“THE VISHAKANYA’S CHOICE”: A CONVERSATION WITH ROSHANI CHOKSHI (PART 1 OF 2)
As part of the Robbins Library’s newest digital project, The Alexander Project, I sat down with New York Times bestselling author Roshani Chokshi in November of 2020 to talk about her short story, “The Vishakanya’s Choice.” This short story is a fantastical retelling of how Alexander the Great meets his demise through a vishakanya sent to infiltrate his camp and assassinate him. Vishakanyas are women (typically courtesans) who are fed poison until their very touch becomes poisonous. In versions of this story mentioned in Hindu mythology, in the pseudo-Aristotelian Secreta Secretorum, and the in medieval Latin texts such as the Gesta Romanorum, Alexander avoids death only when a trusted advisor intervenes and warns him of the danger that the maiden brings with her. In some cases, that trusted advisor is Aristotle, the renowned philosopher and Alexander’s tutor when he was young. Whereas many older versions of this story focus on Alexander the Great or on the assassination attempt itself, Chokshi gives us the perspective of Sudha, the poisonous courtesan sent to assassinate Alexander. In the first part of our conversation, Chokshi and I discuss her take on Alexander, the sources that inspired her, and her approach to mythmaking. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Steffi Delcourt (SD): Thank you so much for chatting with me about “The Vishakanya’s Choice.” I sent you this list of questions earlier, so I thought we could use that as a starting point–
Roshani Chokshi (RC): Sure!
SD: –for our conversation, and then we can branch off from there as things arise.
SD: So, how did you first encounter the stories of Alexander the Great and also the vishakanyas? Were there any sources in particular that were very inspirational to you for your story?
RC: Yes! It’s actually fairly nostalgic for me because one of the most popular things that children of diaspora, especially the Indian diaspora, get are a set of comic books called the Amar Chitra Katha comic books. They are beautiful, fun, abridged, illustrated tales that, oftentimes they’re episodes of Hindu mythology, they’re episodes of Sanskrit epics, like the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana, or the plays of Kālidāsa. I remember stumbling across some sort of reference to Alexander the Great when it was talking about the death of some other emperor and how his very smart, trusted advisor had foiled an assassination plot when the emperor was sent a poisonous courtesan. It just fascinated me from the minute I heard that example. And then, Alexander the Great, he’s one of these characters, much like Cleopatra, in the sense that in their afterlife they’ve achieved immortality not because of what they did, but because we don’t know what they did. I remember there were a lot of instances when I was, what is it, I just remember sometimes you would hear variations of Alexander’s name in some Indian communities. Like the Indian version of it is Sikandar, which is fairly common, and then you ask people where their name comes from, ‘oh it’s this version of Alexander,’ that’s cool! And my cousin actually is a museum curator. When he was in England, and we visited him – I can’t remember how old I was, sometime in high school or the first year of college or something – he was pointing out the iconography of different deities. When he showed us a statue of Surya, who is the Hindu god of the sun, he pointed out that out of all the Hindu deities, Surya was the only one who was wearing boots. It was a nod to the conversation between early Hellenistic civilization and India. Surya was an offshoot, or Mithra, an Iranian god, was an offshoot of all these different sun gods, Helios etc. Then the question comes about: what interaction did they have? How did that happen? Oh, well, Alexander the Great was here, and he brought this, and other craftsmen and tradesmen, etc., were having conversations. And that’s something that we forget. We almost think about history as having these very tall, impenetrable walls, but it was very porous. There was a lot more, there were a lot more things being passed back and forth.
SD: I love that idea of that it’s not just, ‘I saw it somewhere written down, perfectly encapsulated, of here’s exactly what it is.’ It’s a combination of not only like stories that you’ve grown up with but also important cultural influences –
SD: –and how people see cultures, like you said, having conversations through this type of myth-building. You spent a lot of time thinking about this story from sources that have a lot to do with your own personal heritage. Something that I found really interesting and also a little bit saddening, is that when I’ve been trying to do research on this for my essay, it’s so much easier to find stuff that is thinking about Aristotle and the story that is encapsulated in the Secreta Secretorum, which is actually not [written by] Aristotle. That one is Pseudo-Aristotle. [It] is basically a version of telling that story of how Alexander was almost caught [by the vishakanyas], and Aristotle goes, ‘Haha! No. I saved you, remember? I am the all-important authority because I see these threats from foreign agents and foreign enemies.’ So, my original question was did the types of sources available to you affect how you approached this story, and I do want to hear a little more about that, but how do you respond to the fact that it is so difficult to find sources that aren’t strictly the Greco-Macedonian perspective with the super skewed, Western, war-mongering almost perspective?
