Sunday, January 01, 2006

Amita Kanekar's A Spoke In The Wheel (HarperCollins, 2005)

Below are three reviews of a book by Amita Kanekar, a Mumbai-based writer whose roots are in Goa. -FN

The Hindu, May 1, 2005

The Buddha emerges a more rounded figure in this reinterpretation, says R. KRITHIKA

----- A Spoke In The Wheel: A Novel About The Buddha, Amita Kanekar, HarperCollins, Rs. 395. -----

THE traditional legend of Buddha's renunciation and search for enlightenment is, in many ways, unsatisfactory. Could one be as divorced from the reality of his/ her times as the legend implied? Also the characters seem unreal cardboard cutouts rather than real live people, who felt, loved, lived and hated especially when compared with extant literary sources on social life of this period in Indian history.

Good use of history

Against this background, Amita Kanekar's A Spoke in the Wheel is interesting reading. Described as historical fiction, the book draws from Indian history to such good effect that one can't help wondering if things actually did happen this way. The period of the Buddha was one of great philosophical ferment. There were six main schools of thought, the Vedic ritualistic tradition was under attack and people were beginning to look at alternate schools of thought. Both politically and socially too, it was a time of changes. Republicanism had come to the fore.

The book moves at two levels. A monk, Upali, (who lives in Asoka's times) is writing the story of Buddha's life. Upali has lived through the Kalinga War and is not quite sure about the reasons for Asoka's conversion is it a true inner change or is it politically motivated? Upali's story has raised hackles in the establishment since he avoids the traditional rendering. His Buddha is an outsider in his own society, racked by doubts and finding something lacking in the political and socio-religious structure of his times. But, initially at least, Upali has the support of the emperor.

A modern reader might find Upali's Buddha a more rounded figure than the over-protected prince of mythology. The reader is drawn to the character as his doubts and worries do have a contemporary resonance. But one can also understand the horrified reactions of the community of monks. After building up the greatness of Buddha, to have him portrayed as a nave, self-doubting individual out of sync with the socio-political environment can be damaging.

Dismantling legends

Another interesting aspect of the book is the dismantling of each legend associated with the Buddha. Beginning with his birth right down to his renunciation, Kanekar systematically demolishes the otherworldly gloss. The touch I liked best was the handling of the charioteer Channa when he brings the news of Buddha's renunciation home. Our lovely legends are silent in this. But Kanekar has Channa thrashed and thrown in jail till it is proved that Siddhartha was alive. More like those times and these too.

Life in the Magadhan empire is also portrayed with an eye to historical accuracy. Quotes from Asokan edicts which we knew of as history but couldn't really relate to now come alive with a new imagery. The schism within Buddhism which Asoka tries to bridge with the Buddhist Council is portrayed through the conversation of the monks. Political intrigue, a given constant in all times, reaches through insidiously into the Sangha - one of the elders is a spy for the emperor, another monk is murdered for his political affiliations.

Same old stories

The other interesting issue is the expansion of so-called "civilisation" and the effect it has on tribals and other forest-dwelling people. The young Siddhartha is troubled by the treatment and enslavement of defeated tribals. By the time of Asoka, the expansion of the Magadhan kingdom sees the forest dwellers fighting a losing battle to retain their way of life. One quote brings the reader slap up against the tribal agitations in today's world and the conflict between civilisation-development and the traditional cultures "Everything in the forest is not the same ... . Magadh has this way of demeaning the forests - using them, plundering them, destroying them and ignoring the richness, the layers, the differences, the thousands of thousands of differences." Not much seems to have changed in the years that have passed since then.

Kanekar's language is forceful and direct. Vividly drawn word pictures bring old textbooks to life. Upali is a figure who draws and holds the reader's interest. His stubborn refusal to accept the legends as sacred, his championing of the communities, his doubts over the king's reasons for conversion and promotion of Buddhism ... This is a book that will be of interest to anyone interested in philosophy in general and Buddhism in particular.


Revealing the real Buddha by S A Karthik, The Deccan Herald, May 29, 2005

New Delhi, India -- The book is an attempt to strip away fanciful stories surrounding the Buddha and reveal him as an ordinary man who had an extraordinary approach to his problems.

In his Buddhacharita, Asvaghosha describes in majestic verse the unnatural splendour of the Buddhas birth: as Indra, the chief of the gods holds the newborn in his hands, two streams of the purest water from the heavens fall on the baby together with mandaara flowers. The baby then utters words of majesty and meaning: I am born for the benefit of this world. This is my last birth on this earth.

Amita Kanekar's debut novel, A Spoke in the Wheel is an attempt to strip away layer by layer such fanciful stories surrounding the Buddha and reveal him as an ordinary man who had an extraordinary approach to his problems.

At her hands the Buddhas story emerges plainer but more than makes up for that by offering a wealth of alternate, rational explanations that challenge blind belief in legends that were formulated largely to serve the selfish interests of particular clans, kings, and communities.

The novel has an interesting structure. It begins with the story of Upali, a monk in the Maheshwar monastery on the Narmada. He begins rewriting the life of the Buddha as he sees contradictions in the Suttas. The reader changes lanes every alternate chapter, from the story of Upali set in 256 BCE during the emperor Ashokas reign to the story of the Buddha three hundred years earlier as retold by Upali.

