By Devika Rangachari
There’s drama, there’s intrigue, the characters are compelling and what's more, the plot is based almost entirely on people who existed and events that actually took place. Not once did I get the feeling the author was trying to impart a history lesson though, it is the story that takes centre-stage and unfolds most dramatically.
Devika Rangachari creates fascinating characters and brings them to life with her writing. I liked the juxtaposition of the driven and determined Harsha with his elder brother, the mild-mannered Rajya. Rajya is predictable and trustworthy, but with Harsha, one never knows… We see them in the beginning through the eyes of their sister Rajyasri. A princess who is no damsel in distress, Rajyasri has inherited the temper of her mother, queen Yashovati.
Things get stirred up in Thanesar with the arrival of cousins Kumara and Madhava from Malwa, uncles rather. The dynamics between the teenagers gets interesting. Madhava quickly attaches himself to Harsha, while his elder brother Kumara follows Rajya around. There is also the mysterious Bhandi, Harsha’s accomplice and possibly partner in crime?
As the elder brother, it is Rajya who is the rightful heir, and yet it is with Harsha that king Prabhakara and queen Yashovati discuss matters of state. And what is one to make of the astrologer’s prophecy?
The royals of Thanesar are shaken up after Rajyasri’s wedding to Grahavarman, the king of Kanauj. Unable to bear the absence of his daughter, king Prabhakara is on his death bed. Who will occupy the throne of Thanesar after him, and how? How far will Harsha go to fulfill his ambition? Devika Rangachari keeps the reader guessing. I read page after page, wanting to know more.
The excitement doesn’t abate, there’s never a dull moment. History is not dry and boring, far from it, as Devika Rangachari demonstrates beautifully with this book.
Subhadra Sen Gupta
Ashoka by Subhadra Sen Gupta is a work of non-fiction written in a lively, engaging style. The book grabs the reader’s attention right from the word go. The part about a scientist, James Prinsep, cracking the puzzle of an ancient script that led to the “discovery” of Emperor Ashoka is most fascinating. Prinsep’s band of men went all over the country collecting specimens of writing from pillars over forty feet high. As I read, I could picture the men precariously perched on logs, making tracings of the inscriptions using printer’s ink. We now know these were Ashoka’s edicts carved on rocks and pillars across his empire, because Prinsep managed to decipher the script after he had a brainwave – you’ll have to read the book to find out what it was!
An engrossing account of the Mauryan empire follows, from Chandragupta and Bindusara to Ashoka. There are several exciting tales – the battle between Alexander and King Paurava (Porus, as the Greeks called him), the retreat of the Greeks, Chanakya’s discovery of his protégé Chandragupta, the latter’s ascension to the throne of Magadha after overthrowing the Nanda king, and the story of Ashoka’s disgruntled queen Tisyarakshita having the sacred Bodhi tree cut down because he was spending all his time worshipping it!
The books ends with a chapter on life in Mauryan times, including details from family life to food, festivals and fashion!
Girls of India is another interesting series for this age group. Published by Puffin, each of the three titles - A Mauryan Adventure by Subhadra Sen Gupta, A Harappan Adventure by Sunila Gupte, A Chola Adventure by Anu Kumar - features a girl from the past.
Check out this review of The Mystery of the Missing Dancing Girl by Sunila Gupte, another Indus Valley adventure.
Ashoka and the Muddled Messages (History Mystery series)
By Natasha Sharma
Illustrated by Tanvi Bhat
Here’s one for younger readers - a mystery about Ashoka and his muddled edicts.
Emperor Ashoka is trying his best to be non-violent, quite tough in the face of his edicts getting messed up! While the peace-loving Ashoka issues orders to carve inscriptions prohibiting meat-eating, hunting and banning animal sacrifices, the messages carved on rocks turn out to be the reverse. Who is the mischievous meddler? Ashoka sets his female bodyguards - the Tremendous Ten - to the task of finding out. The bodyguards snoop around and bumble about trying to solve the mystery. This involves T3’s temporary transformation into the Goddess of Iron, T4’s disguise as a peacock and T5 turning into an ascetic woman first and then a monster! The peacock-meat-loving, tantrum-throwing queen Tishya is highly entertaining. I thought the ending was most befitting.
The book is peppered with illustrations. The story itself is high on the readability and fun quotient. There's a liberal dose of slapstick humor. Sure to be a hit with young readers.
Details about the period are woven unobtrusively into the story – people, places, clothes, currency. Ashoka’s edicts, his personal bodyguards being women - are all based on fact. The appendix clearly spells out what is fact and what is not.
The seven-year-old in these parts now talks of Ujjaini and Dakshinapatha with great familiarity. He also utters the war cry of the Tremendous Ten – Haaayyaaa, Hoooyyaaa, Heeeyyaaa!
If you’re looking for books suitable for even younger children, travel further back in time with Thangam of Mehrgarh and learn all about life in the Indus Valley civilization.