river of ink book coverReviewed by Nikhil Sharma

You can build a fence around the country, but you can’t build a fence around the mouth” – Sinhala Proverb

So begins the saga of decline of the kingdom of King Parakrama in Polonnaruwa. Asanka, a Sinhalese poet of the court, narrates to Sarasi, a Tamil servant girl. As the army of Kalinga Magha, an Aryan, draws closer, the clouds of doom become heavier and difficult to ward off. The King, in his desperation, and an unmistakable sign of despondence, urges his commanders to let the gates be opened for Kalinga, who on seeing this spectacle, might have a change of heart and rather than engage in rampant massacre would take the throne without a drop of blood wasted. As the King’s subjects await some direction from their dejected King, Sarasi picks up the threads: “a king who’s going to fight doesn’t summon his poet”.

Once Kalinga’s reign is established in Polon, Asanka is summoned to the court, with a request that flummoxes the poet to no end, and gives in readily without a whimper of resistance. This Asanka, the famous court poet, who wrote about brave warriors, the lion hearts, the pride of the kingdom, and the thunderous voices of the will, meekly submits to his new master, to translate Shishupala Vadha from Sanskrit to Tamil. Shishupala Vadha was written by Magha, a poet from the court of King Varmalata in Gujarat, India. Torn between his obligations towards his wife and love towards Sarasi, Asanka does what he is best at – escape to the world of words. He marvels at the poetry of Magha, and wonders if his translations would be worthy – as that’s the only hope left for him to stay alive under Kalinga’s rule. But poets have their own way of revolting, when not with disobedient actions then with fiery or astute turns of the phrases. What began as an honest, dedicated effort towards pleasing his master, ends up as a treacherous, covert act of rebellion – he molds his translations to poke unhindered fun at Kalinga, his bushy eyebrows, and his cruel actions. The subjects at large don’t fail to realize the connections, and the readings of these translations become festivals of mockery aimed at the vile king.

But then crude translations of the same Shishupala in Tamil start appearing at his house – by someone who isn’t as well versed as he is in the finer aspects. These are more direct in their attacks and carry a risk of him being caught with it and killed off for treason. His inquiries about the ink used, the paper, the whiff of it all, fail to reach a conclusion. A northern chieftain Sankha assumes the role of rebel leader, and small incursions begin to take place in Kalinga’s kingdom. But can a rebel poet and a meagre support base overthrow a beast of a king? Can roaring laughter at harmless poetry overpower scheming spies and cunning insiders?

The tragedy of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka is not lost on the reader, as the author whirs about the tensions between the speakers, who pride themselves in their own culture and, especially, their mythologies – which happen to have the same origins, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata. River of Ink is a tale sewn with a needle of hope and thread of loss, piercing the fabric of life. Descriptions of Asanka’s toil towards preparing ink and brushing it on calloused paper are beautiful. However, a dark, forbidden gloom overshadows any glimmer of happiness and ends with a longing for love, and togetherness. A novel which highlights the fragility of our lives, and makes us wonder whether resistance is worth the price of losing one’s love.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Nikhil Sharma is a technology professional who has discovered a new found interest in literature, predominantly non-fiction history, over the last few years. He lives in Mumbai.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Bloomsbury USA. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.