Book review | Ashoka, The Satrap of Taxila: Quest for an epic warrior remains unfulfilled
Ashok K Banker’s Ashoka: Satrap of Taxila is essentially a sober and incest-free version of Game of Thrones set in dusty Asia instead of the Scottish highlandsUpdated: Dec 09, 2017 21:02 IST
It was hard to take Ashoka seriously in 2001, when a movie showed the warrior, dressed in tribal attire, thrashing about in a waterfall (or was it a pool?), for reasons only Bollywood seemed to understand. 16 years later, it’s still tough to make sense of the fighter in Ashok K Banker’s Ashoka: Satrap of Taxila.
In fewer than 200 pages, Banker’s novel looks at the political forces ranged against Ashoka’s claim to being the heir to the throne as the eldest grandson of the glorified Chandragupta Maurya. The book encapsulates an episode in Ashoka’s life and includes the build up to a war. There will be an eventual royal comeback. After a diabolical plot to project Ashoka and his mother as traitors, he will return -- broken and with an unquenched thirst for vengeance -- to claim the empire and his place in the Mauryan dynasty.
But alas, the sequel may not be worth the read. This is not because the story isn’t compelling; it is essentially a sober and incest-free version of Game Of Thrones set in dusty Asia instead of the picturesque Scottish highlands. Like GOT, the novel’s most evocative parts include a fair display of nudity and a lot of unnecessary sex that is inexplicably scrunched into the short story. But Banker’s book does come with a foreword that seems to warn of its own failures.
Ashoka: Satrap of Taxila achieves what TV serials have been doing for decades. All the men in the story seem to fall like dominos to the schemes of queens, who, despite having no real power, manage to hold sway by playing on the emotions of inept kings and princes. From Disney’s witch holding Rapunzel captive to Cruella Di Vil who kills puppies for fur, it is utterly fascinating to continue to witness this portrayal of women threatened by their own gender. It is even more baffling to see how women are instigators of evils that seem to have popped out of Pandora’s Box in an era of marked by the Harvey Weinstein revelations. I’m confused about whether this habitual portrayal of women as oppressors is a distorted form of empowerment or simply a pattern that doesn’t go away.
Then, like most things Indian, there’s the problem of truly exploring creativity. We have plenty of epics and myths that could provide much inspiration to a whole body of contemporary literature. While the Percy Jackson series effectively uses Greek mythology, and the roundtable of King Arthur has featured even in a Meg Cabot high school book, the rest of the world hasn’t yet woken up to Indian epics and the folklore surrounding our historical figures like Ashoka, and neither have we. Amish Tripathi’s work has gone some way towards doing this, and has ignited the interest of metro travellers who continue to be absorbed by The Immortals of Meluha. A television channel dedicated to Indian epics is also feeding this interest. But it’s still early days. Perhaps we haven’t caught on that for every Zeus, there’s a Brahma; for every Hercules, there’s an Arjun. All we really need is the inspiration and wisdom to bring Goddess Saraswati into contemporary popular culture, just as authors have done with Athena.