( Book Review Series: "Gods , Kings and Slaves- The Siege of Madurai" by R. Venkatesh)
Two men defining the destinies of two kingdoms, two brothers fighting for the throne, a royal bastard and a eunuch, harem intrigues, heroism and cowardice- we have all of that in R. Venkatesh’s “ Gods, Kings and Slaves- the Siege of Madurai”.
Set in the prosperous city of Madurai it describes the glorious days of the Pandya kingdom- a period when the Pandya kings had become complacent , concentrating more on administration than on defence, thereby making the city vulnerable to the attack of the Turkish army led by Malik Kafur.
The novel follows the style of a parallel narrative describing the lives of the two protagonists- in Madurai develops the story of Veera Pandyan son of Tara, the concubine of King Kulasekara Pandyan and in Western India , through the gulf of Khambat and later in the Delhi Sultanate is traced out the life of Malik Kafur a eunuch slave. Veera is a brave and intelligent boy, his father’s pride and his half brother Sundara Pandyan’s rival in everything starting from the race for the royal throne to the affections of the Chola princess Sunanda who as Sundar’s cousin is betrothed to him but loves Veera. Both boys are groomed by the King’s brother Vikrama Pandyan who they hold in high esteem.
Malik on the other hand has his life defined by humiliation and pain as he is sold in the slave market to an Arab. By his sheer cunning and strategy he moves up from being a mere harem guard to being his master's business adviser. Sold once again to the Turks he finds himself in the palace of the mighty Allauddin Khilji where the same brains make him rise to the rank of a general.
Those of you who have read Kalki’s “Ponniyin Selvan” will find its echoes here especially in the section that deals with the Pandya side of the story. There are characters who appear to be modeled along the lines of those in Kalki’s novel. Veera is almost like Arul Mozhi Verman in the earlier part of the story especially in the Lanka invasion section. We can also see traces of Kundavi in Meenakshi, the daughter of Vikrama Pandyan. The character of Akshyan starts out following the outlines of Vandiya Thevan but somewhere along the way the author cuts it short. But it would be unfair to say that it is a copy. While Arul of Kalki’s novel seems divine as we go through “Ponniyin Selvan”, Veera is very much the human. He has vulnerabilities that we do not see in Prince Arul. We can sense the insecurity and pain in his lament “ My sons call other men their fathers, my father does not acknowledge my mother as his wife, all my women share another man’s bed. What is actually mine then? ”
However the story about Malik is free from these shadows. It seems more original and in Malik's characterization, I would say that the author has worked harder . A negative character, Malik Kafur has always been portrayed in history as a plunderer and destroyer. But as Venkatesh says “ History is written by the victorious” . It is only when you go through Malik’s life that you begin to understand and even grudgingly appreciate him.
While the story follows historical events, some parts of it seem a little unnecessary. For e.g Veera’s meeting with Marco Polo. One is not sure how it helps in the development of the plot. The part where Malik meets the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya is another example. Other than defining and setting the period which the story depicts there is little else that these characters do.
Though one can explain the reasons why some characters are thrown in by the author as garnishing to the plot, what baffles me is why certain strong characters like that of Vikrama Pandyan just flit in and out of the story! As a reader I am also not very convinced about the reasons behind his revolt and subsequent exile. He is presented to the readers as a valiant man who is bound by ethics and so the reason for him to suddenly decide to revolt seem puzzling. This feeling is further strengthened when we see him make a comeback as the leader who deals with the crisis that Madurai faces. When you start accepting the fact that may be the writer has decided to bring him out from cold storage and make a hero out him after all, we again see him go missing, only to reappear as the commander of the forces of his grandson, Ravivarman, the Chera king.
Among the female characters that the author has etched well is that of Veera’s wife Radhika. A practical woman , she scores over her royal counterparts through sheer common sense that comes as part of her peasant ancestry! Sunanda on the other hand seems like a drooping flower once the romance part of the novel is over. This is a bit unfair on a character who gives up her love for a man so that he could ascend the throne. And then there is Meenakshi or Meena who is Veera’s cousin , the Chera queen. She starts out as a strong girl full of leadership qualities in her childhood but somehow fades into insignificance as the plot develops. Her only contribution to the story in her adult phase is the role she plays in trying to negotiate Veera’s alliance with Sunanda.
While the Pandya side of the novel is full of prominent female characters there are almost none in the story around Malik’s life other than Chaula. What we have are a bunch of harem women. I am not sure if it was an oversight or whether the fact that Malik was a eunuch made female characters seem unnecessary to that side of the plot.
However one must not assume that the above are short comings in terms of the readability or credibility of the novel. It is one of the most interesting and thrilling novels that I have read in recent times! As I am not a student of history I cannot comment of the historical authenticity of every event. But the little history that I have studied in school and the reading I have done thereafter seems to confirm that the facts are more or less accurate. I particularly liked the descriptive style of the author. One could almost feel that one was inside the Meenakshi temple witnessing the coronation of the prince and later on its desolation. Similar were the descriptions of the Siri Fort, the war with the Mongols and the siege on the fort of Warrangal. The harem management details were also quite interesting.
It is not just the description that holds you but the emotions of the characters also bind the reader. I had tears in my eyes when I read the section where a disguised Veera goes back to the Meenakshi temple which is left desolate and in ruins. His conversation with a seemingly mad man who keeps the lamp burning in the sanctum sanctorum makes your hair stand on end.
At a time when most English novels in India are targeting the yuppie culture, this one reaches out to a different audience. It reaches out to all who are fond of history irrespective of age. But I would not categorize it as just a narration of historical events. It is also a romance novel in parts with emotions that are all pervading. While it celebrates valor on one hand, it also brings out the importance of survival strategies and shrewdness as the weapon of the weak on the other.
In a story that ran the danger of taking on communal overtones, one must commend the author in his ability to maintain that fine balance. Despite his love for Madurai which is very evident in every word that he writes , his pen remains non judgmental!
As a person who traces her ancestry to the Chola kingdom of Thanjavur I was brought up to believe by my grandfather that nothing and no one South of the Vidhyas could be as glorious as the Chola rulers. “Gods, Kings and Slaves” has broken this myth in my mind by its effective narration of the two powers both north and south of the Vindhyas!