Thursday, March 6, 2014

Book review: Cuckold

Everyone knows about Mirabai. You read the word Mirabai and automatically mind conjures this image - a lady wearing white sari, holding a tanpura in one hand, and singing devotional love songs all day, all night in praise of her lover - Lord Krishna. Mira's bhajans are widely popular, i think even my parents owned a cassette back in the days. The thing about Mirabai is that she is not a mythical character from some mythological story, she really existed sometime in sixteenth century. But did you know that she was married and that her husband was none other than the prince of Mewar, first in line to get throne when the king retired. Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold is a historical fiction book that describes life and times from this prince's perspective.

In terms of genre, historical fiction enjoys the same tingling feeling as is typical in magical realism. As in magical realism, it is difficult to distinguish the boundaries of magic and reality, likewise, Cuckold keeps us guessing between what really happened and where all the author has taken the liberty to make things up. The book opens up as the prince, Maharaj Kumar, is discussing town planning initiatives such as sewers, and sanitation facilities. Did the royal line in sixteenth century was indeed worrying about how shit flows? At one end i am glad that they did, but in the other end, is it fictional or is it real. George R R Martin in his yet to be finished epic series - A song of ice and fire wrote how royal servants talked about town planning including sewers. The fact that Kiran Nagarkar had also written about it, not only fascinated me, but made me proud.

Cuckold keeps us very close to this thin line of historical accuracy. Pages flip one after another. With such a raunchy title, the book is bold but it never stoops down to Fifty shades of grey level. Rather, Nagarkar is in complete control over its characters and for those like me, who are unfamiliar with out historical past, every bit comes off as believable.  Meerabai's character gets a human treatment which is a refreshing change from her saintly reputation. Cuckold shines in its depth of analysis of war tactics, information gathering networks using spies and political strategies.

Amidst all the battles and political stratagems, there lies the social conflict of what is a king supposed to do with his wife who herself acknowledges to have a lover and her lover is none other than God himself. When seen from a distance, it is a social farce of Shakesperian proportions. Nagarkar bends this to his advantage by discussing its political and social ramifications.  Later, Nagarkar adds more flavors as he imagines relationship between Meerabai and Maharaj Kumar's second wife.

Cuckold won the Sahitya Akademi award in its year of publication and deservedly so. It is one of the finest books that i have read by an Indian who is still living in India. (The last clause was added to rule out Rushdie ) . However, having read GRRM and having briefly touched upon Hillary Mantel's works, it does seem that one book may not be an enough. India is so ripe for historical fiction, or even historical non-ficiton for that matter. Even after the book ends, we are still left with a longing of what happened in the Babur era and what preceded the Maharaja Sangha era. Maybe Baburnama has some answers.

1 comment:

Neha Agarwal said...

I generally judge Indian authors differently from Western authors and give them more leeway. This book shook my perceptions on Indian writing and my biggest joy was that this was written by an Indian with literary flair.

This is one of the best books I have read in the recent past and like some earlier reviewers mentioned, I found it sad towards the end as I didn't want it to end.

The book was an extremely well-written historical novel portraying the memoirs of the Prince of Chittor and the husband of one of India's most favourite saints, Meera Bai. I had visited all the places mentioned 2 years ago and could literally feel as walking through the times and turmoils of the prince as he described the story.

The plot shifts from his internal issues with Meera as well as very vividly portrays the scheming political situation of the Mewar Kingdom. Historically accurate about the cultures at that time, what blew my mind was the writing. I had read other Indian novels about our history including the Moghuls one but everyone else concentrated only on a few aspects and the language structure was very modern like reading a Chetan Bhagat book.However this book felt like a modern translation of the prince's memoirs.

The book also had many symbollic moments and many philosophical discussions which represented the Prince's thoughts. These parts also made for very interesting reading since they provided a context and then hit you with very hard ideas so that it was easier to relate to them.

Do yourself a favour and read this book as soon as you can grab your hands on it