Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Since I rarely read novels, I will not seriously review the historical novel given to me, Urnabhih ("spider's web", Roli Books, Delhi 2014) by Sumedha Verma Ojha. Spy stories interest me more, but to save time, I prefer the film version, or at any rate I make do with it. In this case, however, I have enjoyed every para of this page-turner, though perhaps male readers will find it gives too much feminine attention to details. The heroine, Misrakesi, is a dancing girl employed as a spy under Pushyamitra, the spymaster who gets his instructions from Acharya Chanakya, the brain behind the throne of the new Samrat (emperor), Chandragupta Maurya. On p.161, I thought I had understood the plot, but no, it ends very differently.

As the author's name indicates, she comes from Bihar and was actually born in Patna, ancient Pataliputra, the setting of much of the story. A graduate in Economics, she used to be an Indian civil servant but now lives with her family in Switzerland.

As a historian, I am mainly interested in the degree of historical accuracy, but here I find that the author clearly has applied the same concern. As far as our knowledge reaches, the novel seems to paint a truthful picture of the incipient Maurya empire. Of course I can't vouch for all the types of flowers, perfumes and clothing items, not my field, but I reckon that there too, the author has been scrupulous. So, I unhesitatingly recommend this book.

The only drawback for the average reader is the many Sanskrit words. Some of them are explained in footnotes, which isn't really becoming in a novel, and most are not explained at all .For Indian readers, most of them will be understandable, but not all, and foreign readers are really lost. The solution, and here I hope the publisher reads this feedback, is to provide a glossary (no footnotes needed) containing all non-English words.


Sumedha said...

Thank you for the review! The question of use of non english words duly noted!

Nirjhar007 said...

Looks A must Read! Thank You for your Suggestions!....

ysv_rao said...

From the review I have seen, they all seem to concur with your take that it is a historical romance geared towards a female audience. Nothing wrong with that. I appreciate the authors penchant for details, even if a tad feminine for male tastes as you rightly state, it is an interesting glimpse in the life of the mortals who inhabited and created that great empire.

My exception is with the bizarre historical inaccuracy. The spy is identified as Pushyamitra Sunga(who assassinated the last Maurya and usurped power) who lived about 200 years later.
It is like placing Narendra Modi at logger heads with Tipu Sultan.

Im sure it is enjoyable but Ms Verma is as reliable a historian as Kalidasa or Shakespeare.

Kalidasa really confuses a lot of ignorant people with his fanciful historiography(who take it for the real thing) which he creates for dramatic effect.

Anonymous said...

Hi Koenraad, I am currently working on a film on the Third Reich and am looking also at Savitri Devi.
During my research I came across your work on Hindu fascism, I would love to ask you some more about it and was wondering if you had an email address I could contact you on?

Koenraad Elst said...


Gururaj B N said...

Shouldn't the name of the novel be URNANABHIH? Urnabhih seems like an error. Recall Mundakopanishad mantra, "Yathornanabhih srujate grinhate cha...".

Sumedha said...

A very late reply but here goes;

@Shri YVS Rao, this book is the first in a series which will look at the Mauryan-Shunga empires, the hero in this book is an ancestor of the Pushyamitra Sunga who assassinated the last Mauryan king, Brihadratha. The series looks at the the Mauryans through the Sungas, a hereditary family of senapatis who served Magadha and were called 'Seniyas'. The only historical liberty I have taken is to use the names for fictional effect. This will become clearer as the series progresses. Thank you for the sarcasm but basic ancient indian history is not as far out of my grasp as you seem to think.

@Gururaj Bn You have made an excellent point...but alas...the exigencies of publishing in English. It was all I could do to retain the name in a simpler form!