Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.
to e-mail us:
support the site
- Return to top of the page -
B+ : solid (semi-)historical fiction
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
Most of the chapters in Cuckold are narrated by Maharaj Kumar -- Bhoj Raj (Bhojraj Singh Sisodia) --, while the occasional ones that are not -- written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator -- also focus on him and episodes from his life.
Maharaj Kumar was the eldest son -- and thus heir-apparent -- to Rana Sanga (1482-1528), the king of Mewar (part of Rajasthan); he is an historical figure, albeit one whom little is known about.
Nevertheless, he is a recognizable figure to Indian audiences, for one specific reason, and while non-Indian readers most likely can readily treat this work very much as fiction, the historical component is impossible to ignore in any Indian reading.
The last thing I wanted to do was to write a bok of historical veracity. I was writing a novel, not a history. I was willing to invent geography and climate, rework the pedigrees and origins of gods and goddesses, start revolts and epidemics, improvise anecdotes and economic conditions and fiddle with dates. As luck would have it, I didn't get a chance to play around too much except in the case of the chief protagonist, since he is a person about whom we know nothing but the fact that he was born, married and died. His only claim to fame was that he was betrothed to a princess who is perhaps the most remembered and quoted woman in Indian history, right down to our times.She may be: "the most remembered and quoted", but it seems doubtful that more than a tiny percentage of non-Indian readers could identify her on that basis, or the descriptions of her for much of the novel -- making this an interesting case-study in reception-theory. (Interestingly, despite several of Nagarkar's works having been published in the US and/or UK, including his translated-from-the-Marathi Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, Cuckold has not; the only 'Western' edition published thus far is a German translation.)
The choice of protagonist -- and he is very much the central figure in the novel, if not the best-known -- makes for a relatively large blank canvas for Nagarkar to let his imagination run fairly free; the essentials of Maharaj Kumar's relationship with his wife, however, do anchor it in the specific-historical. Even this, however, Nagarkar uses quite cleverly in shaping his essentially fictional character -- specifically in making him the cuckold of the title. (In fact, Maharaj Kumar eventually has a second wife foisted on him, and she too makes a cuckold out of him -- albeit in more traditional and close-to-home fashion.)
Maharaj Kumar is married off to a girl from Merta, chosen for him by his grandmother, and gets a rude awakening on his wedding night when the girl begs off the traditional wedding-night consummation with the explanation: "'Please,' she whispered, 'I'm spoken for'". Maharaj Kumar plows ahead anyway, with ultimately unfortunate (if not permanent) results -- "He was aghast when he saw his penis. It was broken" -- and remains long ill-disposed to his bride, who keeps insisting she is betrothed to someone else.
Maharaj Kumar is furious about her claim to be bound to another -- and his rage is hardly tempered when she finally tries to explain who the one she feels truly, deeply, eternally linked with is:
She was lying. Trust her to come up with someone as absurd and incredible as Shri Krishna for her paramour. A simple straightforward man was not good enough for her. Only a god, one of the most powerful, important and beloved of gods would do. You couldn't fault her for under-reaching, lack of imagination, or low self-image. It was so far-fetched, so utterly beyond the probable and the possible, some credulous fool might just give it credence.The girl -- eventually referred to by him as Greeneyes, and then as the Little Saint (and, as Nagarkar puts it in his Afterword: "The Little Saint, as we all know, became a very big saint. [...] Her name is on almost every Indian's lips") -- sticks to her story, and lives by it as well. She very much comes into her own, and if she behaves rather un-royally at times -- singing in public, for example -- her behavior convinces many of her special nature. She becomes an object of veneration, with a passionate following; she also proves eventually to be rather devoted to Maharaj Kumar, and though their relationship is hardly traditional, they are supportive of one another and ultimately are a close (power-)couple, even as their relationship remains a complicated one. Her selflessness also make her an unusual figure at court, where everyone has an agenda, and eventually lead her to also become close to the Maharaj Kumar's father, the king; all in all she proves a very useful ally to her husband in various situations.
Even -- or especially ? -- as the heir-apparent, Maharaj Kumar is often very much the odd man out in the world he moves in. When the novel opens his father is off at war again and Maharaj Kumar has been left in charge in the Mewar capital of Chittor -- a city that was: "wealthy and worldly. It was filthy, spacious, corrupt, crowded and self-assured". With six brothers, Maharaj Kumar always has to look over his shoulder, knowing that he stands in the way of their coming to power. It is the third son of the king, Vikramaditya, by a different mother -- the king's favorite queen -- that Maharaj Kumar is most concerned about: "he is not a man who's waiting for trouble to happen. He makes it happen". Indeed, Vikramaditya is already itching to grab the throne and makes a first move for it while their father is away; Maharaj Kumar foils him, and confines him for the time being -- but of course assures himself the permanent enmity of his brother and the favored queen. (Not that he was really ever not their enemy: standing between Vikramaditya and power, he was always in the way.)
