Chanakya's Chant (Preview)

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The year is 340 BC. A hunted, haunted Brahmin youth vows revenge for the gruesome murder of his beloved father. Cold, cunning, calculating, cruel and armed with a complete absence of accepted morals, he becomes the most powerful political strategist in Bharat and succeeds in uniting a ragged country against the invasion of the army of that demigod, Alexander the Great.

Pitting the weak edges of both forces against each other, he pulls off a wicked and astonishing victory and succeeds in installing Chandragupta on the throne of the mighty Mauryan empire. History knows him as the brilliant strategist Chanakya.

But history, which exults in repeating itself, revives Chanakya two and a half millennia later, in the avatar of Gangasagar Mishra, a Brahmin teacher in smalltown India who becomes puppeteer to a host of ambitious individuals--including a certain slumchild who grows up into a beautiful and powerful woman.

Modern India happens to be just as riven as ancient Bharat by class hatred, corruption and divisive politics and this landscape is Gangasagar's feasting ground. Can this wily pandit--who preys on greed, venality and sexual deviance--bring about another miracle of a united India?

Will Chanakya's chant work again? Ashwin Sanghi, the bestselling author of The Rozabal Line, brings you yet another spinechiller.

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Chanakya's Chant (Preview)

  1. 1. Chanakya’s Chant Ashwin Sanghi’s first novel, The Rozabal Line was originally published in 2007 under his pseudonym,Shawn Haigins. The book was subsequently published in 2008 and 2010 in India under his own name and went on to become a national bestseller. An entrepreneur by profession, Ashwin writesextensively on history, religion, mythology and politics in his spare time, but writing historical fiction in the thriller genre is his passion and hobby. Chanakya’s Chant is his second novel in the genre. Sanghi was educated at Cathedral & John Connon School, Mumbai, and St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He holds a master’s degree from Yale and is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing. He lives in India with his wife, Anushika, and son, Raghuvir. Ashwin can be reached either via his blog at www.ashwinsanghi.com, via Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashwinsanghi, or via Facebook at www.facebook.com/shawnhaigins.
  2. 2. At the heart of this novel lies a chant—a Shakti mantrathat appears several times within this story. The youngand incredibly talented music composer Ameya Naikhas set this chant to hypnotic and reverberating musicreminiscent of ancient times. Surprisingly, it dramaticallytransitions into rock fusion towards the end.The chant has been recited in Vedic tradition by theenthusiastic Kushal Gopalka and choir. The four-minutetrack is divided into two segments, ancient and modern,in keeping with the theme of this novel, which alsoalternates between the past and the present.The track is available as a free mp3 download foreveryone to hear. You may download it at:www.chanakyaschant.comThe YouTube video trailer of this novel is also availablefor viewing at the above web link.We hope that you enjoy listening to this mantra as muchas all of us enjoyed composing and performing it. Itbrought to mind the truth in the view that the journeyis the destination.
  3. 3. Chanakya’s Chant By Ashwin Sanghi
  4. 4. westland ltdVenkat Towers, 165, P.H. Road, Opp. Maduravoyal Municipal office, Chennai 600 095No.38/10 (New No.5), Raghava Nagar, New Timber Yard Layout, Bangalore 560 026Survey No. A-9, II Floor, Moula Ali Industrial Area, Moula Ali, Hyderabad 500 04023/181, Anand Nagar, Nehru Road, Santacruz East, Mumbai 400 05547, Brij Mohan Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi 110 002First published by Westland Ltd.Copyright © Ashwin Sanghi 2010All rights reserved10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1ISBN: 978-93-80658-67-4Typeset by Art Works, ChennaiPrinted atThis is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are theproduct of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance toany actual persons, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade orotherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, circulated, and no reproduction in any form,in whole or in part (except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews) may bemade without written permission of the publishers.
