The King Within — His Destiny drove His Life, Her Love drove Hers
“To be the King without, you need to be the King within.
You cannot be a samrat without first being swarat.”
These lines which define Kingship are said by a former courtesan-actress, to an Emperor.
The concluding lines of the novel perfectly capture the story,
“In the end, it was always about the journey. Four friends on a dusty road” she said.
“A dusty road called life” he replied.
A charming People’s Prince aspiring to build a legacy that will last centuries ;
A popular Poet nursing unrequited love and using his pen to bring about winds of change,
A witty Warrior, staunchly loyal to his Prince and the Kingdom’s welfare
A caring Courtesan, whose words and deeds gave heart to the Prince, Poet and a Warrior during their darkest moments and who was their conscience
This is a page-turner tale of swashbuckling fights, friendship, love, ambition and the sweeping winds of political change. Though the story’s roots are from the classic Sanskrit play, Devichandraguptam by Vishakhadatta; Sengupta with her brilliant imagination and interpretation, adds original touches to the story.
Each character is executed well and the characters that stand out are Emperor Chandra Gupta, his wife Dhruvaswamini, a courtesan named Darshini. There is spellbinding chemistry between Chandragupta and Darshini, sparks fly between the two. The verbal exchanges they frequently have are strikingly beautiful, witty, memorable.
“You are such a fop, Your Majesty”
“And you are such a contrarian”
The relationship between Dhruvaswamini and Chandragupta does not have the same sparkle but the charm of their bond builds up slowly over the course of the story. When Chandragupta begins to let ambition take precedence over family, Dhruvaswamini tries to caution him but Chandragupta turns a deaf ear and pays a terrible price for his Macbeth-like ambition.
Dhruvaswamini’s words after his folly, are bitter as neem but truer words had never been spoken
“That’s all you offer, patronage and protection. Spoken like a king, my lord and not like a father. I hope, in time, you will learn the difference between the two”
After Chandragupta paid the price for his greed and Dhruvaswamini learned that her constant jealousy and spite earnt her nothing but misery. They both learn life’s lessons and regret their mistakes. As they had walked the path of life with its joys and hardships, side by side, for years, a touching camaraderie begins to show between the aging couple.
“You are still purush simha, the lion heart, my lord husband” Dhruva smiled
Deva threw back his head and laughed, “There is nothing leonine about me now, not even my mane”
When the aging couple talks of the future of the kingdom and their children’s role in it, at last, there is sweet domestic bliss in their conversation after having sparred with words for so many years
“You worry too much”
“And, you, my queen, worry too little”
It takes too long for Chandragupta to realize some of his mistakes despite the superhuman achievements he did for the benefit of his kingdom. When he grew old, his fingers trembling, he admits to the only person before whom he always let down his guard, the courtesan Darshini
“I was playing God, it is not a mantle that sits easy on a human”
It is only with Darshini that Chandra Gupta lets down his guard. It is to Darshini alone that an old and world-weary Chandragupta bares his heavily fortified heart and shares his deepest fears
“Will this endure?” said Deva, “What I have spent a lifetime building, stone by stone, brick by brick? Or will it crumble till all that is left are ruins, a sad testament to one man’s search for glory”
Among the few characters who are poorly executed and therefore, easily forgotten is Rama Gupta, the main antagonist who is a mere caricature. Govind Gupta and Kumara Gupta, the sons of Chandragupta are carbon copies of their preceding generation with nothing distinctive about either of them.
Deva, the hero of this tale, is a charmer with his ready wit and plenty of daredevilry and courage to spare, he allures the reader with his charisma. His journey from a Prince to King is extremely interesting to read as we see him transition from an idealist to a realist. From a man governed by love to a man governed by ambition. Deva starts off as a seemingly flawless demigod but over the course of the story, we witness just how flawed and human he is, which only draws us in further and makes us want to root for his character.
He was a visionary ahead of his time but he was also astute on how he was to herald such transformative changes in conformity with the era he lived in.
Among Darshini and Dhruvaswamini, the two main women in the series, despite the fact that Dhruvaswamini has all the elements that make a strong woman — she knows how to fight, how to command, is fiery, a tough survivor, astute politician — she, unfortunately, does not have substance as a character we the audience want to root for, because none of these remarkable achievements are explored. Instead, we readers get to see her spiteful, easily suspicious, jealously vindictive side but do not get enough opportunities to see her redeeming qualities. The only noticeably good quality in her is her protective fierce love for her stepdaughter as well as her co-wife. However, as she grew older through the course of the story, she changed for the better.
Darshini, on the other hand, at first sight, can be easy to dismiss as a young woman whose heart was consumed by love for her dazzling beloved, Emperor Chandragupta. However, she is a character who grows on the reader with her compassionate heart and her enduring sincerity towards her friends.
Her sweet words promising her love for eternity to Chandragupta and the self-deprecating response he offers to this, are poignant.
‘Deva looked into her eyes and smiled, “sometimes, I wonder if I am worthy of your devotion’
She is a wonderful literary connoisseur who discusses and encourages Kalidasa’s poetry. A brave woman who put her life at risk by actively taking part in a coup to dethrone a cruel king and place the better and worthier king on the throne, one who did justice to his role.
She questions Chandragupta on ambition, power, kingship and what a King must be
“The King must be what he is not?”
“No, Darshini, the King must be much more than what he is”
“Ashok Priyadarshi could afford to be a Pacifist, his empire was perhaps the strongest in antiquity bound by something more powerful than an army. It was bound by the strength of an idea”
Deva shares with a tired sigh to Darshini, the hurdles he faces when he is trying to herald an era of sweeping structural changes in the government
“Sometimes, it is easier to fix what is broken and much harder to break down what is not.”
Darshini’s astute observation of where Chandragupta had gone wrong shows that she understood Chandragupta’s nature well
Ambition instead of affection for me. Fame instead of friendship for Kalidas. Only Vira seems to have got what he wanted
This novel is such a splendid and spellbinding read that one feels like reading over and over again. Most of the important characters remain etched in the reader’s hearts. The language, evocative descriptions and the bittersweet emotions it invokes make this tale, utterly unforgettable. A must-read.