Saturday, 6 September 2014

Book Review: Cuckold by Kiran Nagarkar

I recently got Nagarkar’s Cuckold as a gift and since I’d been planning to read it for many years, I wasted little time in getting started. However, many things came up in between and it was only yesterday that I finally finished reading it. Since Cuckold was released in 1997, I’m going to keep this review really brief. At least, that’s the plan.

Set in Merwar and Chittor in the late 15th and early 16th century, Cuckold tells the story of Maharaj Kumar, heir to the throne of Mewar occupied by Rana Sangha, a Sisodia Rajput. Like any Rajput kingdom worth its salt, Mewar is constantly at war with its neighbours, in this case, Gujarat ruled by Muzaffar Shah II, Malwa ruled by Mahmud Khalji II and the Sultanate of Delhi ruled by Ibrahim Lodi. Towards the end of the novel, Central Asian upstart Babur makes an appearance.

I understand that Maharaj Kumar’s character is based on Thakur Bhojraj. Maharaj Kumar, dutiful son, upright, chivalrous, honest and good-at-heart human being, is a double cuckold. His first wife, a beautiful young woman with green eyes (who later attains fame as Mirabai) is in love with Lord Krishna and hence will not let him bed her. Mirabai is never mentioned by her name. Instead Nagarkar uses various descriptions ranging from “green eyes” to “the Saint” to refer to Mirabai. Krishna is also mostly referred to as “the Flautist” and various other names. Rather than take on multiple wives as was the norm in those days, Maharaj Kumar stays loyal to Mirabai, until he is finally persuaded to marry Sugandha, the daughter of Medini Rai, the Prime Minister of Malwa, one-time foe turned friend, for reasons of political expediency. On his wedding night, buffeted by so many worries, Maharaj Kumar fails to perform and the marriage to Sugandha doesn’t work out. Later Sugandha almost openly takes up with Maharaj Kumar’s half-brother Vikramaditya, Kumar’s sworn enemy and an aspirant to the throne, but Maharaj Kumar doesn’t retaliate against either Sugandha or Vikramaditya.

Nagarkar’s style of writing is in a similar to Steven Pressfield’s Afghan Campaign as he uses numerous modern day terminology while telling his tale. One comes across a Small Causes Court, a Court of Last Resort, an Institute of Advanced Military Tactics and Strategy and a Head of City Planning. Courage on the battlefield is rewarded with a "Veer Vijay". To some extent, this is because Maharaj Kumar is modern and revolutionary in his outlook. Sanitation and sewage worry him more than tradition and culture. Even as the Rajput kingdoms around Mewar bravely fall one by one to invading armies from the west, Maharaj Kumar starts a programme of modernization and reformation. Instead of fighting to the death, Mewar’s troops are trained to retreat in good order. Deception is treated as yet another strategy and Maharaj Kumar does not hesitate to use it when the situation so demands. Many battles are won but Maharaj Kumar is detested by many nobles and common folks for his deviation from Rajput values of chivalry and courage. Words such as “slimy rat”, “quick sands of shame” and “rancid rat” fugure in a ditty about Maharaj Kumar which does the rounds in Chittor. However, Maharaj Kumar does have his supporters and when Medini Rai defects to Mewar, he does so because Maharaj Kumar has gained a reputation as a man who would like to win his wars without losing many soldiers, a man without scruples, one who has no qualms about attacking his enemy from the rear, an untrustworthy liar and one who is prone to change his plans without much notice.

As Babur makes repeated forays into India, Maharaj Kumar tries to acquire muskets and cannon for his troops so that they are prepared for the inevitable faceoff with Babur. He is unsuccessful and when one hundred and twenty thousand brave Rajputs and their Muslim allies meet twenty thousand of Babur’s men at Khanua, the Rajputs lose. Maharaj Kumar had built an observation tower, intending for his father Rana Sangha to direct the battle from the top of the tower but Rajput ethics make the Rana treat the observation tower with disdain and instead march at the head of his troops, only to be grieviously wounded.

As we all know, the Rajputs lost out to the Islamic invaders from the West and were finally decimated by the Mughals. In all probability, if only they had ditched their chivalry and modernised their tactics and weaponry, their fate would have been different. Nagarkar admits in his Afterword that Cuckold is a work of fiction, though ‘a substantial quantum of history has inveigled itself into the novel.’

