#DesiBooksReview 2: Allan Sealy’s Postmodern Emperor Asoca is a Doubting Buddhist

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Dr. Pravina Cooper currently teaches comparative literature, theater, and film in the Comparative World Literature and  Classics Department at California State University, Long Beach. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 2

Asoca: A Sutra by Irwin Allan Sealy | Penguin Viking India | July 12, 2021

Allan Sealy arrived as an author with his splashy, groundbreaking flamboyant novel called Trotter-nama (1988) about the Anglo-Indian community. Lauded for its mix of fiction and creative satire, the work was followed by Hero: A Fable (1990), The Everest Hotel: A Calendar (1998), The Brainfever Bird: An Illusion (2001), and Red: An Abecedary (2006). In 2021, he takes on A-soca (the man without sorrows) in his latest novel about the ancient Indian Emperor, Ashoka.

The relevance of this intriguing Emperor as a liberal, modern, secular political leader will not escape any reader in India, saturated as the country is in debates of the nature of Indian nationalism. Little is known of the personal life of Ashoka, the grandson of the founder of the dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya. Credited for uniting almost all of the Indian continent, it has been Ashoka’s dramatic conversion to Buddhism, following the cessation of the Kalinga war, that won him his claim to fame in history books. His turn to pacifism, inclusiveness, tolerance, and humanism is the stuff of legend. No other leader expressed so much grief over his wrongdoings publicly, in his edicts, pillars, and more. In addition, Ashoka gave a stamp of authorship to his personal journey, demonstrating an individuality rare for the times. It is Ashoka’s personal voice and obsessive stock-taking that Sealy dramatizes in the story.

We follow Ashoka’s life in a chronologically straightforward thread—”sutra”—of Ashoka’s life in seventy-seven chapters. While history has amplified Ashoka’s achievements, and history has judged him graciously, Sealy’s Asoca has a different fate at the hands of his author. This Asoka is a reflective truth-teller, unafraid of facing his own irrelevance, as much as he is the familiar sanctified truth-seeker from the annals of Indian history books.

Picking up Ashoka’s early years at the feet of Kautilya (of Arthashatra fame), the boy-child is contrasted to his half -brother, Susima. In sharp contrast to the latter’s militarism, Ashoka shows early signs of being a contrarian to the project of empire-building. Drawn to dissidents and shamans, Sealy’s Asoca develops a special bond with ordinary people—forest dwellers, cobblers, tanners. From his friends of lower classes such as Waru, Ghasita, and Girika, he learns of the injustice inherent in the asymmetrical nature of power and wealth.

During his first political internship in Taxila, the university town, young Ashoka discovers philosophy and its consolations in bathhouses and whorehouses. Revulsed by his mother’s Brahminism and the inequities of the caste system, he begins to question his vocational leanings between kingship and as a spiritual quester: “Which way to face, Asoca, out or in?”

Sealy quickly summarizes the external events of Ashoka’s life: accession to power, the Kalinga war, the killing of one hundred thousand, and the taking of one hundred and fifty thousand slaves captive. The losses are severe. Galvanized by the shock of what he has done, Ashoka finds his connection with God broken and goes into a kind of retreat. Sealy wonderfully draws out Ashoka’s remorse and despair. Like a Sophoclean hero who experiences intense peripeteia and a fall from grace, Ashoka turns inward. His inner war takes on a dark and obsessive tone: “I felt the ground shift. What was I? A feather blown about in a great wind. No king at all, hardly a thought—not even the space a thought might dream to occupy.” What was his place in the cosmos?

It is here that Sealy’s imaginary complicates the historical Ashoka. Sealy’s Asoca calls into question his own sanctified narrative. When Ashoka tells his lieutenant, Goyala, in a moment of self-congratulation, that he has given the people a “fine gift of peace,Goyala replies, “No such thing, sir. Minute you turn your back, sir, there’s looting and carrying on.” And again on the famed “Mauryan peace,” the street-wise Goyala weighs in, “Load of codswallop, sir.” Doubt in the permanence of his own ideas of tolerance and secularism, doubt about the optimistic progress of history and India’s future weighs on our self-doubting Ashoka. He knows his edicts will not control India’s narrative beyond the grave.

In the end, Ashoka’s secular canonization is undermined by the self-parodying voice. Sealy’s Asoca describes the role of  his own jailer, Girika, and the need for force in his administration: “Girika the bad underwrote Asoca the good; he was my soiled underwear. He, not I, kept men honest.” And again, “Hell prospered under him that Magadh might prosper under me.” The tone of the narrative gets increasingly sardonic and nihilistic towards the end, finishing with a pervasive sense of unease and uncertainty.

The novel is an audacious blend of history and imagination. If you are seeking exotic historical settings, period authenticity, royal intrigue, minutiae of palace life, the novel will disappoint. No historically drawn-out sensuous elements give a feeling of time and place. Even the other characters—his father Bindusara, his grandfather Chandragupta, his children Mahinder and Sanghamitta—are barely fleshed out. His wives and “honey ladies”, including Madhumitta  and Tissa, receive the most perfunctory nod, and political maneuvering is rarely dramatized. 

Instead of the traditional fare of historical fiction, we get an introspective novel filtered through the thoughts and mind of Ashoka. It is an auditory world of the man’s inner emotions. By turns confessional, by turns confiding, this inner speech guides the reader through some intimate moments. Much like a stream of consciousness mode, the subjective voice often reveals a lonely man in his solipsistic world. Even though, as students of history, we know what is going to happen to Ashoka, as literary readers, we accompany him through the range of his moral dilemmas: his own fallibility, his compromised self, his sense of his own ephemeral place in history. The success and power of Sealy’s writing lies in the drawing out of these contradictions of the multi-layered Ashoka.

The prose is wonderfully sumptuous and always full of philosophical insights. Among the pleasures of reading Sealy are the generous stretches of meditation on human nature. Beautiful sentences often inventorize, Rushdie-style, the excesses of life in his court. Looking back at his kingship, Ashoka writes: “Kingship, I can’t say I miss. What’s to miss of that gilded panoply under which lurk a cheating clerk of works, puffed up peons, uncivil magistrates, spies in laughable disguise, that whole dread brigade of civil hangers-on every state attracts, leeches who make you want to knight an honest cobbler . . .”

Ashoka’s non-violent secularism played a strong role in the national imaginary in the early years of independence. It inspired both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in forming India’s foundational mythology as an inclusive modern state. Peace, non-alignment in foreign policy, and anti-casteism were to be part of this new dawn.  Aware of the literariness of all historical narratives, the unreality of collective national fantasies, Sealy’s Asoca almost, in a prescient way, warns, “Was my life lived in vain? I was no saint, but even that erratic life could serve as an exemplum, if only as a cautionary tale.”

Sealy’s front-row seat to one of Indian history’s major players will edify. In simple colloquial prose, it contemporizes Ashoka as a postmodern, self-reflexive man skeptical of grand narratives. Sealy explains the profile of his hero: “. . . there is a twentieth-century nationalist Asoka; a more recent Internet villain; and a much older Asiatic prince of that name who lives on in Buddhist countries. In matters religious, I have constructed a twenty-first century king, a doubting Buddhist.”

In giving dimensionality and subjectivity to India’s leading secular protagonist, in bringing out the contradictions of the man, Sealy’s work releases Ashoka from the chokeholds of history even as it manifests a hard-to-miss admiration for the legend of Ashoka as India’s first pacifist. 

Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 2

Website | Bylines

Dr. Pravina Cooper currently teaches comparative literature, theater, and film in the Comparative World Literature and  Classics Department at California State University, Long Beach. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

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