Urnabhih: A Mauryan Tale of Espionage, Adventure and Seduction by Sumedha V Ojha
Urnabhih takes you through the life of Misrakesi – female spy in the Mauryan times. Through her, you navigate the spy network which is pretty much like a spider web, with the spider hanging in the middle. Mauryan times seem to be the favorite with historical fiction writers. I think this is the first period that can be definitely dated. It provides ample material for writers to play with. You have Chanakya and his works to use, you have descriptions of cities like Pataliputra at your disposal.
Urnabhih begins with Misrakesi arriving in Pataliputra from Ujjain. The city would become her new home where she would establish a dance house. The reader gets a glimpse of the world of Nartakis or Ganikas or dancers. The modern reader may never understand the prestige associated with these titles. And the powerful role these women played the social setup. I remember reading Vaishali ki Nagavadhu – the story of Amrapali a few years back when I visited Vaishali in Bihar. Then as part of a course at Goa University, I got to read the section of Kamasutra that was commissioned by the Ganikas and lays down the rules for them. All this put together has allowed me to understand their world a bit.
Urnabhih added to my worldview of the world of Ganikas in ancient India. I learned more about their training. The ways they could be a part of the administration. And how they are the most intelligent and detached women chosen. They can run a business, they can be a crucial link in the spy network as their homes are where secrets are let loose. And they can be the envy of both men and women.
Chanakya makes occasional but powerful appearances in the story. He is like a Sutradhar with a long-distance vision. Everyone else is like a puppet in his hands, even when the mutual love and respect exist. You see the early days of power transfer from Nandas to Mauryas in Pataliputra. You see the tension when a young king is trying to establish his power over the whole of Bharatvarsha. The loyalty of new employees must be trusted as well as tested at the same time.
As a narrative, Urnabhih is a tense love story of a Ganika. As she and her lover who happens to be her boss as well, weave their way through spy networks to crack some mysteries, love happens. Is it love or lust or simple circumstantial mutual attraction or part of the job – is left to your judgment till the characters reveal it to you. There are armies, there are Vishkanyas, there are mystery women and there are friends and enemies.
There is a travel across Uttarpath or the road leading running between Pataliputra and Taxila. I have recently read another book ‘The Boy from Pataliputra’ defining the journey on the same route during the same period in great detail. Urnabhih though moves rather smoothly on this path, merely mentioning the kingdoms on the way. While the city of Pataliputra is described in great detail, Taxila’s description is rooted in the modern-day description of hill towns.
Sumedha it seems is in love with jewelry traditions of ancient India. Almost every scene is full of detailed descriptions of what each character wears – especially the protagonist Misrakesi. I think this gets repetitive. Most authors would describe everything in detail once. And then just provide the relevant or the incremental details unless the costumes play a role in the story. Though I must add, this comment is more relevant to English readers than Sanskrit readers where such detours from the story are a norm.
There are a couple of loose ends that I spot in the story like a lover of Pushyamitra is mentioned once but never again. Similarly, Chandramukhi’s sudden appearance is never seen with suspicion. The first one I assume could have a role in the sequel but the second one is a miss.
There is ample use of original Sanskrit words. Each word is explained in the notes section. But for non-Indian readers, this may be a bit of distraction. At the same time, there were some words like ‘Chief’ that were not translated. So, in an attempt to balance the use of Sanskrit and English words, both readers have received a degree of alienation. Personally, I would have loved to read this book in Hindi. I understand all those words. And for me, the naïve explanations were a distraction. It would be a pleasure to be lost in the ancient world of Misrakesi in her own language.
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I also expected a note from the author on if her characters were fictional or based on some historical characters. We know Chanakya, Chandragupta and all the kings and kingdoms in the story did exist in the history during 3rd BCE. I wonder if Misrakesi and Pushyamitra are imagined or inspired by some real characters.
Overall, I enjoyed Urnabhih. It is a gripping read, a page turner with lots of action happening all the time. There are different types of Rasa but Shringar Rasa and Veer Rasa are the dominant Rasas of this book.
Go, Read It.
More Historical Fiction To Explore:
- The Glory of Patan by K M Munshi – English Translation
- Abhaya by Saiswaroopa Iyer
- The Devil Take Love by Sudhir Kakar
- Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
- Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi