At first glance, twelve-year-old Madhura’s life doesn’t seem all that bad. She lives in the prosperous city of Pataliputra, capital of the Mauryan empire, during a time of peace. Her best friend lives right down the road and she is (mostly) fond of her family. Not only does she work in the palace, but she happens to be the maid and confidante of King Ashoka’s daughter, Princess Sanghamitra. Madhura’s life would actually have been fun had she not found it all so utterly boring.
Madhura’s father, a soldier who went off to fight in the now-renowned battle of Kalinga, was killed in service, forcing the rest of his family to seek employment. While her mother also works in the palace for Queen Mahadevi, Madhura’s older brother Kartik is a trader, who is often away on long journeys. Quick-tempered Madhura is decidedly unhappy about things as they are. She craves a new kind of life, anything other than the monotony she now suffers. Any other spirited literary heroine would have set off to seek adventure and a cure for boredom. But, in the third century BCE, a preteen girl from a humble background did not have too many options for a more exciting life.
Frustrated by her circumstances, Madhura feels even more lonely when her brother goes off on his travels and she envies him his life of adventure. She would much rather be travelling with him – or perhaps be one of the horse-riding, sword-fighting women soldiers guarding Ashoka – but unfortunately for her, she’s stuck at home, working at job she doesn’t really care for.
One day, however, her dream comes true when she’s allowed to accompany Kartik on one of his trading routes. But Madhura’s ordinary life takes a peculiar turn when she overhears a conversation about her older brother. A puzzled Madhura begins to wonder – is Kartik’s job really what he says it is? What exactly does he do?
The book is rife with historical information – details of famous Magadhan pottery, architectural descriptions, the clothing, historical pastimes, including an ancient form of chess called chaturanga, as well as explanations of complicated royal lineage structures, hierarchies among queens and rules of etiquette. None of this information seems obtrusive since we’re seeing the world through Madhura’s eyes.
Apart from being interesting historically, the book also has all the elements for a crackerjack story – mysteries galore with a Buddhist monk being attacked, royal accounts being fudged, secret messages in code, a glamorous singer, and plenty of plots and secrets. It also gives a glimpse into the lives of spies and informants and their role in helping a kingdom function and flourish. The author paints a fascinatingly realistic portrait of life under the Mauryan dynasty.
Madhura may be a bystander to other people’s adventures, but she makes for an intriguing, true-to-life character. At first, she’s thrilled when she’s allowed to accompany her brother on his latest jaunt – everything is new and exciting in her life on the road. But routine breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds boredom. She realises her brother’s life may not have been as exciting as she had imagined, and it’s not long before she begins thinking wistfully of her life at the palace. She soon realises that adventures always sound better in stories.
Dissatisfaction and compromise are themes that often crop up in the book – Madhura with her seemingly dull life back home, Princess Sanghamitra who feels suffocated by the overprotectiveness her position brings… Even the spies are constantly on the lookout for hints of dissatisfaction and discontent in the kingdom so they can either be resolved or reported to the king. The characters that populate the story have more or less accepted their lot in life, but they lso manage to make room for a bit of fun.
One quibble I had with the book is that the action starts only when the reader is midway through it. While the mystery is set up nicely in the beginning, it unfolds quite slowly because it is superseded by other minor events. While this works because of the slice-of-life style of storytelling the author uses, younger readers looking for the adventure the title suggests may not stick around long enough to find it. A few modern words and phrases, like “what’s up?”, “make-up”, and “hairdo”, that occasionally pop up feel out of place in this lovely historical story.
These niggles aside, the book makes for a particularly great resource in schools. Students studying Ashoka can view his world through Madhura’s eyes and experience history coming alive with a thoroughly enjoyable story.
By Parinita Shetty
Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Illustrator: Hemant Kumar
Penguin Books, 2012
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Series