RC: Gosh. It’s something that I think about a lot when I’m writing, because I have a couple book series, and for example, one of them, Aru Shah and the End of Time, is loosely inspired by the premise of the Mahābhārata, the old Sanskrit epic. In that story, there are five demigod brothers, and they are all the sons of various Hindu deities. They have their adventures; there’s also a holy text inside it, etc., but the way in which I encountered those myths was not through reading about them, but through my grandmother telling me these stories. So I think that, while it’s disheartening to not always be able to find academic sources on the things that interest me, I make up for it in listening to my relatives talk. And, you know, in a way, it’s interesting because it’s like ancient gossip passed down. It tickles some part of your brain, and then you write it down, and you can’t quite remember where it came from, so it’s almost as if it’s this magical sentient thing just slouching its way through the ages. And that, that makes me happy. [laughter]
I don’t overly concern myself. If I don’t always know the answer to something, then I give myself the answer that I would like it to have.
SD: And in doing so, you end up combatting, right, that–
SD: –that idea of the only way we can hear this story is through the old dead white men who are pretending to be Aristotle.
RC: Right! I was talking to a friend for awhile about what it really means to play with mythology. It’s not something outdated. It’s still living, and for a lot of these colonized countries, mythology doesn’t mean antiquated; it just is another word for a cultural narrative. And I really like that because I think that, for a lot of artists who are first or second generation American, there’s this trepidation around engaging with older sources. How much are we allowed to do? Are we stepping on the toes or snubbing our noses at the sacred? I personally don’t think so. I think that you are allowed to play with something older than you, and to flip it on its side and poke holes in it, and see what other questions you should be asking, or what other ways exist for you to look at a situation.
SD: Yeah, and I think that that’s awesome. It’s great to think about it as not a proprietary thing of well this is my story and you can’t have it–
SD: –when it comes to legends and mythology. It really is a question of how is this affecting me, what stories can I, or what issues can I talk about with my own version of this story? What issues or cultural phenomena can be highlighted and discussed or questioned?
RC: Yes. Unfortunately, I can’t say all that when people come at me in my Twitter DMs, but I think about it.
SD and RC: [laughter]
SD: Coming from the academic side of this conversation, there’s a really long tradition, especially in medieval literature, thinking about the classics and thinking about what is a popular myth and how can I retell it in order to have a different moral–
SD: –And in order to teach the lesson that I want it to teach. You have practically every single canonical author tries to reclaim the classic tales of Narcissus and all of the Greco-Roman mythology, and especially the biblical stories and exempla are taken and repurposed into still trying to get at the truth of the story, but the truth of the story is different for every author.
RC: Yes, I totally agree. And it’s also interesting to think about how certain rulers, how they shift in our heads. I was reading, oh gosh I loved it, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, and, in my imagination, of course, Genghis Khan is somebody running through and raping and pillaging people. And of course that’s not the case. That is just this ugly sheen that his legacy has taken on. There was some mention about how Chaucer had been aware of Genghis Khan, had written about him as somebody who was great and illustrious. Chaucer was the ultimate Genghis Khan fanboy, and then we totally forgot about it because we had instead chosen this narrative of Western supremacy over anything coming out of the East.
RC: Which is … just rude. [laughter]
SD: It’s very, that’s, that’s, yeah. That’s not unexpected, I think.
RC: That’s not unexpected, yeah. I feel like this is the year where I’ve really gotten curious about, who is telling me this history?! I feel like that’s something that keeps coming up in my work over and over again, the who’s telling you this story? How do you become a story? That kind of stuff.
SD: That is a really similar thread that I’ve been following with Alexander the Great, right, is who is telling this story and therefore, what do we learn about it. And unfortunately, with a lot of medieval texts that I have access to, this story is being told by someone who has an active interest in not only glorifying Alexander the Great, but also they’re actively trying to trace their lineage and often their claim to land or to rule–
SD: –through him. I’ve been reading The Greek Alexander Romance, which is one of a very large tradition of retellings of Alexander. And the last section is obviously his death, but for this one in particular, there’s a section where it’s talking about his will. There is so many notes in the [edition’s] apparatus talking about how his will is written in language that is a little stilted and very different from the rest of the romance, and it is very clear that the will has been written in order to justify the people who had been named in the will: ‘Well clearly, he is giving us land and–
SD: –ownership of this quite large section of his empire because, you know, we’re awesome.’
RC: Yup. Ptolemy is like: ‘Dibs on Egypt!’ Everyone: ‘what the fuck!’ [laughter]
SD: And so in order in part to support that end point of the legend, you really have to build up Alexander as well, he’s this all-around amazing, yes, conqueror, but also he can subdue entire kingdoms by writing them a sassy letter.
