Book of the month: The Brahmin is a murder mystery set deep within the Mauryan Empire
Tradition and espionage come together in Ravi Shankar Etteth’s thriller set amid the politics of the Mauryan Empire.
“To yield to fear is fatal,” says the spymaster who not just has King Ashoka’s back, but also saves his kingdom with spectacular espionage skills in Ravi Shankar Etteth’s latest book, The Brahmin (Westland, 2018; on stands now). On horseback or lurking in dark alleys, the Brahmin is single-mindedly focused on preserving his planet. But first, he must solve a murder case — a concubine from the king’s harem has just been murdered.
The historical action thriller took Etteth all of two years to pen, not least because of the period details involved. “There is little research on how Ashoka was before the Kalinga War,” says Delhi-based Etteth, 58, a veteran journalist and consulting editor at The New Indian Express. “Another problem was the poor information on architecture, customs and food of the period. So, I had to improvise. But the Greek presence in the Mauryan Empire was easier because there is enough known of their weapons, dress and wine.”
Ravi Shankar Etteth
Tightly plotted, the narrative maintains suspense without compromising facts, delivering an ‘aha’ finale. Conspiracies amid the ornate corridors of power run parallel to dark tragedies: Girika, the chief torturer, runs Narak Vatika, the Palace of Hell, and daylight poisonings are routine. There is the Ministry of Secrets and the Golden Scythe. A king who trusts no one, and a queen who must be bold. Striding tall and serene among all the chaos is the titular hero.
“I wanted a mysterious spymaster who came from a lineage of spies, and worked for the good of mankind. So I decided to call him The Brahmin, a nameless descendant of Chanakya and an ancient Lankan line. He is a mysterious character, remote and powerful, and not giving him a name only enhances his mystery,” says Etteth. “And to dispel any notions of caste superiority, my Brahmin eats pork, drinks alcohol and is a warrior, unlike the Brahmins of the priestly class. Since the title could be misinterpreted, I ensured The Brahmin has no Hindu spin, no mention of any other castes or oppression.”
The Brahmin’s loyalty is legendary; and for all his ascetic air, like in most spy stories, there’s a hint of the sensual in his dealings with Hao, his female assistant. But what about the king for whom the Brahmin is ready to die?
Says Etteth, “What fascinated me about Ashoka was how cruel and sadistic he was. I also do not buy the theory that such a cruel king — a man known as The Black Prince, who massacred his harem, built a gruesome torture chamber, murdered his 99 brothers to rule, and participated in so many battles — would have a change of heart just by seeing corpses. I think Ashoka used Buddhism as a uniting agent to keep his empire intact, and the religion’s merciful tenets had a good influence.”