Book Review: Birth of the Bastard Prince

birthofthebastardprinceWarning: Mild Spoiler Alert

Let us assume that you have no idea who Amrapali was and what the various re-tellings of her story have been. Let us assume that you have not seen the movie starring Vyjayanthimala, read Acharya Chatursen’s Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu, seen Hema Malini’s TV series. Lets just take this book as a piece of fiction loosely based on events that happened around 5th century BC, around the same time Buddha and his teachings were gaining prominence. Amrapali, an orphan found near a Mango tree (Amra), grew up to be a beautiful lady, caught the attention of the then ruler of Vaishali, Manu Deva, was christened the Nagar Vadhu / Janpad Kalyani of Vaishali to avoid the conflicts over her favors, fell in love with Magadh King Bimbisar/ Ajatshatru (unconfirmed), lived through the destruction of Vaishali caused by the war between Vaishali and Magadh (fought as much as a political ambition as for her), and gave it up all to become one of the most prominent female Buddhist Monks.

I have not read Anurag Anand’s first installment but this one wants me to and read it right away. Its gripping, fluid and has the right elements of intrigue, politics, romance and history. Though it does not necessarily stay parallel to the historical version all the time, it’s a fictional retelling that makes the original way more interesting. There are conflicting versions in history whether it was Ajatshatru or Bimbisar who fell in love with Amrapali, and in Anurag’s version, it is Bimbisar who renounces his ambition in love.

Amrapali comes across as the one who understands her political strength that comes with her rather immoral designation as the Nagarvadhu, the one who must entertain all, the concubine of many, the desire of all, loved by many, and revileed by most.  She uses her position like a Robin Hood, and despite her quick wit and smarts, is also gullible to a fault.

Anurag narrates fluidly, doesn’t waste a lot of time in setting contexts that are not relevant to the central story, does reasonable justice to most of the key chess-pieces, and introduces characters in a flurry throughout the book. Some of the characters are only half baked, and that damages the layers that the book could have had. In his defence though, it probably saved him quite a few pages, and made it an easier book to finish and accessible to a larger mass audience. The historical correctness of the book may or may not be perfect, but the research seems adequate. Somewhere, given the landscape, in a very middle-earthian way, a map of the various Janapads and how and why Vaishali was such an important center of power would have helped. Anurag does a great job summarizing the key events of the previous book so that the book stands on its own, but fails to get one of the key dimensions detailed – the geo-political landscape that would have set Bimbisar’s ambition in context. You may wash it off as just another ruler who wanted an Ashwamedha Yagya of sorts and rule the entire known country at that time. But it is important to remember that control of Vaishali would also have added a control of the gangetic plains and the riverways. Magadh and Vaishal of that era are two banks of Ganga even today.

What really works for the book is the narrative pace and the strong grounding in history. Where the book falters a bit is the lack of characterization. While that of Amrapali is done over almost a book and a half, Bimbisar, Bindusen, Yudhveer, Chetak, etc. are not detailed. Their personalities, and motives are far from being clear. The transition of Bimbisar from a ruthless leader to the one who renounces almost everything, Ajatshatru taking over the Magadh reins, Chetak’s dual identity – the one of a war-strategist par excellence and the other of a guy duped so easily by Amrapali, and several such small details integral to the story are missing.

Overall, the book makes for a good weekend read. I would rate the book a 3 on a scale of 5, and recommend it.  Especially for those who of you love fictionalized history.

Title/ Series: Birth of the Bastard Prince/ Book 2 – The Legend of Amrapali
Author: Anurag Anand
Publisher/ Imprint:
Rupa Publications
Pages:
280
Genre/ Sub-Genre:
Fiction/ Historical
Rating:
3.00 of 5
Reviewed for:
Author

Browse through the full list of book reviews in the depths of the Pensieve.