In his reconstruction Upali adopts what is a blasphemous approach in the eyes of the leaders of the Buddhist sanghas. He portrays the Buddha as an ordinary prince, apathetic to the kshatriyas vocation of war, abhorrent of their animal and human sacrifices, and sympathetic towards the plight of the slaves and other repressed peoples.

Upalis account is thus shorn of the legendary elements in Buddhas life - his divine birth, the reasons for him leaving home and hearth and his war with Maara the Tempter on the path to enlightenment.

Throughout the book Amita presents issues of ethics and socio-economic relationships that are relevant even today. The ruler-priest nexus that exploits the commoner, the ethical ambivalence of the merchant classes, the morality of war, the issues of displacement and rehabilitation (as in the case of the people of Kalinga after the war with Maghadha) and so on.

The book attempts to show that the Buddha went away in search of solutions to these earthly, mundane problems, not esoteric questions of existence. His Middle Way was his solution to the excesses of all types indulged by all classes. Did those who professed to follow the Way, including Asoka, actually do so or did they merely use it for their own ends?

The book has some stimulating answers to this question.

The narrative is rich in detail and every aspect of life in those ancient times stands out vividly before the reader. There is a glossary of terms at the end. Perhaps the only lacuna is the absence of notes that indicate the sources for Amitas inferences. At the end of the book we do not have the comfort of knowing what is supported by research and what is imaginatively concocted. But this is not to deny the books deserved place on our bookshelf.

A Spoke In The Wheel - A Novel About The Buddha; Amita Kanekar New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2005; pp 447, Rs 395


Spetrum, The Tribune Sunday June 19,2005 Buddha demystified Arun Gaur

A Spoke in the Wheel by Amita Kanekar. Harper Collins, New Delhi. Pages 448. Rs 395

"Influenced by all!" said Mahanta. "Upalis Buddha is a confused fool parroting whatever was said around him!" "Thats not true," protested Upali. "Perhaps it is not deliberate," conceded Mahanta. "Perhaps it is only your stupidity." He turned to the others. "But just imagine, brothers, if everybody started this kind of imaginative interpretation, what will happen to the legacy so carefully protected this far? It will be torn apart, destroyed! Well be left with only interpretations, each one more adventurous than the last!"

Upali is a monk, a Chandala, a remnant of the Kalinga war, seething with hatred towards Ashoka. Ironically, he is supported by the king himself in his private enterprise of writing Buddhas biography. Only three centuries separate the Buddha and his biographer, but these are enough to mythologise him heavily.

Now the primary task, the self-appointed mission, of Upali is to demythologise the sage, deconstruct the associated fantasies of the Suttas and the Jatakas, and to place him firmly in the historical matrix. His fears are strong: "To make him a god is to make him ordinary. He will be one of thousandsthis is a land of gods. He will be swallowed up by myth and ritual. He might even become a sacrifice demander and a slavery-patron tomorrow, one who needs blood and flowers and incense and servants!" The biographer is irritated at the inimical stance of the fellow monks: "My understanding is simple... The Buddha was a very wise man, but a man." Harsha knows better: "Upali! The Buddha is already a godone story cant stop it."

How can Upali be free to create his own Buddha? Even Ashoka opines that time is not ready to receive his Buddha and directs him to deposit his manuscript with him. The post-modernist debate about the right to authorship is in question here.

Upali does not seem to nurse any ambition to become a renowned author and his enterprise seems to be a purely private affair, an exercise in self-contentment. Even then, society at largehis friend Harsha, Mogalliputta, who is the powerful thera of Pataliputra, and the courtiers of Ashokaholds the opinion that Upali is trying to appropriate a privileged position of an author. And that would not be granted to him. The interference of the state machinery cannot be countered by the individual flashes of genius. When the writing begins, a writer has to die. This option is not acceptable to Upali; for him, writing as well as the author has to die. Consequently, he throws his unfinished script into the fire and slumps into silence.

The abstract story of the recreation of the Buddha is embedded in a multi-layered phenomenon. The philosophic gaze of Upali takes into cognizance the spiritual, commercial, political, and artistic ingredients of the society surrounding him and somehow manages to persevere through this maze. Unwittingly, Upali also becomes a part of the intrigues of love and political assassinations.

Clearly, Kanekar has done a lot of research that this kind of novel writing demands. She examines diverse historic issues: Dhamma, jungle versus city, slavery-system, stature of a devadasi, national identities, crime and punishment. There are evocative descriptions of burgeoning cities like Kapilavastu, and Benares Ujjayinis "raucous noise" is sharply demarcated from Pataliputras "laughter from glamorous carriages."

As the novelist is a teacher of the history of architecture and comparative mythology, she comfortably deals with the details of a Yakshini on the stupa: "Her pose seemed modeled on a liana vine, her ridiculously generous curves on fruit-laden trees, but her expression? The amused challenge in her eyes" Still more important is the fact that this observation is not a dry piece of analytical realism; as it is conveyed through a monks eyes, it suggests an amorous hidden dimension of a spiritual being.

Here is an abstruse difficult-to-handle story that could easily have gone drab, but it goes to the credit of the writer that in spite of her being a debut-novelist, she has been able to keep it lively. It seems to be an important contribution to Indian historic fiction.

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