Arnab Talukder was born in Gujarat in 1998. He has since then, moved from Jamnagar to Gurgaon, from Gurgaon to Kuwait and finally from Kuwait to London. Throughout it all, he kept a keen interest in Hinduism and Indian culture. However, this diminished over time as there were better sources and curriculum at school regarding Roman or Greek history. Philosophy and religious studies were tailored to primarily Christian and Islamic theology.
Over time he chose Philosophy along with Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Geography at A-Levels. Throughout the entire time he felt lacking since he didn’t command the confidence that he did in Christian or Islamic theology as in his religion of Hinduism. While staying at his aunt’s house in Bangalore he came across the Arthashastra, being bored during a blackout he started reading it. It was exactly what he wanted, no long contradictory hymns of the Rig Vedas, no over the top reverence of the Bhagavad Gita. Just a concise, albeit large, treatise on ancient Hindu states.
With more and more analysis he started working on a story at the end of his first year of university. Continuing to do this throughout his Physics degree he also did more philosophy and theology at the university alongside Physics. Gaining valuable insight into things such as how important visions were in ancient Mesopotamia, which was also the case in ancient Hinduism.
He discussed the contents of the Arthashastra with his maternal grandfather who had worked in the PWD in India his entire life. As expected, his grandfather stated that things were far better then, than they are now. Spending more time with his grandfather he realised who he wanted to thank for humouring the mundane topics such as how roads should be built. His grandfather passed away before the completion of the book however. His first book, Chanakya:Artha, was published by Leadstart publishing.
TBE: Can you share with us something about your book Chanakya: Artha that isn’t in the blurb?
Arnab Talukder: From the blurb it may seem Chanakya is only dictating the fate of the Empires of Alexander and Dhana Nanda. In my book, Chanakya writes the fates of the Avanti Empire based in Ujjain whilst breathing life into the Kingdom of Kalinga. Chanakya is playing chaturanga and the entire known world is his board. You’ll have to read through the book to see how Chanakya’s machinations bends India to his will.
TBE: Stories about Chanakya and his wisdom have been doing the rounds for many years, why do you want to write on this subject even as already there are many books available on these stories?
Arnab Talukder: With a historical figure such as Chanakya, there are multiple different interpretations of him. I have personally found that most books about him have focused solely on his cunning and his ability to move political pieces strategically.
My book takes a different approach. Chanakya’s Arthashastra has sections on storing grain as well as forming a spy ring. In the art of statecraft both of these are important and my book tries to demonstrate how each of Chanakya’s seemingly minute actions make all the difference in grand scheme of things. Chanakya leads nations and Empire’s to do his bidding, whether or not they realise they are doing it. I feel as though my book has a far grander scale and scope than any book written about Chanakya thus far.
In my opinion the thing that separates it the most is the fact that there aren’t any supernatural elements.
TBE: Does historical fiction need to be grounded in fact? If so, what room is there for the imagination?
Arnab Talukder: I personally believe it has to be grounded in fact. That is not to say everyone must follow that. The reason I say it has to be grounded in fact is because one could just write fantasy if they wanted it to be fictional. If you choose to write historical fiction it is due to your respect for the historical figure or time period. Thus I think the best way to show respect to it is by portraying it accurately.
As for room for imagination. Since there so many conflicting sources about certain events, such as the nature in which Chanakya ad Chandragupta took over Magadha, it gives me creative freedom to fill in the gaps as I see fit. I think it is necessary for the fictional elements to correspond with history, i.e. you can’t have Dhana Nanda have the resources to fund and raise an army to fight Alexander the Great and then immediately collapse due to palace intrigue which makes no sense.
So historical fiction needs to be grounded in reality because it makes for better reading and forces the author to make better decisions than to have throwaway lines trying to justify ludicrous developments.
TBE: You’ve mixed fictional characters (and events) with these historical legends in your story. How did you manage this feat?
Arnab Talukder: Throughout history so many of the people who made history occur are forgotten. It could be the person in charge of the treasury who allowed Empires to go to war, it could be a good governor whose support led to victory. My fictional characters are these forgotten characters. My story needed them as history needed them.
