Could you imagine Game of Thrones in a Indian setting?
Okay, so maybe that opener is a little clickbaity but you wouldn’t believe just how much I want people to read this book. I’ll start with a confession. Every time I pass by the Indian writing section at a bookstore my hair stands on end. It seems that there has been an abundance of Indian authors whose ability to write in English was enough justification for publishers to let them unleash their horrendous mediocrity on an unsuspecting public. Often these would be Chetan Bhagat’s look to Indian history and mythology and manage to rewrite them with less sophistication and thought than Wikipedia articles on said history or mythology.
It was a month ago at Blossoms that I was nodding my head pretending I understood what my friend was saying about some ideology. I picked up a book to avoid having to respond when I got hooked to the second page. It saw that it was 700 pages and 500 RS and decided to put it away. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the dam book.
There’s an interesting paragraph on a money lender of my religion that manages to expose the cynical way Jainism ends up begin practiced. It read-
“You give alms you earn merit. You feed the poor or the Digambaras , you collect some more merit. Pacifism is a capital investment of the highest order. It’s a kind of super-compound interest scheme with an eye on both heaven and earth. Extend the metaphor and it has a foot in the here and now, and the ever after. Let’s look at the latter first. The more merit your earn, the more likely you are to abridge the number of reincarnations you have to go through to reach the kind of enlightened state which gets you to moksha. In the meanwhile, just see how profitable the fruits of non-violence are in this life. You stay white and pure while someone else, someone like me and my Rajput clan does the sinning and the killing.”
In 4 pages I had come across a damming indictment of Jainism’s flaws that even I would struggle to articulate. Maybe this means nothing to you but it sure got me hooked. Don’t worry there’s a lot more to the book than cynicism. That’s probably why I was able to blow through its 700 pages in 3 days.
The story is set in a Rajput kingdom right before the invasion of Babur. We follow a would be king who’s wife has made him a cuckold; she is in love with a god. This is based on actual history but since there is little we know about it, history is just the background on which Kiran Nagarkar paints a fascinating tale. What makes the novel interesting for all 700 pages is the main character, who is surprisingly modern, intelligent and very rational. Unfortunately the reality of court politics, tradition, scheming etc. smacks him around all the time. He struggles to come to terms with his own ambition, his love and frustration towards his family and traditions, his unorthodox thinking in a honor bound society, his eccentric wife and ultimately his own mind which he learns is doomed to be irrational.
Since this isn’t a book series like a Song of Ice and Fire you get a proper literary study of this man. The book works not just as a story about wars and politics, it’s also a struggle to come to terms with modern, or maybe ancient anxieties. Unlike other historical fiction the book isn’t slavishly dedicated to accuracy, like say Wolfhall. It feels all the better for it. There are many interesting characters and insights like into people like Babur and his excellent writing, homosexual desires etc.
The only criticism I would offer is that sometimes the language is too modern; hearing about school bells in the 14th century might take you out of the book . I saw a review on Goodreads that said the reviewer couldn’t make it past the 23rd page because of it but I think that’s a terrible reason to miss out on so good a story (and why did the idiot review a book he hadn’t read?). As the author himself says he wanted the language to work to make the novel readable and not historical and that definitely makes the 700 pages seem brief.
The book feels Indian and I doubt if it has reached foreign shores, which is a great tragedy. There is a German translation interestingly enough. Kiran Nagarkar even won the Sahitya Akademi award for it in 2000. It’s a great and interesting read and a kind of book you only come across rarely in Indian literature.