SD: Which he does! More than once, in The Greek Alexander Romance. He’s just like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming, I have an army.’
SD: ‘You could surrender; you could just send me stuff, and that would be great.’ And most, probably about half of the time, he gets a response going, ‘Yeah you’re right. Here’s what my tribute will be. Please don’t hurt me.’
SD: And the rest of it are all tales about his cunning, and his wit, and his callousness in some ways. And so it becomes a legend that really glorifies his own position as a young, hot-blooded, reckless conqueror. And so, I was wondering, how do you see your Alexander fitting into that tradition of legends? Or do you see yourself pushing back against that tradition?
SD: Or do you see yourself as completely separate to it all together?
RC: No, I definitely think that I was playing with the lack of information, or not even the lack of information so much as just the narrowing of the scope around Alexander. When – I don’t know, this is a slight tangent, but – when I think about what’s it mean to really brand yourself as an author or creator or artist–
RC: –The best inspiration is not the people around you, but the people who came way, way, way before, Alexander being one of them. Can you imagine having a historian traveling with you on your escapades and conquests, and you read the draft of your life for that day, and you’re like, ‘No no no no no, I actually didn’t like that outfit, we’ll strike that out.’
RC: That sort of thing! Or the same way about Cleopatra, how she would sometimes don the attire of a goddess when she had to go out in public. I’m fascinated with how we mythmake around ourselves. We see that so much day-to-day when we consider things like social media as well. Your Instagram grid is a highlight reel, and a curated highlight reel, of your existence. And so when I was thinking about my Alexander, I really wanted to play with the idea of somebody who knows that they are raw potential and a blank slate, somebody who knows that the legacy about them, someone who knows that there is a fair amount of control you can have over your legacy. And I liked the idea that, in contrast to someone youthful, beautiful, glossy-limbed, and golden, that instead you have someone bloated, bloodstained, just sort of a seepage of human ambition. And, I don’t know, I really wanted Sudha’s power especially to be a – what is the ultimate mercy death? That you can make somebody kinder after they are gone. Better once they’re gone. That’s how I approached my Alexander. He is still cunning; he is 101 brand manager, the Kardashians could learn a thing or two, but he is not infallible, and he is not godlike. Or not yet.
SD: I loved how you surrounded him in this magical, almost like bazaar of wonders and curios.
RC: Thank you.
SD: Alexander’s court is full of, I think there was a [human-sized] beetle, you have an emerald hippocampus that you mention, and you have kind of very casually, right, a sign saying ‘Tributes for the Emperor Alexander,’ and you walk into a stained tent that is lined with the bones of his enemies, and you have this line of not only expensive jewels, but also people who are standing there offering themselves as tribute, in a way.
SD: I think that those details play really interestingly with the more traditional conception of Alexander as ‘the Great’ and the conqueror. You have all this imagery where it’s clear that he’s surrounding himself with the trappings of power. And then you get the picture of him on his bone, skull-encrusted throne, and he’s just like ‘Hi.’
RC: ‘Hi.’ [laughter] ‘Here I am.’
SD: ‘I’m here. Look at me.’
RC: Yeah, to me that’s always, we talk about that motto “Fake it ‘til you make it,” and there is so much truth to that. Way before this 2019-2020 New Age language of ‘I want to manifest this in my world,’ the ancients were already doing that. History was already doing that in terms of who would linger in our imagination, and for what reason. For so many people, we are so drawn to how they die. We want to know. And I think especially for somebody like Alexander who straddled this line between god and man, it has to be a death that is fitting of somebody that great. It’s like when people talk about when Elvis must have died of constipation on the toilet: you’re annoyed, and yet at the same time, the paradox and that juxtaposition delights and disgusts us, kind of thing. Or Marilyn Monroe, so beautiful but ah, found naked on her bed, probably wearing Chanel No. 5, strewn with sleeping pills. Sylvia Plath and her beautiful poetry, reduced to she stuck her head in an oven.
RC: And I, I don’t know why, but it’s – I mean, Cleopatra and the asp on her breast – that idea that these people who are larger than life and almost godlike, the thing that we obsess over the most is the only thing that we share in common with them, which is that we die.
Stay tuned for the second half of our conversation, where we have a small existential crisis contemplating death before we dig deeper into how Chokshi reclaims the dangerous woman stereotype through Sudha, her poisonous courtesan and the importance of controlling one’s own choices.
You can read Chokshi’s short story here: https://www.thebooksmugglers.com/2015/08/the-vishakanyas-choice-by-roshani-chokshi.html. And you can find more from Roshani Chokshi at her website: roshanichokshi.com.
Photo credit: Aman Sharma