TBE: What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel Chanakya: Artha?
Arnab Talukder: How advanced and at par ancient India was to the rest of the world. I do not stray into ideas such as we had nuclear bombs and planes, I like to remain grounded in reality. It is simple things, such as we were far better fed than the rest of the world. India had advanced medicine and hygiene.
I don’t think a lot of Indians truly comprehend how advanced ancient India was, we had shampoo, rhinoplasty and advanced hydrology whilst the Roman’s poisoned themselves by putting lead into their aqueducts.
The advancements were in the realm of the military as well. This showed when Alexander the Great’s armies faced their toughest challenge against King Puru, a minor King in India, whilst the greatest Empire (Persia) was no challenge.
TBE: During your journey from the idea of this book to the publication, what was the most difficult thing you faced? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Arnab Talukder: Motivation and belief. Writing was never the hard part as it just flowed, it was a form of relaxation, editing however became tedious. Reading over the same hundred and fifty thousand words six times over would drive anyone mad. On top of that I am a physics grad (I genuinely love the subject) and I work at PwC, so my background didn’t lead me to believe that I had much chance in succeeding in this venture.
But, as I have been reminded by those around me, it is about giving it your all and having fun. That is something I have had. Seeing my book on stores and in my hand is an incredible feeling, even if they aren’t flying off the shelves just yet.
TBE: Do you think historical fiction has become such a popular genre in recent years? Why?
Arnab Talukder: I think its just the fascination with the unexplored past. For example, I believe that the greatest Indian empire isn’t ever given the light of day (I am referring to the Chola Empire).
Indians have had dark blots on their history, such as the Nalanda university and all its contents being burned. Just as the Greeks and Romans are something the Europeans idolise, so too do Indians want to idolise when they were superpowers.
I believe it is an aspirational mindset. We want the greatness again; we don’t care about pitying ourselves anymore.
That is why historical fiction has taken off alongside India’s GDP. We want to reclaim the throne we once sat on. So we look back to see how we did back then to inform ourselves on how we do it again.
TBE: According to you What is the most essential aspect about historical fiction? The characters, the settings, or the history itself?
Arnab Talukder: I think it is a mix of all three.
Chanakya is, as many have pointed out, a cunning and ruthless and overall, not the most lovable of characters. Yet, it is a strong person not a good person who makes a great leader. Having such great characters to delve into makes it far more fun to read and to write about. I found myself finding what I wrote despicable at times, but it is fun for the readers to take a peek at the mind of someone so calculating. That is why anti-heroes have been on the rise.
The setting and history meld together. It is essential for the story; it is a story as old as time for India. An invasion into India and no one to stop it because everyone is far too preoccupied to kill each other. Yet, in one of the few times in Indian history, someone did stand up successfully. So successfully that they took back more than the lands India had lost.
This background is essential as it is the board on which the pieces move to create the story.
TBE: Do you have a particular approach to research and writing about history?
Arnab Talukder: The book that kickstarted it all was the Arthashastra (translated by L.N. Rangarajan). The first year, I read through the Arthashastra and quite a few other historical books on the Mauryan era. I already knew quite a bit about Alexander the Great’s exploits as military history fascinates me. So I listed down the timeline of how things happened and I made my stories weave around it.
I find it best when writing history to gain understanding of what makes people tick. For example, Alexander was a self-absorbed warrior who wanted glory (he named seventy cities after himself) or Dhana Nanda being avaricious and wanting financial gain at any cost. From there the historical events make far more sense. I intertwine known events with the people who contributed to its occurrence.
TBE: Have other writers of historical fiction or historical non-fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?
Arnab Talukder: I have thoroughly enjoyed Amish Tripathi’s work. Apart from his work I have not read other such books, the reason being, I didn’t want to subconsciously borrow plot points from them.
I also have incorporated elements of George R.R. Martin. I enjoy the depth with which he deals in regard to the different political factions. My book isn’t a story of two kingdoms duking it out. It is a web of about half a dozen Kings and Emperors vying for supremacy. It is more realistic and far more interesting.
TBE: Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
Arnab Talukder: My book ends on a cliff hanger and the second book is already being written (in the few hours I have off work).