Thursday, 14 June 2012

Book Review: Tughlaq by Girish Karnad

Originally written in Kannada in 1964 while Girish Karnad was studying at Oxford and translated into English by the author himself, Tughlaq is one of the most critically acclaimed plays ever staged in India. The version I recently re-read, a 2012 reprint by Oxford University Press, is a 116 page gem which includes a detailed author’s note, an introduction by UR Ananthamurthy and an essay by Aparna Dharwadker on “Historical Fictions and Postcolonial Representation: Reading Girish Karnad’s Tuqhlaq”.

Any student of Indian history, nay, every Indian school student, knows Muhammad bin Tughlaq. A byword for stupidity and arrogance, a King who was daft enough to want to move his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and to issue copper coins with a value equal to silver ones. But was it as simple as that? Was Tughlaq a simpleton who did silly things or an extremely shrewd operator and manipulator who got carried away with his own cleverness? In the opening part of this play, one hears of a Brahmin who brings a charge of misappropriation against the King and is awarded damages by the Kazi. The King wants to treat everyone, both Hindus and Muslims alike, we are told. Later it was turns out that the Brahmin claimant was actually a Muslim in disguise. Would the King have tolerated a claim against him by a fellow Muslim? Would the Kazi have awarded damages? Was Tughlaq’s desire to place Hindus on par with Muslims, in an era when political correctness was unheard of, the reason why the Brahmin managed to win his case?

There are many more stories about Tughlaq, each showing him to be clever man who anticipates his opponents’ moves and easily thwarts them. The learned Tughlaq is also ruthless in having his way, having no qualms in getting people killed. Issuing copper coins with a value equal to silver ones was a good idea in principle, one far ahead of its times. These days, we have paper currency which is not fully backed by a gold standard. Yet, Tughlaq’s scheme backfired as counterfeit coins flooded the country. Having the capital in the centre of the country rather than in Delhi might have worked if Tughlaq hadn’t insisted on every Delhi’ite moving to Daulatabad.

All together, a brilliant play, one which digs into a King’s psyche and throws up as many questions as answers, Karnad's Tughlaq will continue to taunt Indians for generations to come.

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