  5. 5. AUTHOR’S NOTEI am indebted to Aparna Gupta who first suggested anovel on Chanakya to me. The embryo of the ideaplanted by her eventually evolved into this novel.I am obliged to my wife and son who ungrudginglytolerated my persistent absence from their lives whileI was writing this book and juggling the rest of my life.I am beholden to my family, which supported me in myendeavours—including my writing.I am thankful to various authors and producers of originalor derived works. A separate acknowledgements sectionat the end of the narrative lists these in detail.I am grateful to my editor, Prita Maitra, and my publisher,Gautam Padmanabhan, without whom none of mynovels—including this one—would have seen the lightof day.I am delighted to have worked along with two verytalented individuals, Kushal Gopalka and Ameya Naik.We could not have created the incredibly haunting audiotrack of Chanakya’s Chant without their labour andinspiration.Finally, I am fortunate to be the grandson of the lateShri Ram Prasad Gupta and grandnephew of his brother,the late Shri Ram Gopal Gupta. Their blessings movethe fingers that hold my pen. v
  6. 6. PrologueT he old man sat propped up in his hospital bed. Monitors beeped numbers and flashed graphs,measuring his vital signs. His frail arms had beenpunctured with an endless number of needles and a tuberan through his mouth into his lungs. He knew that lifewas ebbing from his body but had prayed to Shakti toallow him to live long enough to savour the moment hehad been waiting for. The room was dark, blackout curtains havingbeen drawn to block out the sunlight, except for thepsychedelic illumination produced by the moving imageson television. The duty nurse sat on a chair beside hissteel bed, dozing off intermittently. Light from thetelevision sparkled in the octogenarian’s eyes as hewatched the eighteenth prime minister of India take theoath of office. The incessant buzzing of his three mobile phonesbrought his personal assistant, Menon, scurrying in. Thepatient in the adjoining room was complaining thatthe relentless ringing was disturbing him. The fifty- vi
  7. 7. Chanakya’s Chantsomething secretary peeped into the room to see hisemployer lying on the utilitarian bed, his gaze transfixedon the images flashed from New Delhi. He was obliviousto the cacophony of phones. He had waited thirty longyears for this moment and was not about to let it beobstructed by phone calls. In any case, he couldn’t talkwith the damn tube in his mouth. Menon had suggestedthat the phones be turned off but he had refused. I’mnot ready to allow anything—including my own life—to be switched off before I’ve relished this moment, hethought to himself. The hospital in Kanpur was not equipped to dealwith his condition. Pandit Gangasagar Mishra couldn’tcare less. He refused to bloody die in a hospital bedin New Delhi or Mumbai. Kanpur was home and hewould go meet his maker from his own abode and onhis own terms. He watched the scene unfolding at RashtrapatiBhavan. The President was administering the oath ofoffice to the charismatic woman. She was dressed in herusual off-white cotton saree, trimmed with a pale goldborder, and wore no jewellery except for a pair of simplesolitaire diamond earrings. She quite obviously had thetext of the oath before her on a single sheet of paper butdid not seem to need it. It was almost as if she had spenther entire life preparing for the occasion. With a crispOxonian accent she was saying, ‘I, Chandini Gupta,do swear in the name of God that I will bear true faithand allegiance to the Constitution of India as by lawestablished, that I will uphold the sovereignty andintegrity of India, that I will faithfully and conscientiouslydischarge my duties as prime minister and that I will doright to all manner of people in accordance with theConstitution and the law without fear or favour, affectionor ill will.’ The doyen smiled. Without fear, favour, vii
  8. 8. ASHWIN SANGHIaffection or ill will! Bollocks! It was not possible to beprime minister without any of these, and she bloodyknew it. It was only his opinion, though. But then, thewily Machiavelli had always believed that any clod couldhave the facts—having an opinion was an art. He chuckled and the result was a rasping cough, areminder of his mortality, and the cancer that plaguedhis lungs. The secret service detail standing outside hisroom heard him cough. They wondered whom they wereprotecting him from. Indeed there were many whowanted the bastard dead but it seemed that God hadother plans. It was almost like Gangasagar was cockinga snook at his enemies and telling them ‘Come andfucking get me, but I won’t be around!’ A thin film of perspiration coated his head, thebaldness of which was accentuated by two tufts ofshocking white hair on either side. The nurse dabbed atit with a towel. He followed her movements with hisdeep, penetrating, all-seeing eyes—little video camerasthat had seen and stored away the very worst of humanbehaviour in the gigabytes of his brain’s hard disk. Histhin lips quivered as he gasped for breath, his hookednose struggling to suck in life-giving oxygen in spite ofthe tube. His skin had a pale translucent hue, like a rareparchment in a museum, and his thin frame occupiedvery little of the bed. How could this diminutive littleman be so powerful? In the lobby outside his room stood a posse ofpolitical associates. Pandit Gangasagar Mishra had nofriends. In his world of politics there were only enemies.A clutch of newspaper hounds hobnobbed with thepoliticians outside hoping to get the inside scoop onMishra’s death before his death. The old man seemed to be mumbling something, alaboured effort to get the words out. It was his daily viii
