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A book I loved to read

I've recently finished re-reading Bani Basu's Maitreya Jatak, which used to be serially published in Desh (Bengali periodical) in the 90s. I was an avid reader of this amazing creation even then, and couldn't wait for the next issue to come out - solely because of Maitreya Jatak. Later, when it came out in book form, and was gifted to me, I was beside myself with joy. 

This, simply put, is a fictionalized history of Bharat, from around the year 500 BC. Even though a fast-paced thriller, a veritable page-turner, its also a deep, wonderfully well researched account of society in those days. The language is intimately laced with Sanskrit and Pali (not at all difficult to understand given the context of usage) and is of very high standard - one feels linguistically enriched while following Ms Basu's diction. There is a kind of rhythm to it, which picks up as one wades deeper into the plot.

And what a plot there is! In fact, its a multiplex of plots and subplots with myriad characters, dramatically woven into a magnificent tapestry - describing a fast evolving society. There are many conflicts, at many levels, frequently intra and inter-personal, but also inter-gender, inter-faith, inter-geopolitical entities. New beliefs were arising, challenging age-old traditions. Intellectuals with foresight, apprehensive of invasion from the far north-west, were beginning to think of uniting India (or Jambudeep) as a single geo-political entity. But the concept of nationhood, as we know it today, was yet to develop and the many individual kingdoms were more wary of their neighbors, than of some 'foreign' invader.  In fact, inter-kingdom skirmishes weren't uncommon, especially in their thinly administered border regions. To the common people of Magadha (in present day Bihar), visitors from Gandhara (in present day Pakistan) were as foreign as it could get. This despite the fact that Taxilla (Takkha-shila) in Gandhara had deep cultural ties with the rest of India, being the center of highest learning in those days. One wasn't really 'educated' if he wasn't a Taxilla graduate. But, what existed beyond Gandhara, beyond the Sindhu river (Indus) was hardly a matter of concern to most 'in-landers'. Not so with the Gandharvas, for whom the danger of invasion was very imminent. Hence thinkers emerged from that kingdom, who traveled to the south and to the east, trying to wake up the rest of the people.

At the same time, the title of Chakravarti Raja, one who would bring all of Jambudeep under his control, seems to be as old as India itself. In fact, many had attempted to do this under the threat of violent conquest, with varying degrees of success. The concept of Ashwamedha Yagna is based on this. But times were a changing, and having grown weary of long, internecine warfare, modern thinkers were attempting to build a union of kingdoms. This would be based on mutual understanding, welfare, and above all - under the common threat of foreign invasion. In the latter situation, everyone would contribute their armies, under the banner of an elected leader. Kind of like a UN Sectretary General, but with more power.

In this background of rising political tension, Ms Basu masterfully introduces not only the conflict of religious philosophies - between a fast spreading Buddhism and the traditional, ritual-based belief systems, but also women's yearning for liberation and self discovery. Plus... the battle for land between the Adivasis (who lived in the forests) and inhabitants of the ever-expanding townships.

Deep socio-political changes were being fueled by the business class - to whom the center of power was rapidly shifting from the kings and the priests. Consequently, there were changes in administrative priorities. The traders didn't like a fragmented polity, the need to frequently cross borders, pay taxes at each, and with currencies which were often difficult to exchange. As they became richer, this was hurting their business.

Say, if a jewel mine lay on the border of multiple kingdoms, its always beneficial to bring all of those under one control. So they welcomed the idea of a single, large nation under one king (kind of like today's 'global government' aspirations). Also, their interest converged with those that wanted a unified India for military/defence purpose. Thus, the traders or Sreshthis were ready to finance/promote any king who had the zeal, ambition, and requisite ruthlessness to become Raj Chakravarty. This was irrespective of their ethical/moral positions.

Thus, even when Prince Ajatshatru usurped Magadh's throne, then imprisoned and brutally killed his father - the kindly and just King Bimbisara, the principal traders of Rajgriha (capital of Magadha prior to Pataliputra, or modern day Patna) unabashedly sided with him. Bimbisara had his own ideas on how to unify Jambudeep, through the bonds of maitree or friendship. He was influenced by Buddha's teachings, and was reluctant to shed further blood in military conquest. But he was too late.

At the same time, the fabulously wealthy sreshthis were also responsible for infrastructure development in the cities. They built roads, gardens, entertainment houses, shelters for travelers and the indigent alike. They donated their wealth to promote what they thought were just, moral causes. In many ways, they were becoming the real kings of those days.

As I breathlessly turned pages, I couldn't help but wonder how intimate my glimpses were into the everyday life of these historical figures, and their ordinary contemporaries. Ms Basu's narrative magic transported me to that age and society, of nearly 2500 years ago. Made me laugh at their joys, empathize at their sorrows, and gape in wonderment at their artistic, philosophical, scientific accomplishments. She describes Jivak, the famed surgeon of Rajgriha (Rajgir of today), busy discussing the pros and cons of plastic/reconstructive surgery, over a patient who had had her nose and ears cut off. Ms Basu describes the Lichhavi Rajas of Vaishali (also of Amrapali fame), who weren't dynastic but were elected by the people - one of the first instances of democracy in the world. It seems that this seed of tolerance and mutual understanding is integral to the Indian heart, despite the many centrifugal tendencies bubbling within the land. Probably why she continues to thrive as a democracy. 

Perhaps deep within, we are all born of the need to be friends, disparate in the beginning, then inevitably gravitating to oneness.

Maitreya Jatak, by Bani Basu, Ananda Publishers Pvt. Ltd.


Kolkata,  Feb '15

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