Historical fiction is not an easy subject to dabble with for a writer. Let us get that clear before I begin writing this review. Also let me make it very clear that to merge the two – history and fiction is no easy task. The facts get mingled with fiction and vice-versa, and leave readers either satisfied or disgruntled or wanting more to chew on.
Not too much ground has been covered with reference to Indian Historical Fiction. There is scope for lots more or maybe it is just that it doesn’t get spoken about as much as its counterparts. It is because of these notions and presumptions; I steer clear of Indian Historical Fiction. With great trepidation I started reading Anurag Anand’s, “The Legend of Amrapali”. It was the plot that drove me to it – how much do we really know about the famed town wife (loosely put, a prostitute for some)? Was she even one? Did she have an exclusive lover? The one true love of her life? There have been movies made on her, however I am sure this book is one of its kind.
The version we know: Amrapali was a courtesan. Famed, intelligent and beautiful, who lived in the city of Vaishali, the capital city of the Lichchavi clan, one of the eight Kshatriya clans that united to form the Vajjan confederacy. She was declared to be the state courtesan so there would be no fights amongst her suitors (she had those many, yes). Amrapali also had an affair with Bimbisara, King of neighbouring Magadha and also bore him a son. Later she turned to Buddhism and so did her son. This is the acceptable version. The one we know and concede with.
Anurag Anand’s version on the other hand is somewhat different. There are twists and turns at almost every chapter and make the reader wonder: Is this true or not? Maybe not, however that is what historical fiction is supposed to be (as I mentioned earlier): a good blend of facts and fiction. In this version, Manudeva is the King of the Vajji confederacy who is infatuated with Amrapali and wants her to be his at any cost. On the other hand, she has a lover Pushpakar, who obviously loves her a lot. The King proposes. Amrapali rejects it. Pushpakar dies in the bargain and Amrapali is made the state courtesan. What follows and makes the rest of the story is her revenge exacted on the King.
There are times when the plot loses its finesse and grip. The writing is racy and easy to comprehend. Anurag has tried and succeeded in painting a picture of an era lost and not remembered. Amrapali’s characterization is superbly done – demure, beautiful and vengeful at the same time. I am guessing that was the idea. There are too many things happening at the same time. Having said that, the book is a welcome change, in the sense to get to know Amrapali better (to some extent) and understand what could have been the other side of the story. I would recommend it as a one-time read, but for sure if you want to know about her, then give it a try.