  9. 9. Chanakya’s Chantprayer in Sanskrit. It said, ‘Primal Shakti, I bow to thee;all-encompassing Shakti, I bow to thee; that through whichGod creates, I bow to thee; creative power of the Kundalini;mother of all, to thee I bow.’ He looked at his protégé—now sworn in as PM—fold her hands together in ahumble gesture of acknowledgement to the televisioncameras... and then stumble backwards. The red stainthat spread on her left shoulder—almost in slow motion—had been fired from a Stinger .22 Magnum. The august Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavandescended into pandemonium. Mishra, watching thescene unfold on television, continued chanting inSanskrit, ‘Adi Shakti, Namo Namah; Sarab Shakti, NamoNamah; Prithum Bhagvati, Namo Namah; KundaliniMata Shakti; Mata Shakti, Namo Namah.’ ix
  10. 10. Chanakya’s Chant CHAPTER ONE About 2300 years agoT he kiss was a lingering one. She seemed to lightly graze her lips over his, causing little sparks of staticthat travelled down his spine as he craved for theimpassioned ritual to move towards its gratifyingconclusion. Her name was Vishaka—it meant heavenlystar—and she was undoubtedly a celestial creature. Hertranslucent ivory complexion with just a hint of aqua,her sensuous mouth, and mischievous emerald eyes werepartially covered by her cascading, silken, auburn hair asshe bent over his face, planting little pecks of exquisitejoy upon his eyes, nose and lips. Paurus lay back on the silken bedspread in thechamber of the pleasure palace. Sounds of a veena waftedin from the antechamber as one of the courtesans playedwith chords from Raga Hindol—the raga of love. Alongthe north-eastern wall of the room stood a golden basinthat had been filled with pure rose water, and oppositestood a large golden lamp that had been lit withsandalwood oil. Paurus was in a state of tender bliss. 1
  11. 11. ASHWIN SANGHI Allowing himself to submit to Vishaka’s mini-strations, he sighed contentedly. He tried to recall whichgreat guru had suggested that the path to nirvana wascomplete and utter submission to the divine. Was thisdelectable creature anything less? He reached out his armsto pull her face downwards towards his own while hislips sought to quench their thirst from her moist clove-and-cardamom scented breath. He was on fire. His throat was on fire! Paurus let go of her hair inpanic while clutching at his own throat as he felt thecompound of arsenic and mercury scald his lips, tongueand throat. He tried to scream but no sound emergedfrom his larynx—it had already been destroyed by theSankhiya poison on her lips. The ambrosial Vishakacontinued to cradle his head in the warmth of her shapelybosom as she felt the living breath silently escape fromhim. The peacocks in the royal garden outside continuedto dance, quite oblivious to the agony of the king inside.Paurus, mighty emperor of Kaikey and Magadha wasdead. Long live the king!Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha, the great Brahmanicempire in the cradle of the beautiful Ganges valley ineastern Bharat lay quiet at this hour. The crocodiles inthe moat surrounding the city fort were in deep slumberand the guards had shut the city gates for the night.Within the town, the only activity was towards YamaGate, the southern quarter that housed the madiralays—the drinking taverns—and the houses of the ganikas—the prostitutes. At the northern end of the capital,towards the Brahma Gate, which housed the palace andthe Brahmin community, the streets were deathly quiet. 2
  12. 12. Chanakya’s Chant Inside a nondescript home, Chanakya listened toVishaka intently as the glow of the two oil lamps oneither side of his study desk threw ominous streaks ofalternating shadow and light on his grimy complexion.He was a hideous-looking man. His skin was pockmarkedand his features were slightly crooked. His clean-shavenhead was tough, black and leathery and he boasted asandalwood-paste trident on his forehead. Towards theback of his head started a long shikha—a lock of hairmaintained by most Brahmins in the kingdom. The onlygarment on his body was a coarse cotton sheet and hisonly accessory a yagyopavita—the sacred Vedic thread.He rarely smiled because smiling exposed his crookedteeth. He had been born with a full set of teeth—themark of a ruler, but a clairvoyant yogi had predicted thatthe boy would be even more powerful than a mere king—he would be the most powerful kingmaker of his time.To many he was known as Kautilya—the crooked one;to his childhood acquaintances he was Vishnugupta; butto most he was Chanakya—illustrious son of the greatand learned Chanak, the most renowned teacher in allof Magadha. He did not show the slightest emotion or exuberanceas he received her detailed report of the assassination.The wily old Brahmin knew that it never paid to let othersperceive what one’s true feelings were. ‘Three may keepa secret if two of them are dead,’ he would often say. But he couldn’t help laughing inwardly. The foolPaurus had allowed himself to believe that the celestialcreature in his bed was Vishaka—twinkle, twinkle, littlestar, indeed. Hah! Little had the imbecile realised thatVishaka was his trained vishakanya—a poison maiden.In fact, Chanakya had personally supervised the creationof an entire army of such maidens. His secret service 3
