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. "Upali’s Buddha is a confused fool parroting whatever was said around him!" "That’s 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! We’ll 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 Buddha’s 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 thousands—this 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 god—one story can’t 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 large—his friend Harsha, Mogalliputta, who is the powerful thera of Pataliputra, and the courtiers of Ashoka—holds 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 Ujjayini’s "raucous noise" is sharply demarcated from Pataliputra’s "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 monk’s 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.