Act 1, Scene 2

A dark place. Could be anywhere. Vishwas reads aloud from his notebook.

The trouble with writers is, they rarely get to write about their own deaths. We rely on the accounts of witnesses. Friends. Rivals. Enemies, even.

The great philosopher Socrates was not a writer. He was a thinker though, and words were his tools. In the end, they say, he chose to drink a cup of poison.

Choice is a trick word. It wasn’t like he was offered a choice. He was put on trial in 399 BC, accused of creating new gods, not showing respect to the gods that were accepted by the state of Athens, also of corrupting the minds of young Greeks. He was in the habit of asking questions that made people uncomfortable. One such question was about democracy. He did not approve of the rule of the majority. At least, he did not believe in the unquestioned rule of the majority. The rulers, he felt, should have some competence, some wisdom.

At any rate, the jury found him guilty. He was asked to pay a heavy fine, which he couldn’t afford. His students and friends would have paid for him. But the prosecutor was baying for blood. He wanted the death penalty.

Now here is the where the question of choice arises. There was time between the guilty verdict and the execution. Time enough for Socrates to run away, to move to another state, to the other corner of the world. He could have. But he chose to stay. And so, we can say, he chose to drink that cup of poison.

A hundred years later, in 298 BC, something interesting was going on in India. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya grew sick of politics and wealth, sick enough to chuck it up, call it quits. Some sources say, he became a Jain monk.

He was born poor, a Sudra. Another version of the story suggests that he was not born poor. He was only raised poor, adopted by a Sudra couple. That his birth parents were upper caste warriors.

It is amazing how many stories we have about orphaned and abandoned royal babies, upper caste warrior babies adopted by lower caste couples. They’re bright, talented. This talent is evidence that they don’t actually belong there, with their lower caste families. They must have descended from a higher plane. How else do we explain their success? If you become royalty, you must also be retrospectively assigned royalty.

At any rate, Chandragupta Maurya was raised as a working class kid. He must have been bright, and ambitious. He was picked out by Chanakya to be a man who would humiliate other powerful kings.

Chandragupta Maurya also had a Greek connection. He married a woman from Babylon, half Greek, half Persian. Apparently he sent hundreds of war elephants to the bride’s father, perhaps to impress him. Perhaps to cement a military alliance. We don’t know how this foreign bride felt about her husband’s decision to up and leave. He had converted to a new religion that was the antithesis of everything he had been, upto that point. The opposite of everything a queen and a wife could hope to expect.

Poison is also central to Chandragupta Maurya’s story. Poison was the assassin’s weapon of choice. Quiet. Invisible. Sliding gracefully past security checks. Chanakya was clever. He knew there was no way a king could avoid being poisoned all the time, anywhere. So he himself began to spike his king’s food with tiny doses of poison. Not enough to kill, just enough to acquaint his body with poison.

One day, Chandragupta offered his pregnant wife a morsel of his own food. A different wife, not the Greek one. She ate it. At this precise moment, Chanakya walked in and saw what had happened.

What was happening? A king, armoured inside-out against betrayal, forgets how and where he gets this armour. He wants to feed his pregnant wife. He must have been in love.

Or, could it be that the king did not forget? Could it be that he didn’t know he was being poisoned by his mentor, the man he trusted most? Perhaps, he even loved Chanakya. And in all innocence, with love for the woman who would soon give him a child, he fed her a royal morsel. Next thing he knows, Chanakya strides in and cuts off the queen’s head.

That’s one version of the story. Maybe Chanakya did not cut off her head. He may have rushed in after she collapsed. He saw she would not survive, but the unborn child could be saved. So he cut her open and he took out the baby. They say, this baby had been brushed with the smallest drop of poisoned blood before he was rendered motherless, wombless. They didn’t have incubators back in the day. But Chanakya was a clever man. The story goes that he had a goat brought in, had it cut open and he put the baby inside the still-warm belly. And the next day, he had another goat killed, and put the baby inside the still-warm belly. And the next day, and the next, for seven days.

The baby survived. He was called Bindu-sara because he was marked by a bindu, a drop of poison. Another version of the story is that he emerged from goat’s belly after goat’s belly flecked with blood. Dotted with blood, hence “bindu”.

We don’t have Chandragupta writing about how it felt, having his wife’s head cut off before his own eyes by his guru, his father figure, his prime minister. About how he felt, once he discovered that his own body was a museum of toxins. Did he feel like the walking dead?

But he renounced the throne, this we know. His son and his mentor were free to do what they wanted with his kingdom. After a year of wandering, it is said, he starved himself to death.

Another story is that Bindusara had one hundred and one sons. Multiple wives. It is remarkable how stories of kings who have a hundred sons keep popping up in our culture.

Lights fade to black.