  13. 13. ASHWIN SANGHIwould identify young and nubile girls whose horoscopesforetold of widowhood. These beautiful damsels wouldbe sequestered at an early age and fed a variety of poisonsin graduated doses, making them immune to their ruinouseffects. By the time each of Chanakya’s vishakanyasreached puberty, they were utterly toxic. A simple kisswith an infinitesimal exchange of saliva was lethal enoughto kill the strongest bull of a man. ‘Go tell Chandragupta that he’s now emperor ofMagadha,’ the cunning Brahmin matter-of-factly instructedhis venomous pupil as his mind wandered back to howand when the saga had started.King Dhanananda of Magadha was in a foul mood. HisBrahmin prime minister, the wise Shaktar, appeared tobe lecturing him—God’s representative on earth! Shaktarwanted the king to spend less time absorbed in wine-drenched carnal pursuits, and more time improving thelives of Magadha’s citizens. Dhanananda found scholarssuch as Shaktar boring and insufferable. He toleratedthem nonetheless. Patronage of Brahmins in his councilmade him appear wise. The roof of Magadha’s great audience hall wassupported by eighty massive pillars. Rich furnishings andtapestries embellished the court of the world’s richestking. Some distance away from the palace stood a gildedDurakhi Devi temple, a Buddhist monastery as well asan ayurvedic hospital—signs of Magadha’s religious,material and spiritual progress. Dhanananda looked to his right and observed thefirst chair. It was reserved for the most importantBrahmin in the land—the prime minister, Shaktar. Thechair was empty because Shaktar had stood up to deliver 4
  14. 14. Chanakya’s Chanthis sermon to the king. The pompous bastard, thoughtDhanananda. They were all a bunch of self-serving rascals,recommending the most arrogant amongst themselvesas ministers, and then using Dhanananda’s money toaward themselves honours, grants and titles, whileattempting to tutor him—the mighty Dhanananda—onthe duties of kingship! Their hypocrisy revolted him. Dhanananda’s eyes wandered towards his femaleattendants. Women always surrounded Magadha’smonarchs. They performed various functions includingguarding the king’s person, controlling access to hischambers, tasting his food to ensure that it was notpoisoned, delivering messages, polishing his armour,entertaining him with music, bathing and dressing him,gratifying his sexual needs, and tucking him into bed atnight. Dhanananda had over a thousand female attendantsand courtesans serving him. Catlike, they were viciousand protective of their master. Dhanananda slyly winkedat a delicious feline whose curvaceous figure belied herstrength and capacity to kill and she returned the favour,smiling coyly at him. The wink was the final straw. The usually coolheadedShaktar lost his temper, allowing many years of pent-upanger to burst open like stinking pus from a festeringwound. ‘O King! No woman in your kingdom is safeanymore due to the lecherous ways of the court. Girlsare routinely found on the banks of the Ganges—raped,murdered, or both. Usually their trail leads back to theroyal palace!’ he thundered. Dhanananda, master of the largest standing army inthe world, was furious. ‘Hold your tongue, Shaktar, or Ishall have it removed for you! You live off my grantsand think that you have the right to come here and tell 5
  15. 15. ASHWIN SANGHIme—the most powerful emperor of the known world—how to do my job?’ he shouted, white spittle burstingforth from his lips along with each word. ‘Rakshas! Havethis rascal thrown into Nanda’s Hell. Let him experiencefirst-hand what a pain in the ass feels like,’ he orderedRakshas, his minister for internal security. Nanda’s Hell was the infamous torture chamber inDhanananda’s prison complex. The overseer, Girika, wasa monster. Even as a child Girika had enjoyed catchingand torturing ants, flies, mice and fish. He had latergraduated to torturing cats and dogs, using hooks, nets,hot wax, boiling water and copper rods. Bloodcurdlingscreams could be heard at all hours from the dungeonsin which Girika worked, wrenching out helplessprisoners’ teeth with metal pliers, pouring molten copperon their genitalia and thrusting red-hot embers into theirrectums. Rakshas shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It washis haemorrhoids acting up at the thought of the red-hot embers. He knew that he was wedged between arock and hard place. Obey the monarch’s orders and havethe entire population brand him as the king’s pimp—which he was—or disobey the diktat and be sent to thedungeon himself. Fond of dance, drama, music, literature and painting,Rakshas was a cultured and refined artiste. Being sur-rounded by resplendent feminine beauty in his artisticworld offered him the ability to supply Dhananandawith the most ravishing women of the kingdom. Thiswas the key to his success with the king. The masterpolitician in Rakshas hated open confrontation. Why didShaktar, the foolish tightass, have to go around stirringthings up? Rakshas rose from his chair and reluctantlycommanded his guards to arrest the prime minister. 6