A telling example of the divergence in values between the Rajputs and their Muslim adversaries is demonstrated by Nagarkar in the course of his yarn. Much before Babur’s arrival in the novel, Prince Bahadur, the son of Sultan Muzaffar Shah, seeks asylum in Mewar. The Prince can be charming and his hosts wine and dine him for months on end. One night, in the course of drunken banter, as the inebriated men exchanged anecdotes of hilarious blunders committed by Malwa and Delhi armies, Prince Bahadur jovially mentions how his father had tricked Rana Sangha during a campaign many years ago. The Sultan had sent an emissary with a white flag to the Rajput camp, asking that the fighting be deferred by twenty four hours since the next day was a feast of Islam. The Rajputs agree and start partying. Early morning the next day the Gujarat soldiers attack, resulting in a massacre of close to three thousand Mewar soldiers. Despite such a lesson, the Rajputs don’t change their attitude, except for Maharaj Kumar who decides that one must conduct war as if the life of one’s country depends on it. War needs to be conducted by all means, fair and foul.

Maharaj Kumar comes across as a man driven by a sense of duty and destiny, one who loves children (though he has none), a man who would not cause pain to anyone unnecessarily, but would kill to save his clan and country. One cant help but love such a person, though such a character is naturally the result of Nagarkar's hindsight.

One of the best things about Cuckold is the way Nagarkar conveys to his readers a feel of that era, its sounds, smells, sights and values. Rajput women seem to have had a fair amount of freedom and values were relatively liberal. A man accused by his young wife of impotence is ordered to prove his virility with a prostitute. When Maharaj Kumar’s second wife Sugandha sleeps around and gets pregnant with someone else’s child, it is treated as a bit of a joke. I do not know if all of this is historically accurate, but it can’t be denied that Nagarkar wields a powerful pen and writes very well.

For example, when describing a simple meal of Paunk (fresh jowar (sorgum) seeds) which Maharaj Kumar and Mirabai have while travelling within their Kingdom, Nagarkar tells us that 'Paunk is no ordinary food. It is ambrosia and an enigma. Which mortal would have thought of using crisp vermicelli savouries made from chickpea flour as a foil to the lightly roasted green and succulent corn of jowar picked fresh from the farm? Eaten soft and crunchy, it is deadly and unpredictable, but spike it with lemon and what you get is a collision and collusion of sweet, sour, and salty that’s likely to go down as one of the high points of one’s life.'

However, atleast once Nagarkar gets its wrong. While describing a Barasingha (swamp deer), Nagarkar informs us that 'The twelve-antlered one stood out, literally, head and shoulders above the rest of his tribe. His complexion was a russet gold. Even in the dark it would shine like a nimbus around him. He was atleast five feet tall, that’s not counting his horns. He was lean and tight and without a gram of fat. The sinews on his legs were made of steel cables.' Steel cables when the narrator is a 15th century prince??!!

One of the most interesting aspects of Cuckold is Nagarkar’s examination of Babur’s ideology as he invaded India. I should mention that Nagarkar has Maharaj Kumar receive intelligence about Babur much before he gets to India – his intelligence chief Mangal has an agent in Kabul who retrieves Babur’s discarded notes or manages to copy his diary and pass them on. As Maharaj Kumar reads Babur’s writings, he ruminates that 'Babur’s language has undergone a radical change since he came to Hindustan. It is only while talking about a war with us that he repeatedly speaks of a Holy War. What then does one call his wars with Ibrahim Lodhi and all the other Shia and Sunni chieftains, not to mention kings and sultans? It seems sad, not to say counterproductive, if one only has contempt for the people one has conquered, and all one wants to do is to dash, to quote Babur, the gods of the idolaters……………Even at the time when Babur attacked Bajaur on one of his earliest forays into India, he thought of himself as a defender of ‘the Faith’. He reverted to the ways of his ancestor Timur, sacked the town and massacred all the denizens, barring the few who managed to escape to the east, because they were not true believers. Now that he has assumed the throne in Delhi, he has begun to cast himself in the role of a Ghazi, Avenger in the name of God. Strange word that, avenger. For what slights and grievances, does Babur wish to axact vengeance from infidels on whom he has never set eyes nor had any social or other commerce? Our only crime seems to arise from an accident: that we were born to another faith. Since his victory over Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi, the Padshah has been razing temples and building mosques on the same sites or if time and funds are short, converting Hindu places of worship to that if Islam.'

Then Nagarkar suddenly changes tack and Maharaj Kumar has a counter-thought. 'Nothing special about that. We’ve done the same with Buddhist sacred places as well as mosques, as the Muslims have been doing with our temples since they first invaded India. …… Why this obsessive need to occupy the very precincts of a defeated belief? …. It is the naked assertion of brute power. The victor is signaling that the old order is dead and letting his subjects know who the new master is.'

I was left confused and could not really figure out whether Nagarkar thought Babur was a bigot or a shrewd warrior who used Islam to his advantage or just another conqueror who wanted to assert his power over those he had conquered.

On the whole, I would say that Cuckold is an excellent read, one I would highly recommend to everyone who enjoys fiction based on real history.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Just curious... How did the Maharaja die? Was he poisoned or murdered?

ravinra torne said...

Nice review