Book Review: Paul M.M Cooper’s River of Ink
Paul M.M Cooper’s River of Ink, is the tale of reluctant revolutionary – a poet who believes that poetry makes nothing happen. Asanka is the court poet of King Parakrama and was enjoying the high life when the ruthless Kalinga Magha, usurps the throne of Lanka, and sends his existence plummeting into a world of endless turmoil. Forced to accept the tyrant’s order to translate a Sanskrit text on Shishupal, into Tamil (a dubious decision, given the bloody history between the Tamils and Sinhalese which is scarcely touched upon) he discovers that words do have power and may just triumph where the sword has failed.
It is a potent premise. Yet, it falls well shy of delivering the goods. Perhaps, it is because while Cooper is clearly earnest and sincere in his attempt to chronicle a slice of Sri Lankan history, his alien sensibility constantly jars in the otherwise colourful narrative he has almost brought to life.
For instance, it is hard to buy the typically thankless character of the wife, Madhusha who just refuses to be understanding while her husband is carrying on with a comely maid. She walks out on Asanka, helping herself to his money and leaving a curt note. I did not believe it for a second.
Women of that era, used to the perks of a cushy life, did not usually go traipsing off into the surrounding war – torn country in a huff, like the feisty belles so admired in contemporary times with their husband’s money unless they had an especial desire to be gang – raped and murdered. Besides, Madhusha was a country mouse with no taste for life in the capital city of Polonnaruwa. It seems highly unlikely that she would know how to write.
Kalinga Magha is equally problematic since the author seems keen to portray him as a savage with a poet’s soul. A Genghis Khan meets Oscar Wilde if you will. When he is not lopping off heads, gouging out eyes, and supressing rebels with an iron fist, the tyrant is keen on promoting his brand of art and indulging his appetite for pretty young things. Which is why it hardly makes sense that he would want to marry the lowly maid sans the maidenhood, the very same one, Asanka is so passionately in love with, instead of ordering her into his bed. This sort of thing makes it all seem hopelessly contrived.
Cooper has clearly done some research but in the chapter on Yudhisthira, there is an error. It is written that the grand horse sacrifice was conducted after twelve years spent in exile, the unhappy result of a lost game of dice to the trickster, Shakuni. In Vyasa’s epic though, the Pandavas went into hiding after Duryodhana’s attempt to burn them alive at Varanavata. The horse sacrifice is performed only after the Pandavas are spotted at Draupadi’s swayamvara and given five small villages to start afresh. The infamous game of dice and exile came after.
In this fashion, The River of Ink, meanders on along its improbable course while clumsily setting up a twist that the discerning reader can follow through to its conclusion, almost at the moment of its introduction. A valiant if disappointing effort from Cooper.
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express which you can read here.