  16. 16. Chanakya’s Chant Outside the gates of the royal palace, a solitary figurewas standing on a stone ledge spewing venom atDhanananda. ‘Citizens of Magadha, this tyranny hascontinued far too long. The imperial thug, Dhanananda,has imprisoned the only minister capable of standing upto him. Are we going to stand here helplessly while wesee a guardian of the kingdom—the wise and illustriousprime minister Shaktar—be treated in this shamefulmanner? How many more farmers have to commitsuicide because the tax inspectors of Dhanananda loottheir grain? How many more soldiers must die in battlebecause their armour has been compromised to makewine goblets for the king’s pleasure? How many moremothers must cry over the corpses of their violated youngdaughters? How much longer are we going to toleratethis evil sovereign?’ he cried. A crowd had gathered. After all, the orator was noordinary individual. He was Chanak—the most respectedteacher in the kingdom—father of the wise Chanakyaand a close friend and confidant of prime ministerShaktar. Kings vied with one another to send their sonsand future princes to be trained in and educated forprincely duties by Chanak. Inside the palace, guards had seized Prime MinisterShaktar and had whisked him off through a series ofsecret passages to the dungeons. Rakshas had quietlyinstructed the lieutenant that Shaktar was to be treateddecently and that Girika was to keep his hands off. ‘TellGirika that I will personally rip off his balls, roast themlike chestnuts, and make him eat them for breakfast if heso much as touches a hair of the prime minister!’ he hadhissed to the lieutenant. Rakshas had been contemplating his next move whenthe commander of the royal guards rushed in and sought 7
  17. 17. ASHWIN SANGHIa word with the king. The visibly shaken commandernervously revealed the news that a large crowd wasgathered outside the palace and was being incited torevolt by Chanak. Dhanananda flew into a fit of rage. His face contortedand the veins in his neck throbbed to the drumbeat ofthe guards marching outside. ‘Kill the son of a whore! Iwant Chanak’s head chopped off and displayed alongthe banks of the Ganges. Now!’ he shrieked. The haplesscommander scurried off to obey his whimsical leader’sroyal edict for fear of his own head being served up on aplate at the dinner table and being sampled by one ofDhanananda’s courtesan tasters.‘He’s dead, Vishnugupta. I am sorry for your loss, myson. The king’s spies are everywhere. You must flee.They’ll be looking for you,’ explained Katyayan, aminister in Dhanananda’s cabinet and a loyal friend ofChanak. While in court, he had heard the news ofChanak’s slaying and had quickly hurried over to warnChanak’s son, Vishnugupta. ‘But if I flee, who shall take care of my mother? She’stoo old to go anywhere,’ began the boy. ‘I shall look after her, don’t worry,’ said the gentleand assuring Katyayan. ‘And Suvasini?’ asked Vishnugupta. Suvasini was thedaughter of the imprisoned prime minister Shaktar andhad been Vishnugupta’s childhood crush. ‘I shall take care of everyone else if you will simplytake care of yourself, Vishnugupta,’ said Katyayanimpatiently. The blank expression on Vishnugupta’s face startledKatyayan. There was no sign of either dejection or 8
  18. 18. Chanakya’s Chantanguish. ‘Do not call me Vishnugupta,’ said the proudand angry boy to Katyayan. ‘From today onwards theonly identity I have is that of Chanakya—son of thenoble Chanak!’It was amavasya—the darkest night of the fortnight—and Chanakya had waited patiently for two whole daysto carry out the plan suggested by Katyayan. He hadrubbed a mixture of charcoal and oil all over his bodyuntil he was jet black. The complete absence of moonlightand his shadowy appearance meant that he could moveabout stealthily along the unlit banks of the Gangeswithout being observed. He followed Katyayan’s precise instructions on howto locate the banyan tree along the riverbank. It was asacred tree that would be worshipped on festivals and—aware of this—Dhanananda’s guards had hung Chanak’shead on the branches of this particular one, knowingthat ordinary people would not touch it. Having reachedthe banyan, Chanakya ignored the oil lamp at its baseand started climbing the massive trunk. A foul stenchsoon guided him to the point where he could see hisbeloved father’s head hanging like a ghoul from a branchto which his single lock of hair had been tied. Chanakya felt tears well up in his eyes as he saw hisfather’s severed head swinging to the eerie whistlingwinds. His father’s eyes were wide open and there weregaping holes in both cheeks where insects had alreadystarted feasting. His mouth was firmly clenched shut, asilent reminder of one of his favourite—and nowunfortunately ironic—maxims: ‘A man who opens hismouth too often may end up meeting a tragic end, eitherfrom indigestion or execution!’ 9
  19. 19. ASHWIN SANGHI Chanakya steadied himself, clambered up the branchand swiftly untied the shikha. As gently as possible, helifted the head, cradled it in his arms and reverentiallykissed the crown. His tears were in full flood and rainedupon his father’s skull. He had not wept until thismoment but he silently promised himself that this wouldbe the only occasion on which he would allow himselfto cry; Chanakya would make others cry. They wouldpay for what they had done. His tears would be paid forin blood. He quickly scampered down the tree and wrappedhis father’s head in fresh muslin that he had broughtwith him. He then tied the muslin to his upper torsoand jumped into the dark and ominous river. The shockof the freezing cold water took a few minutes to subsideand he was soon making his way with firm strokes acrossthe Ganges to the little Durga temple that lay across onthe