Sunday, April 6, 2014

About Men and Eunuchs - the struggle for power and the will to survive



 ( 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. 
Gods, Kings & Slaves: The Siege of MaduraiThe 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!

12 comments:

Allen Webstar said...

Fantastic comprehensive review written about this novel, definitely will read it soon. Very interesting.

KParthasarathi said...

Your review contrary to your assertion that you had no fascination for History except what you read in school days, reveals that you are very well conversant with the history of these parts partly because of Kalki's novels.
It is a balanced review but with so many characters in the novel the author is constrained to give only glimpses of a few of them.It is obviously not like Ponniyin Selvan where Kalki could write as long as it pleased him.
From what you have written about the book ,you make me go for the book and read it as soon as I can.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ KP you should read this book!! The author is known to me. He lives in Chennai and is a member of the book club that I am part of . And you are right about the time that Kalki had.. he could go on and on as his story was a serial!

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Allen Webstar you should read this book. Available on Flipkart.

SG said...

Excellent review. Since I love history and reads a lot about historical events, one incident comes to my mind. When Malik Kafur was ruling Madurai, Alauddin Khilji ordered him to destroy the Meenakshi Temple for jewels. He sent a trusted guy to go and find out what is happening inside the Temple. There were 8 elephant statues near the sanctum sanctorum. An old man was feeding these elephants with sugar cane. The statue elephants were eating those sugar cane.

This guy comes and tells Malik Kafur what was happening. Malik Kafur did not believe. He wanted to see for himself. He went to the Temple and started to give sugar cane to these 8 elephant statues. The stone elephants accepted the sugar cane from him and ate them. He immediately realized that God really lives there and ordered his troops not to destroy the temple.

mahabore said...

This book has been on my To Read list for quite a while now and after this lovely balanced review of yours I surely will pick it up next. Given that I am a fan of the 'historical fiction' genre where authors generously mix historical facts with fiction and dish out good books, it looks like I will enjoy this one quite a bit :)

Meera Sundararajan said...

@SG the incident that you mention can also be found in the book. As a history enthusiast I urge you to read this novel. You can buy it off Amazon or Flipkart like I did.

@ Mahabore I promise you it will be well worth the effort of buying the book. Buy it on a long train journey and you will not realize how far you have traveled!!

Cloud Nine said...

Wow...that is a very honest review. Glad I've ordered the book:)))

Dee Ess said...

I'm intrigued and look forward to reading it. It's been a while since I read an Indian historical novel.
-DS

Meera Sundararajan said...

@DS, the Indian historical novels have the maximum variety due to the huge diversity we have had in terms of history.

@ Nivedita get ready to spend sleepless nights now with that book !

anilkurup said...

Well, well that is a new role as I notice that would blend well. The literary critic!
You have done it well and as KP mentioned also encourages the reader to run to the book store.
History laced with intrigues, imaginations plots and sub plots have always brought out great telling works.
In the context of the raid of the Killjis into south India here is something that Professor Sridhara Menon has mentioned in his treatise, “History of Kerala” a dispassionate and scholarly account. He states an interesting finding or call it theory ( if you want) that fearing a possible Muslim foray into South India , Temple trustees in Kerala and Tamilnad transferred all the tangible wealth like gold and precious metals from temples to the private holdings of the priests and Brahmins . Because Muslim invaders, first targeted temples where the bounty is. Now the feared invasion did not materialize in full and overtime the wealth, gold and metals transferred to the priests stayed in their homes. This he says is the reason why one cans find quite a chunk of old ornaments in most Brahmin households.
Now finally your ancestors the Cholas can never be surpassed for the excellence in architecture- Thanjavur alone would do to keep them above the rest.

Amrit Sinha said...

I am a big big fan of historical fictions ... will try it for sure :-)

Post a Comment

 
;