The Boy from Pataliputra- A historical fiction novel set in the 4th Century BC

The world it is set in- India in the 4th Century BC


It was an exciting time to be alive. Massive, contemporaneous changes were taking place across all fields of human activity. Long-established class relations were being disrupted by the nascent forces of urbanization and mercantilism; age-old heterodoxies were being challenged by new modes of thinking such as Buddhism, Jainism and the Ajivikas. Politically, with the emergence of the Mahajanapadas, the first state-level organizations had just come into being in the sub-continent and neighboring states were continuously vying with each other for supremacy.

As always in our country, self-serving leaders exploited these divisions even as the invasion of the Greeks under Alexander threw a new power into the mix, a power which strove to gain dominance by playing off neighbouring states against each other. This is the historical canvas against which ‘The boy from Pataliputra’ is set.

More importantly, this novel is about a period when India was at the very threshold of revolution- a revolution that would sweep the Mauryas into power and lead to the establishment of the first all-India empire in history.

But how did this come about? And what led to the sudden efflorescence of the arts, culture, sciences and religion that followed this period- a time which has been called the golden age of India and which lasted till the end of Gupta rule (6th century AD)?

To answer this, I think we need to look at Indian society as it was on the eve of Alexander’s invasion. An appreciation of this context will also help you, dear reader, to better understand this novel.

Alexander invaded India in 326 BC. The country was politically divided, and yet socially a number of far-reaching changes were taking place. The last 200 years had seen the emergence of a new class of people. Starting with the first artisans who produced goods on a piece order basis meant for local consumption, a more intrepid class had emerged; a class of sellers who frequented the many nigams, haats and fairs held in the newly established cities and pilgrimage centres of the Indian sub-continent. These in turn gave rise to an even more entrepreneurial, adventurous class of people who can only be described as merchant-adventurers.

A new form of economic activity and wealth generation came into being. With the rapid clearing of forests and the emergence of rudimentary roads, trade and exchange between different parts of Bharatvarsha received a huge fillip; and this class of people known as the Vaishyas became powerful drivers of economic activity in Indian society.

This expansion of long-distance trade and commerce in turn had far-reaching effects upon society. Local exchange which had earlier taken place within the grama based societies needed a common standard to transact and the merchant guilds of various cities now started issuing metal based currencies. Large scale trade also requires the exchange of messages and the writing systems of brahmi, kharoshti and gandhari/sharda also made an appearance around this time. The ancient religious books and traditions that had been passed down orally over generations began to be written down and the first universities in the world came up in places like Takshshila and Nalanda. For the first time in Bharatvarsha, access to education was no longer the preserve of only one section of society. Intellectual speculation and theories began to be directed more and more towards material and practical matters.

This was an epoch of rich religious and philosophical ferment. Men who had travelled far and wide and seen different types of societies increasingly started questioning the narrow-mindedness and orthodoxy of the Brahmins. Society was undergoing a transition and this proved to be extremely fertile ground for the growth of new ideas and philosophies. Different schools of thought sprang up and vied for popularity among the general population. This they did through methods such as exposition and debate in a society that was remarkably open and tolerant.

Among these many different schools of thought were the shramana religions of Buddhism and Jainism which rejected the caste system and propagated ahimsa, objecting to the animal sacrifice based religion of the early Vedic societies. Driven by such moral concepts and encouraged by the increased area brought under the plough, the idea of vegetarianism also started gaining ground in Indian society. Such doctrines were especially popular among the new class of merchants and traders and in fact, were in the ascendancy all over Bharatvarsha. Side by side, other belief systems such as the existing Vedic religion, the atheistic beliefs of the Charavakas as well as the materialism propounded by sects such as the Ajivikas also remained popular.

Dear reader, pause for a moment to go over all of this again. Just think about how thrilling the times were. New cities were coming up; people from different parts of the country were meeting and commerce was booming. A thousand tales of adventure and romance were being played out along the Uttarapatha, the road that ran from Tamraliptika (Tamluk in today’s West Bengal) in the east to Takshashila and further onwards to Zariaspa or Balkh in present-day Northern Afghanistan. A similar road called the Dakshinpatha connected Magadha to the cities of Amaravati and Suvarnanagari in the south.

New writing systems were spreading across society and the first Universities in the world had just come up. Varied ideas were debated and discussed often in front of audiences in halls known as kautuhalashalas (Houses of curiosity). The concept of blasphemy or sacrilege did not exist and no one threatened the Buddha or Mahavira when they went from city to city criticizing the existing religious and social order. This was a society in which every aspect of the human experience was open to examination and study.

In other words, it was a progressive, confident and forward-thinking nation. I am convinced that it was this dynamism, this openness that contained within it the seeds of future greatness. This latent energy was about to be unleashed under the Mauryas, once all of India was brought under a single administration. It was to set the stage for the dazzling achievements of the centuries to follow.

Another thing that might not have been readily apparent is that India was ripe for a consolidation. The age of the Janapadas and the Mahajanapadas was slowly coming to an end. The Kingdom of Magadha centered around today’s Bihar had been rising in power over the last 200 years. Blessed by nature with fertile soil, abundant mineral wealth and a plentiful supply of elephants, Magadha had built up formidable armies that started swallowed up the surrounding janasanghas.

Yet, on the eve of Alexander’s invasion, conditions were far from encouraging. India was riven by political rivalries and the power and prestige of Magadha, the pre-eminent state in India was on the decline. The (reputedly) cruel and avaricious Dhananda who ruled Magadha was a much-hated figure among commoners and noble alike. As always, differences between classes and religions were being exploited by the unscrupulous and universities were the breeding grounds of dissent and protest.

On the surface, it looked like India should have been easy pickings for Alexander. The outlook was grim. The fight between old and new ideas and the churn between classes had given rise to considerable social tension within India. The country was also politically divided and the border kingdoms were reeling under the barbaric onslaught of the Greeks. Kingdom after kingdom was bending the knee to the invader, with King Ambhi being the most prominent among them.

Yet, the Greek army faced the toughest battle of its career against the frontier king Porus, the soldiers rebelled and refused to advance further into India and within fifteen years of Alexander’s demise, his successors were driven out of the country and a single political entity was created.

How did this happen? I find it fascinating and I first thought of this as a topic for a novel during the India Against Corruption/Nirbhaya rape case/Jan Lokpal protests that took place in 2011-2012. As in the period of the novel, things looked bleak, resentment was at its peak and it looked like things would only go downhill from there. Yet, as history has shown us periods like these can often be followed by periods of growth and renewal.

I wrote this story to remind myself (and my readers) of this time and to give us all some hope.