opposite bank. Katyayan had bribed the royal guards to part withChanak’s body and had secretly arranged for the remainsto be transported to the temple grounds. According toHindu custom, a corpse had to be cremated beforesundown, but the circumstances of Chanak’s death meantthat tradition would have to be given the go-by. IfDhanananda ever caught a whiff of the fact that Chanakyawas cremating Chanak, he would not hesitate to sendhis cronies after the boy. Emerging drenched from the strong current, he foundthe priest, a fearsome hunchback clad in a blood-redsheet, waiting for him on the riverbank. He was holdinga flaming torch and silently gestured to Chanakya tofollow him to the funeral pyre that had been prepared.Wordlessly, he took the muslin containing Chanak’s headand placed it along with the rest of the body enclosed in 10
  20. 20. Chanakya’s Chantthe pyre. He handed over a bundle of burning grass toChanakya and asked him to circumambulate the bodyonce and to light the pyre thereafter. As flames envelopedChanak’s body, the priest handed him a bamboo andasked him to smash the corpse’s head—supposedly anact that would free Chanak’s soul trapped inside. As the flames ebbed, the priest instructed Chanakyato take another dip in the Ganges and gave him a dry setof ochre robes to wear. Bathed and dressed, Chanakyatook the small bundle that the priest offered him. It wasa parting gift left for him by Katyayan. It contained asmall dagger for his protection, fifty gold panas for hissustenance, and a letter to the dean of Takshila University. Located over nine hundred miles away in the distantnorthwest, Takshila was the world’s first university. Ithad been established almost three hundred yearspreviously and graduated over ten thousand students eachyear in more than sixty subjects. Chanakya began the long and arduous trek that wouldtake over a year. 11
  21. 21. ASHWIN SANGHI CHAPTER TWO Present DayT he dusty Birhana Road of Kanpur was a foodie’s delight at most times of the day. Little roadside shopsserved mouth-watering snacks—golgappas, aloo tikki,dahi kachori—sweet-and-sour savouries made from theunhealthiest ingredients that one could imagine: deep-fried potatoes, refined flour, sugar, and salt. The full-frontal cholesterol attack did not usually deter gourmandsfrom further exploring the sweet shops that sold laddoos,barfis, kulfi, jalebis, malai-makkhan, gulab jamuns and ahundred other syrupy, sticky and sinful desserts. Trafficclogged the street at all times of the day— autorickshawsspewing thick black fumes, cars, scooters, handcarts,buffaloes, cows, and humans. The air was dirty butexciting nonetheless. Smells of sweat and urine mingledwith carbon monoxide, fried food, and incense from thetemples that surrounded the area. In one of the bylanes of Birhana Road was a buildingthat had seen better days and was struggling to remainstanding. Inside it, a rickety staircase led to a second- 12
  22. 22. Chanakya’s Chantfloor flat occupied by Pandit Gangasagar Mishra,Kanpur’s foremost professor of history. Freshly bathedand dressed in a simple white cotton kurta-pyjama,Panditji was busy with his morning prayers. He sat onhis prayer mat facing east—the direction of the risingsun—and offered flowers, incense and sandalwood pasteto the little silver deities that stood inside his mini-temple.Having said good morning to his gods, he walked downthe shaky staircase and out into the street. It was obvious that Panditji had been a handsomeman in his youth. He had aristocratic features, a broadforehead, and an aquiline nose. He was extremely fair-skinned but rather short. His short stature, however, wasmisleading—like Napoleon’s. The hair on his head hadfallen off almost entirely, and Panditji preserved the fewremaining strands lovingly by combing them across hishead from left to right. The next thirty minutes would be occupied in a briskwalk down to Motijheel Chauraha, where a tea vendorwith the rather unexciting name—Banarsi Tea House—would keep Panditji’s tea ready and waiting. Panditji’smanservant had often complained that he could makebetter tea at home but Panditji liked the morning walkas well as the bonhomie of the tea stall where he waspart of the regular morning crowd. He would then strollover to his newspaper vendor two shops away, and buyhis day’s information fix. Another thirty minutes laterhe would be back home, retiring to his living room wherehe would spend the next two hours poring overnewspapers from all over the country. His newspapervendor had developed a network through whichnewspapers from Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata andChennai could be supplied to Panditji each morning, inaddition to the local Kanpur and Lucknow ones. 13
