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When I discovered that Nandini Sengupta‘s first novel ‘The King Within‘ was coming out and that it was a historical novel set during one of the fascinating times in Indian history, during the era of the Gupta dynasty, I couldn’t wait to read it.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Darshini is a courtesan-actress. She is travelling with her escorts to Ujjayni to participate in a music and poetry festival. During their travel, Darshini and her group have to pass through a forest. There they are attacked by a group of tribesmen. Darshini realizes that they are outnumbered. Just when she has given up hope and starts praying to the Buddha, the Enlightened One, a new man enters the scene and engages the robbers in a sword fight. People who come with him also join the fight. Before long half of the robbers are killed and the other half beat a hasty retreat. The newcomer introduces himself as Deva. There is more to him than meets the eye. Deva offers to accompany Darshini and her group to Ujjayni. He also introduces her to his friends. And thus begins a long beautiful tale of friendship between four young people which stretches across time and geography, a friendship which goes through challenges hurled at it by personal relationships and historical events. What happens to these four friends forms the rest of the story.

For a book which is around two hundred pages, ‘The King Within‘ is epic in scope. The story starts at a time towards the end of Samudragupta’s reign and continues through Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s reign till nearly the end. I don’t know how the author managed to pack in so much in a book of this size. I loved the historical characters who came on the stage – Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Dhruvaswamini, Kalidas, Saba Virasena, Fa Hein, Queen Dattadevi, Varaha Mira – they were all complex and beautiful and flawed and real. I don’t know whether Darshini was historical but I loved her very much – to me she was the heroine of the story.

I loved the depiction of the life of that ancient era in the book – the dress people wore, the food they ate, the different kinds of wines, the different types of flowers, what people did for entertainment, the music people listened to, the relationship between Hindus and Buddhists – this was very beautifully written. Clearly the author has done her research very well. I also loved the description of the swordfights in the book – beautiful, elegant, graphic without being gory – it was like watching Gene Kelly dancing around with his sword, thrusting and parrying, in ‘The Three Musketeers‘. I loved Nandini Sengupta’s prose – it flowed smoothly with an elegant touch, page-turning during action scenes and slow and thoughtful in contemplative scenes.

The story is gripping from the first scene and as the book transitions from the everyday happenings in the life of four friends to the larger issues of governance and managing the empire, we move from the particular to the general, from the everyday detail to the bigger picture on a larger timescale, and the whole transition is seamless and brilliant. Reading this book made me want to read more about the history of that period. That, I think, is one of the great achievements of the novel – making the reader want to read more.

I loved ‘The King Within‘. If you like historical novels which are well researched, have cool characters, dashing adventures, cultural interludes and also talk about the bigger picture, you will love this.

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.

For what was love if not suffering? Was it not the touchstone that transformed the earthy into the ethereal, ecstasy into bliss, giving mere humans a taste of eternity? Why blame destiny when, as the Enlightened One said, ‘There is no path in the sky.’ If her actions were hers, so were the consequences. Darshini felt drawn to Urvashi, more strongly than she was drawn to Shakuntala. Shakuntala was blamelessly poignant while Urvashi was dignified in her tragic flaws – one a girl, the other all woman.

The relentless rains had made way for blue skies and a nip in the air. Winter was on its way and this was Darshini’s favourite time of year. She loved the autumn for its promise of a gentler season, unmarred by the harshness of summer or the bleakness of winter, an in-between time when nature’s bounty seemed so much more magnified. It did not have spring’s riot of colour, but autumn always felt like a time for celebration.

“Sometimes, I wonder if it’s all been worth it after all. You spend a lifetime putting in place relationships and then you turn your back for a moment and they all come undone. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing at all.”

If dawn is the purity of unspoilt promise, she thought, dusk is the brevity of conclusion.

Have you read ‘The King Within‘? What do you think about it?

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