July 13, 2021 4:58:49 pm
In Return of the Brahmin, Ravi Shankar creates a deeply enthralling world. In here, Ashoka has become the ruler Magadha and is faced with another threat. Designed as a thriller, the book is a vivid instance of compelling world-building. Published by Westland, you can read an except here.
The Brahmin Goes to Prison
The season seemed an apt metaphor for Ashoka’s imperium. Beneath the soft warmth of the early winter sun lay the coldness of the Himalayan outbreath. ‘Finding people who hate the emperor is the least of his problems. He has overthrown many kings and will overthrow more. He has imprisoned powerful noblemen, seized their lands and taken hostages,’ Chandranaga reasoned.
‘The Khandapati and the Nirmukh have whetted my curiosity—I shall find the Khandapati on my own.’ ‘How will you do it? By coming back to the Service?’ ‘No, by becoming a prisoner.’ ‘But the Khandapati is not in any prison.’
‘The Nirmukh is. Though I don’t know which prison. I’ll have to get into each and every important prison with a Dark Hall. The Khandapati is going to extreme lengths to find the true Nirmukh. It will be a race between him and me. Once I find the right prison, I’ll be there, waiting.’
Chandranaga was aghast. He licked his lips anxiously. ‘Do you love Magadha so much, even though you no longer work for Emperor Ashoka?’ The answer was complicated, but not one Chandranaga needed to know. Finding and destroying Ashoka’s tormentor was a promise the Brahmin had made to someone, and it was the reason for ending his self-imposed exile.
It had been nearly a year ago. The Brahmin was in Tamralipti monastery, where he had been staying since he left Ashoka’s service. He recalled the carriage turning into the monastery gates from the highway. He had been expecting the visitor.
‘You found me,’ he had said upon entering the library, which was occupied by a lone figure examining the pages of a dusty old tome. The library’s high, arched windows let in sunlight like an ancient almanac welcoming an apprentice’s thirst. The air smelt of vellum and old, polished wood.
The Brahmin took the book away. ‘It’s an old copy of Tipitaka, the holy book of Buddhism. Generations of monks have worked on it. The pages cannot withstand the sunlight,’ he said. ‘Is this a house of monks or sorcerers?’ the visitor tittered.
‘A bit of both. Why have you come here?’ There was no hostility in his voice, just curiosity.
‘You left me.’ ‘It was the right thing to do.’ ‘Perhaps. But you aren’t easy to find,’ had come the whiplash of a reply. ‘No, I am not. But you always find me, as I always find you.’ After a conversation that had lasted long into the night, the visitor had left. The next day, the spymaster had saddled his mighty warhorse, Garuda, and set out on the long journey in search of the Khandapati. Chandranaga interrupted his thoughts. ‘How will you become a prisoner, master?’ he asked. ‘You don’t commit crimes; you catch criminals.’
‘With Daarya’s help. Almost all the emperor’s vassal kings will be happy to oblige her with a cell for me in one of their bandhanagrahas. She has been hired by them at some point in their lives. She knows all their secrets. Their kingdoms are now under Magadha, but they are still nominally the rulers. With their cooperation, she can get me into any prison I choose.’ ‘Are you speaking of the vishkanya Daarya? Her only business is sex and death.’ ‘Very often, they are the same. She is paradise for some and perdition for others.’ ‘Daarya is evil. She’s the most powerful vishkanya in the world—a poison maiden created by Chanakya himself.’ ‘You give the old fox too much credit.’
Vishkanyas are murderesses who poison their victims during lovemaking. Chosen in childhood by spymasters for their beauty and intelligence, they are trained to seduce and kill men, and sometimes women. For years, they are fed measured doses of poison and the antidotes prescribed for them in the ancient assassination manuals, until they become immune. Not all of
them survive though. The bodies of some of these little girls cannot absorb the toxins. Some students poison themselves accidentally.
‘Is it wise to enlist Daarya’s help?’ Chandranaga sounded anxious. To the Brahmin’s trained senses, the commander appeared to be worried for more than just the former spymaster’s safety. He decided to play along. ‘Daarya doesn’t bite, commander, though her bites are said to be delicious.’ ‘You mean there are men who have survived the Persian’s …’ Chandranaga bit his tongue.
The Brahmin glanced at him sharply. Then he changed the topic. ‘Now that the Campa governor has been killed by bandits, may I suggest a replacement?’ The former spymaster glanced over his shoulder. The dandy had left his seat to lean against the door, watching the two men. Chandranaga became nervous. He walked out to the yard again. The Brahmin followed.
‘From what I heard back there, you’re short of a prison governor,’ the Brahmin reminded Chandranaga. The warrior grunted unhappily. ‘I have a solution. ’The Brahmin turned to the dandy. ‘In the mood for some trouble, my lord? How would you like to run a prison?’ ‘Isn’t trouble the salad of life?’ the young man laughed and, putting two fingers to his mouth, whistled loudly. A splendid piebald gelding raced around the corner and came to a sudden stop in front of him, snorting plumes of breath. The dandy rubbed its muzzle affectionately.
‘Chandranaga, meet Lord Arrian, my good friend.’ The dandy greeted the warrior in a pleasant, cultured voice. ‘I’m ready, Commander Chandranaga. Lead me to the bandhanagraha of Campa, for my heart is broken and I would love some solitude.’ Discomfort and curiosity alternated on Chandranaga’s face. ‘I’m not sure about this, master,’ he objected. ‘What if the emperor comes to know of this unplanned appointment?’
The Brahmin’s voice was suddenly hard. ‘Ensure he doesn’t, Chandranaga.’ The warrior nodded. At least this fake governor was an aristocrat and not a highwayman with a great dress sense. He yelled to his men, who cautiously emerged from the inn—the Brahmin’s presence was daunting Chandranaga pointed to Arrian and announced, ‘Using my authority as a Keeper of the Imperial Highway, I’m appointing Lord Arrian as the governor of Campa prison, until Pataliputra sends a replacement.’ Chandranaga was not sure he had the authority, but that was the best he could think of at the moment. ‘You, you, you and you,’ he pointed to four soldiers, ‘you’ll be Lord Arrian’s bodyguards. You’ll take him safely to Campa prison and get him
Excerpted with permission from Return of the Brahmin by Ravi Shankar Etteth, published by Westland Publications, June 2021.
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