  23. 23. ASHWIN SANGHI ‘But Panditji, why do you read so many papers?’ thelad had asked curiously one day. Panditji had answered,‘Because I need to know everything that happens in thecountry. How else can I rule it?’ The boy had not replied,shaking his head in disbelief. By ten in the morning, Panditji was ready to receivehis first visitors of the day. His secretary, a sharp Keralite—Menon—had arrived and was sorting out Panditji’smail. The professor of history had another, even moreimportant, facet to his life. He was the president of theAkhil Bharat Navnirman Samiti—abbreviated to ABNSby journos who could never quite remember the entirename. Panditji had launched the political outfit severalyears earlier and it had grown from a fledgling strugglingnon-entity into a mainstream political party that fewcould ignore. ‘Good morning, sir,’ said Menon, efficiently handinga one-inch-thick dossier containing the day’s relevantpapers to Pandit Gangasagar Mishra. ‘Morning, Menon,’said Panditji, ‘at what time have you asked Chandini tomeet me?’ ‘She’ll be here by eleven, sir. She’s bringing theOpposition MLAs who wish to defect,’ said Menon,smiling. He knew that the day was a momentous one. Itwas the day that the ABNS would topple the existingstate government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s mostpopulous state—and the key to holding power in NewDelhi—and instal its own chief minister. The man behindit all was an unassuming Pandit who drank tea at BanarsiTea House every morning and liked to call himself ahistory teacher. His close acquaintances knew that Pandit GangasagarMishra was not interested in teaching history. He wasinterested in creating it. 14
  24. 24. Chanakya’s ChantGangasagar was born in 1929 in Cawnpore—theanglicised name for Kanpur—a sleepy town nestled onthe banks of the river Ganges. Kanpur had originallybeen Kanhapur, named after Kanhaiya—anothername for Krishna, the hero of the Hindu epic, theMahabharata. The British came along and decided thatCawnpore sounded better after they turned the towninto a garrison with barracks for seven thousand sepoys.The sepoys mutinied in 1857. Quite possibly they didn’tlike the new name. Gangasagar’s father—Mishraji—was a poor Brahminwho eked out a living from teaching at the localgovernment-subsidised school on the banks of theriver. When his son was born, his third child after twodaughters, he decided to name him Gangasagar—asvast as the Ganges. Gangasagar’s mother was a simplewoman, perpetually struggling to meet the most basicdaily needs of the family. Ganga, however, was her pet.In a society that treated sons as assets and daughters asliabilities, Ganga was the single item on her balance sheetthat squared off the dowry that she would have topay for her daughters’ weddings. She would smilinglyforego her own meals just to ensure that Gangasagarwas well fed. As per Hindu custom, Brahmins were usually indemand during the fortnight of shraadh, when wealthyfamilies would feed them and clothe them in memory oftheir ancestors. One of Mishraji’s wealthy patrons was atrader—Agrawalji. Little Ganga always looked forwardto eating at his house during shraadh. There wouldalways be unlimited quantities of sweet rice puddingalong with the meal. One day, as they were eating atAgrawalji’s house, Gangasagar asked his father, ‘Father,shraadh is all about remembering one’s ancestors, right?’ 15
  25. 25. ASHWIN SANGHI ‘Yes, son. By feeding Brahmins, one symbolicallyfeeds the spirits of the departed.’ ‘So you too shall die one day?’ asked Gangasagar sadly. Mishraji smiled. All parents desperately wanted theirchildren to love them and Mishraji was no exception.His heart swelled with pride to see his son’s concernfor him. ‘Yes, Ganga. Everyone has to die someday, includingme.’ Gangasagar looked crestfallen. Tears welled up in hiseyes as he took another gulp of the wonderfully sweetrice pudding seasoned with almonds and raisins.Mishraji’s heart melted. He tried to alleviate the obviousgrief that he seemed to have caused his son. ‘Why doyou want to know about such things, Ganga?’ ‘I was just wondering, when you die, will we still beable to come over to Agrawalji’s for rice pudding?’Mishraji managed to scrape together enough money tosend Gangasagar to a slightly better school than thegovernment-funded one at which he taught. He askedGangasagar to be always on his very best behaviour. Hecouldn’t afford any other school in Kanpur. On his very first day at the new school, Gangasagar’steacher asked him to stand up and answer some questions.The supremely confident Gangasagar was happy tooblige. The older students winked at each other, expectinga furious interrogation. ‘Who was the first president of America?’ asked theheadmaster. ‘George Washington,’ replied Gangasagar. ‘Very good. History tells us that he did somethingnaughty in his childhood. What was it?’ 16
  26. 26. Chanakya’s Chant ‘He chopped down his father’s cherry tree.’ ‘Excellent, Gangasagar. History also tells us that hisfather did not punish him. Any idea why?’ ‘Because George Washington still had the axe in hishand?’ asked Gangasagar as he sat down.Within a few months he was grading papers for theheadmaster and was his favourite pupil. School was aboutto break for Diwali vacations. Exams had just concludedand Gangasagar was helping his headmaster markexamination papers in history—his favourite subject. Helaughed at the ridiculous answers proffered by some ofhis classmates. ‘Ancient India was full of myths which have beenhanded down from son to father. A collection of mythsis called mythology.’ ‘The greatest rulers were the Mowglis. The greatestMowgli was Akbar.’ ‘Then came the British. They brought with themmany inventions such as cricket, tram tarts and steamedrailways.’ ‘Eventually, the British came to overrule India becausethere was too much diversity in our unity. They weregreat expotents and impotents. They started by expotingsalt from India and then impoting cloth.’ One of the more difficult questions related toChanakya, the wise guru of Chandragupta Maurya.The question was ‘Explain whether Chanakya’s treatiseon political economy—the Arthashastra—was his ownwork or whether it was simply an aggregation ofpreviously-held views.’ One of the bright but lazystudents had written, ‘Only God could know the answerto this particular question given that Chanakya is dead.Happy Diwali.’ 17
