Ashok Banker talks about following Ashoka in reality and fiction

Updated: Jan 05, 2017, 13:57 IST | Jane Borges |

Writer Ashok Banker, out with a historical based on the life of the Mauryan ruler, reveals why he has always been curious about his namesake

There's an interesting detail about noted author Ashok Banker's life, which hasn't been revealed before. Now, close on the heels of the release of his new historical fiction, Ashoka: Lion of Maurya (Westland), the writer tells us that it's not coincidental that he was named after the great Indian emperor. "My mother chose to give me a name that captured the ambiguity of my identity," he says, in an email interview from his new home in Los Angeles.

Over the years, Banker, 52, has been able to piece together the story behind the name that he came to be identified with. "I was born into an Anglo-Indian Catholic family. My Irish grandmother (who was white, raised in Sri Lanka and held a British passport) and Irish-Portugese mother raised me. My Hindu father was out of the picture and was a father only in the biological and legal sense.

Ashok Kumar, my given birth name, was a sly nod to the great king who was neither Hindu nor Buddhist, but was tolerant to both religions. In the place for religion/caste, my mother put 'Indian'. And so, from birth itself, I was casteless, irreligious," Banker says. "When I learned that his father Bindusara treated Asho-ka's mother badly, it felt even more ironic. I knew that someday I had to write his story," he added.

For Banker, who has engaged with fiction, mythology and history for over two decades, this curiosity for his namesake took a life of its own with his new historical novel, the first installment in the trilogy. "There's a paucity of non-fiction history books on this period. Except for a few basic details, mostly collected from tertiary sources or unreliable religious texts which have their own agenda, we know almost no facts about the Maurya period," he says, explaining, "The Buddhist text Ashokavandana claimed that Ashoka was possessed by demons, which were exorcised after he embraced Buddha. The Hindu texts claim he was channeling Shiva and avenging himself on his enemies. As an irreligious person with no caste, I think it's time that historical tales were told without the usual agendas."

The first book, he says, focusses on Ashoka's early life and his struggle for survival for himself and his mother. While Banker dramatises most of the events here, he insists it's still based on facts. "I take a more realistic path, showing him as a boy, a man, a vulnerable human being," says the writer, who moved to LA a year ago after living in India for over 51 years.

Yet, it's still fiction, not history. "But it's impossible to know the truth because there are no authentic records or details that can be verified scientifically. This is where historical fiction can help provoke curiosity, making the reader ask more questions, encourage them to view the edicts for themselves, draw their own conclusions," says Banker, adding, "My book is just a attempt at telling the story of the great emperor with a more responsible narrative."

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