Amita Kanekar is a Mumbai-based writer, whose well-received debut novel A Spoke in the Wheel was published by Harper Collins Publishers, India. Kanekar teaches comparative mythology at the University of Mumbai. She was born in Goa in 1965. She is currently (2006) working on her second novel. She has lived in the U.S. as a child, and also teaches architectural history.
Kanekar is currently researching material and travelling for her second novel, on the rebellion of a little known peasant community in the time of the Mughal ruler of India, Aurangzeb. Kanekar’s first novel about the Buddha, A Spoke in the Wheel, has earned favourable reviews. Published in 2005 by Harper Collins India, the book went into its second impression that year itself.
A Spoke in the Wheel is an epic story alternating between two narratives — the story of the Buddha himself, and his times, told not as frozen legend, but brought to life with historical detail and craftsmanship.
The parallel narrative is that of the chronicler, Upali, a Buddhist monk living in the time of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, three hundred years after the Buddha’s death.
Upali, an embittered survivor of Ashoka’s infamous conquest of Kalinga, attempts to recover from the horror of war and destruction by writing the “deglorified and factual” story of the Buddha’s life and teachings.
This turns out to be a difficult, even dangerous exercise, for Upali is swimming against the tide, at a time when the Buddha’s Sangha is poised to rise to immense imperial patronage and splendour under Emperor Ashoka.
This is a patronage that will sustain Buddhism for over a millennium and help it reach out to half the world’s populace.
A Spoke in the Wheel is a story of the Buddha and his disciples—among them an ordinary monk plagued by many questions, and an extraordinary king who seemed to have all the answers and was bent on unifying Buddhism’s many schools of thought and making Buddhism his state religion.
Kanekar, who teaches comparative mythology at the University of Mumbai, has said that she began writing her novel on the Buddha in 1998, as the first step in a personal quest to understand India’s forgotten social and political revolutions, the historical conditions in which these movements were born, what they achieved, and how these achievements tended to get lost over time in myth and legend.
In a statement released about the book Kanekar says she has seen the Buddha as a “historical figure who lived in the foundational epoch of Indian civilisation, whose life and struggle are now almost completely lost in myth, and whose ideas evolved to mean very different things to different people, yet continue to resonate with an all-inclusive and rational message of peace even today, 2500 years after they were first propagated.”
Research for her novel began at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi over one extended Diwali vacation, under the initial guidance of Prof. Kunal Chakraborty, of the Centre for Historical Studies at the JNU.
She has said the work involved “intensive reading continued for over a year” before Kanekar began to write, “diffidently, not sure at all about how it was going to turn out”. Her goal was “to produce something readable, especially about a period so long ago, especially for a modern television watching generation.”
Kanekar has said: “The initial idea was to write a book about the Buddha; the choice of the novel-form came later.” She describes herself as an “avid novel-reader”. This was also because she wanted the book to “be read by as many people as possible, not only academics and Buddhists.”
But the writing became more difficult, and Kanekar took four years to complete the work.
Kanekar was born in Madgaon (Margao) in Goa in 1965 and lived in Navelim, a nearby village, till the age of two, before leaving for the US and subsequently for Mumbai where she lives today, teaching Architectural History at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture at Juhu, and Comparative Mythologies at the University of Mumbai.
Her father Suresh Kanekar was jailed twice by the then Portuguese government for his participation in the movement against colonial rule. Her maternal aunt was Mitra Bir, freedom fighter and educationist, who was sentenced to twelve years in jail at the age of 22, and later went on to open schools for girls at Madgaon (Margao), Verem, Kakora and other locations in independent Goa, as also centres for adult and vocational education for women, before her death in 1978. Mitra was married to the late Madhav Bir, member of the Goa legislative assembly and Gandhian. Kanekar’s maternal uncle, the late M. V. Kakodkar was also active in the campaign to open temples to all in Goa the 1960s.