  27. 27. ASHWIN SANGHI Gangasagar wrote in the margin, ‘God gets an A-plus,you get an F. Happy Diwali to you too!’It was to be Mishraji’s last Diwali. Life had dealt himexceptionally harsh blows and the stress had eventuallytaken its toll. At the age of fifteen, Gangasagar was leftfatherless with an ageing mother and two sisters, bothof marriageable age. He knew that he would need todrop out of school, forget about college, and find work.His first port of call was Agrawalji, his father’s patronwho had always treated Gangasagar kindly. The mansion of Agrawalji was located in a woodedand secluded corner of Kanpur, along the bank of theriver Ganges. The ten-bedroom house stood on a ten-acre plot with a private riverbank where ten Brahminsperformed sacred rituals each day to make sure that theAgrawal family remained constantly blessed with goodfortune for the next ten generations. Agrawalji’s father had made the family fortune duringthe cotton boom of 1864 and had become one of themost famous figures in the Kanpur Cotton Exchange,the nerve centre of cotton trading. During the AmericanCivil War, Britain had become disconnected from its usualcotton supplies and had turned to India to meet its cottonrequirements. Cotton speculation became hectic andfrenzied, and trading would continue till late hours ofthe night while merchants would await information oninternational cotton prices prior to closing their tradingpositions. Senior Agrawal loved the speculation. Un-known to most people of that time, however, he was nospeculator. He owed his wealth to a simple technologyknown as the Morse Code. The wily market operatorhad employed two gentlemen, one in New York andthe other in Tokyo. The employee in New York would 18
  28. 28. Chanakya’s Chantrelay cotton prices using Morse Code to the employeein Tokyo who, in turn, would relay the prices to seniorAgrawal in Kanpur, also in code. The result was thatthe senior Agrawal knew the prices almost an hourbefore the others. Sixty minutes of pure arbitrage eachday was the secret to the immense Agrawal fortune, notmindless speculation. Senior Agrawal was succeeded by his son whoinherited his father’s cunning and raw intelligence. Whilethe father had used the American Civil War to furtherhis business interests, Junior used the Second World Warto do precisely the same. The British colony of Indiawould provide over two-and-a-half million men andspend an astounding eighty per cent of its nationalincome on the British war effort, and the man who wouldprovide most of these supplies at hefty margins wouldbe Agrawal junior. But Agrawalji was by no means onthe British side. He was a shrewd man who had foreseenthe future. He knew that it was only a matter of timebefore the British would have to quit India, and inanticipation of that event he made sure he doled outlarge donations to the freedom struggle too. When Gangasagar was a little boy, Mahatma Gandhihad visited Kanpur and stayed with Agrawalji. Gandhijihad come from Allahabad to attend the fortieth annualsession of the Indian National Congress. A crowd oftwenty-five thousand people had gathered at KanpurRailway Station to receive him. Agrawalji had escortedGandhiji home. Mishraji had volunteered that littleGangasagar remain by Gandhiji’s side to take care ofhim during his visit. Agrawalji had readily agreed. Gandhiji then delivered a speech at the famousParade Ground of the city and appealed to the throngsof people gathered to support the non-cooperationmovement and make it a huge success. During a private 19
  29. 29. ASHWIN SANGHImoment after the event, Agrawalji asked the great leader,‘Bapu, what gives you the conviction that you’ll be ableto fight the British?’ Mahatma Gandhi smiled. He said, ‘We shall winbecause we’re in the third stage of our four-stage struggle.’ ‘The four-stage struggle?’ wondered aloud Agrawalji. ‘First, they ignore you, second, they laugh at you,third, they fight you, and fourth—you win. That’s thefourth stage, my friend, Agrawal,’ said the Mahatmasimply. The little boy pressing Gandhiji’s feet listened tothe wise leader very carefully. He hesitantly asked, ‘Bapu,the British have guns and policemen. I’m but a littleboy. How can I fight them? They are so much stronger!’ Mahatma Gandhi fondly placed his hand on littleGanga’s head and said, ‘Strength does not come fromphysical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.I can see that you have it, son.’ From that day on, Gangasagar knew that one day hewould also possess the power to make or break empires.Gangasagar sat before Agrawalji uneasily. He was dressedin Western clothes but they sat uncomfortably on him.His sideburns were long and wide at the bottom, Elvis-style. His prominent nose provided ample parking spacefor a pair of very thick-framed spectacles. His hair wasoiled back with a very visible parting towards his left.He wore a dull full-sleeved shirt that hung out of bell-bottomed trousers that had seen better days. He wasclean-shaven and had fair skin but was rather short, justa little over five feet in height and was wearing shoesthat were at least two sizes too big for him. ‘I didn’tknow who else to turn to,’ said the young Gangasagarhesitantly. ‘Sir, I was hoping that you could give me a 20

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