advait Kottary - Hindustan Times
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Review: Siddhartha; The Boy Who Became the Buddha by Advait Kottary

Sep 21, 2023 12:07 AM IST

The author builds on his experience with the performing arts to create drama, anticipation, and intensity in his retelling of the life of the Buddha

The life story of Siddhartha Gautama, or the historical Buddha, is widely known through books, art, legends, architecture, television shows and movies. A contemporary author keen on retelling the man’s story has to offer something substantial in order to command the time and attention of readers. Advait Kottary, a writer-actor based in London, takes up the challenge with his debut novel Siddhartha: The Boy Who Became the Buddha. I was so moved after reading it that I made a trip to Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha was enlightened.

The statue of the Buddha at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. (xTOLIndia.com/Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The statue of the Buddha at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. (xTOLIndia.com/Shutterstock)

The life story of Siddhartha Gautama, or the historical Buddha, is widely known through books, art, legends, architecture, television shows and movies. A contemporary author keen on retelling the man’s story has to offer something substantial in order to command the time and attention of readers. Advait Kottary, a writer-actor based in London, takes up the challenge with his debut novel Siddhartha: The Boy Who Became the Buddha. I was so moved after reading it that I made a trip to Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha was enlightened.

Writing about a spiritual teacher can be hard, especially because people already have a lot of impressions and projections to hold on to. Any deviation from the expected can lead to unpleasant reactions. It is remarkable that Kottary found the courage to pick a protagonist that many other authors might have been scared to touch while writing their first novel. His inner quest, and a deep wish to understand the Buddha’s teachings, took him down this creative path. The outcome is profound. I would recommend it for a number of reasons.

328pp, ₹499; Hachette India
328pp, ₹499; Hachette India

The language is neither too ornamental, nor too austere. The author seems aware that he needs to focus on being engaging as a storyteller; choosing a subject with heft is not enough. Kottary builds on his experience with the performing arts to create drama, anticipation, and intensity. He uses flashbacks as a narrative technique to get the enlightened one to revisit his past as a seeker. This works well because the Buddha is meant to be omniscient. This ability allows him to travel back in time, watch his parents getting married, witness his mother giving birth, and hear the prophecies being made about the baby born into the royal family.

What is really striking is Kottary’s skilful exposition of the mental upheavals that Siddhartha goes through. He is dissatisfied with his life as a prince, and wants to leave home in search of answers to his burning questions. At the same time, he feels terrible about disappointing his father. This is a dilemma that affects even ordinary folks who want to be poets, teachers, stand-up comics, etc. when their parents want them to join the family business. Siddhartha, however, is not a backpacker leaving urban life for the hills, or a start-up founder trying to float a new company that will solve old problems. He is troubled by an inner itch to understand life’s deepest truths and then share them with the whole world.

Fortunately, Kottary does not make his protagonist so luminous that we cannot see the light that other characters bring to this novel. Siddhartha’s father, Śuddhodana, is presented with great compassion. It is hard for him to come to terms with the loss of his dear wife, Mahamaya, soon after she gives birth to Siddhartha. When he hears that his son is likely to become an ascetic one day, the very thought brings forth another flood of grief. He does everything possible to keep his son away from embracing that path. He is not only a father in need of his son but also a king in need of an heir. It would have been easy to portray him as a villain because he puts obstacles in his son’s path but Kottary portrays him with dignity.

Siddhartha’s wife, Yashodhara, too stays with the reader. Instead of depicting her as a damsel in distress, the author focuses on her determination and resilience. These strong qualities that she is endowed with make it possible for Siddhartha to undertake his spiritual journey. Yashodhara desires him, and also recognizes that she needs to let him go else he would continue to pine for self-realization. She does not want to come in the way. She is secure enough to know that he has gifts that the entire world could benefit from. He is deeply grateful. He could not have made it without her permission and support, and her commitment to taking care of their baby Rahula.

One of the most poignant scenes from the novel has Siddhartha pacing anxiously through the corridors of the palace as he hears Yashodhara screaming while in labour. Kottary writes, “It killed him to hear her suffer like that. Why was the birth of a child so painful, he wondered?” Siddhartha thinks of his mother Mahamaya, and the pain the she must have endured. Kottary continues, “The possibility that Yasho, like Mahamaya, would not make it past childbirth alive was not lost on him, but every time the thought reared his head, he shut it out.” Siddhartha’s mind is not at rest even after the baby is delivered. He recalls that his mother had died a week after he was born. Yashodhara is wise and strong. She knows how to comfort him. She tells him not to worry. “I am absolutely fine. I will be right here.” The tenderness in this scene is even more alluring than ones depicting their magical courtship.

Author Advait Kottary (Courtesy Hachette)
Author Advait Kottary (Courtesy Hachette)

Mahaprajapati, Amrapali and Sujata, who were among the most significant women in the Buddha’s life, appear in this novel. Kottary does not have the opportunity to flesh them out with as much depth as Yashodhara but he ensures that readers get to appreciate their role and contribution. Mahaprajapati, Siddhartha’s aunt, raises him as her own child. When he becomes the Buddha, she appeals to him to allow women to join the sangha. Amrapali is a courtesan, who becomes one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples. Sujata offers a life-saving bowl of kheer to the emaciated Siddhartha shortly before enlightenment.

Kottary’s beautiful prose allows the reader to imagine what life must have been like in the fifth or sixth century BCE when his protagonist walked the earth. Kapilavastu, Lumbini, Magadha, Kashi, Sarnath, Vaishali, Kushinara, and several other places described in this book continue to exist, and readers will probably be inspired to visit them after reading this book.

There are a number of minor characters in this book, including Kondanna, Asita Muni, Bimbisara, Ajaatshatru, Jivaka, and Ananda. It would have been wonderful to get to know them more intimately but a book with too many pages can be daunting to pick up. Yet it is tempting to imagine how each of these characters would have told the story of “the boy who became the Buddha” if the narrative reins were placed in their hands. Perhaps a whole series of future books based on this idea is waiting to be written.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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