Presently Kanekar is working on her second book, another novel, this one on the Satnami revolt in the time of Aurangzeb. The Satnamis were 17th century followers of Kabir’s radical social ideas, a small and short-lived peasant community that eschewed caste, religious and gender divides.
They rose in revolt in 1672 against the economic exploitation of the time, and managed to set up their own administration in a few towns and villages south of Delhi before being crushed by the Mughal armies.
This forthcoming book tries to recapture this convergence of Bhakti ideology and class revolt, which arose against the backdrop of the rich mercantilist era of the 17th century, a time when Mughal India seemed at its peak of wealth and power.
Kanekar has said that “the experience of writing it has been very different from the first, mainly because there are far more historical records and sureties for the background of the Mughal period than the Buddha’s time, but hardly any materials on the protagonists; the Satnamis are almost as unknown and unheard-of as the Buddha is a legend.”
Kanekar’s first novel is set in 256 BCE (before current era), some three centuries after the death of Buddha and four years since the “terrible battle of Kalinga”. Upali, a monk and embittered survivor of the war that made Emperor Ashoka the overlord of virtually the whole of India, hates the emperor intensely. Yet, to him Emperor Ashoka, the “self-proclaimed Beloved of the Gods”, entrusts the task of putting the Buddha’s life and teachings down for posterity. Kanekar’s story tells of an Emperor set on a new conquest — that of Dhamma.
This leads to a “search for the Buddha and a struggle over the past”. In Kanekar’s words: “What really was the Buddha’s message? Ascetic renunciation? Universal salvation? Passive disengagement? Tolerance—even of intolerance? If his message was a critique of violence, how did it come to be championed by the most successfully violent autocrats of ancient India? These are questions that begin to surface among the Buddha’s followers, fearfully and then angrily, to be viciously debated even as Dhamma rises to glorious imperial patronage, a patronage that will sustain it for over a millennium and reach it to half the world’s populace.”
Kanekar calls hers “a story about the Buddha and his disciples, among them an ordinary monk, one of the questioners, and an extraordinary king, who seemed to have all the answers”. She says it is also about how the movement called Dhamma was born, spread, changed lives and got changed itself.
In her book, Upali’s chronicle—a deglorified, fictional account of the life of Buddha — alternates with that of Upali’s own life during the reign of Emperor Ashoka and incluiding both these parallel narratives with a wealth of historical detail and philosophical debate.
Indian national newspaper The Hindu said: “… the book draws from Indian history to such good effect that one can’t help wondering if things actually did happen this way. Another interesting aspect of the book is the dismantling of each legend associated with the Buddha. Life in the Magadhan Empire is also portrayed with an eye to historical accuracy. Quotes from Ashokan “edicts… which we know of as history but couldn’t really relate to… now come alive with a new imagery…”
Outlook magazine from New Delhi wrote: “Amita Kanekar’s novel about Emperor Ashoka and the Buddhist monk Upali… successfully captures the stress and strains of monastic life, and brings alive the centuries following the death of the Buddha. when his teachings were taking the form of a canonical corpus… While many historical fictions make only tenous references to real history, the present one doesn’t… An interesting mix of erudition and historical imagination…”
Deccan Herald of Bangalore commented: “Amita Kanekar’s debut novel, A Spoke in the Wheel, is an attempt to strip away layer by layer such fanciful stories surrounding the Buddha and reveal him as an ordinary man who had an extraordinary approach to his problems. The novel has an interesting structure… Throughout the book Amita presents issues of ethics and socio economic relationships that are relevant even today. The narrative is rich in detail and every aspect of life in those ancient times stands out vividly before the reader.”
A Spoke in the Wheel by Amita Kanekar is published Harper Collins India in 2005, and priced at Rs 395 (in India). Printed Pages: 447. First edition paperback new 13 cm x 20 cm. ISBN 81-7223-574-7 LCCN 2005323538 OCLC # 60862064