Maharaj Kumar is a careful strategist. He is aware of the dangers he faces, and the precariousness of his position, but he tries to remain within the traditional system; he is not itching for power, but he is willing to wield it when necessary or called upon. Unlike Vikramaditya, he is not in it for the sake of power itself; he is a well-meaning ruler. Typically, his big project when he is in charge of the capital (and for long after) is an ambitious plan to improve the city's sewage system.
Maharaj Kumar is aware of his weaknesses, and how he is perceived. He acknowledges being: "prematurely serious" and "a plodder in other ways too". It serves him well, however, and he is certainly competent. Yet even success is problematic: most others revel in battle and war -- none more than his father, always ready to go into battle, and always leading the charges (and with the injuries and scars to prove it) -- while Maharaj Kumar isn't enthusiastic about fighting. He is a realist rather than someone caught up in the hollow nobility of warfare. His attitude is different from most -- at least most Rajputs -- understanding that: "One must conduct war as if the life of one's country depends on it". All's fair in war -- and that is how he conducts it.
The trickery -- and horror -- Maharaj Kumar is willing to engage in in battle doesn't sit well with most -- but it does bring results. So also Maharaj Kumar is fascinated by the idea of the strategic retreat: better to flee and regroup than to try to stand one's ground hopelessly to the last man. He trains his men to flee at the right times -- even as retreat is seen as dishonorable -- and among his projects is writing an introduction to a work titled: The Art and Science of Retreat -- with his contribution coming in at over two hundred pages.
He understands that a different understanding of war is necessary:
No king could use defeat as a ploy for losing a battle and wining a war, unless he effectively conditioned the populace and soldiery to think of long-term objectives. My first task, perhaps doomed from the start, was to remove the stigma from the word 'flight' and then from the act itself.Maharaj Kumar's fortunes wax and wane in the kingdom, in the subtle shifts and games of power that are played at the court. His wife, growing into her own and also becoming a power-player -- thanks to the following she attracts --, also becomes a target, but for the most part they navigate the difficulties well. And when Maharaj Kumar is called into battle, he performs extraordinarily -- even as there rarely are clear-cut victories in the continuous back and forth among the various kingdoms in the vicinity, a complicated geo-political balancing act.
Maharaj Kumar also eventually becomes aware of the doings of a figure who has made forays into India before, a man who has also often been forced into retreat -- but who keeps coming. Scraps from his autobiographical writing -- the Baburnama -- give clues to this Babur's ambitions, and Maharaj Kumar realizes he is someone worth keeping a closer eye on. By the time Babur has taken Delhi -- and settled in rather than just sacking it and retreating with a bounty -- Maharaj Kumar understands that he poses a serious threat, and one unlike that the other local leaders do.
The novel culminates in what Nagarkar considers the decisive battle Battle of Khanua (while he notes in his Afterword that: "Most British and Indian historians usually underplay Babur's battle with the Rajputs at Khanua and dismiss it in a sentence or paragraph"). It's the only point in the novel Nagarkar gives a precise date: "March the seventeenth, fifteen twenty-seven", too. Indian readers know -- and others can guess, given even just the outlines of Indian history, in which Babur figures so prominently -- the outcome, so there's little surprise there; still, Nagarkar presents this battle of the outmatched Rajputs -- lacking the technology available to Babur, and which Maharaj Kumar had long desperately been trying to acquire -- as well as then the fate of Rana Sanga very well. Nice, too, is how he ultimately deals with his essentially fictional creation of Maharaj Kumar -- after taking the liberty of having him still alive and involved in the Battle of Khanua (as the historic figure Bhoj Raj had, in fact, fallen in battle the year before).
Cuckold is a character-study within a historical fiction, and by essentially creating his character -- beyond some of the few facts known about the real-life counterpart (and not killing him off at the same point in his life) -- Nagarkar is able to freely adapt the figure to his purposes in a way that would have been difficult with a better-documented historical figure. It's a vivid personal portrait, both as told by the character himself, and in the brief scenes as seen from outside. The first-person narrator fits, too, because Maharaj Kumar is very much an introspective figure -- and also one who has only a limited understanding and sense of others' actions and thinking, especially at more basic levels; one of his weaknesses is his inability to fully understand those who act from more base and ugly motives. (He has some sense of them, but can't fully comprehend them.) So, too, among the few people he seems to understand well is Babur -- a man he never meets and only glimpses through scraps from his memoir and what he learns of the man's actions.
One prince tells him to his face:
You are the loneliest man I know. No slander nor ridicule can touch you because you do not let the personal affect your professional life.In a world of petty jealousies and revenge-thirst, such aloofness seems distinctly out of place, even unnatural. (That said, he does occasionally show flashes of jealousy, and does lash out to protect those he loves.)
While Maharaj Kumar does grow close to his saintly first wife, and even, after a fashion, to his second, there are others who are important in his life too, above all two women. One is Kausalya, who was not only his wet-nurse but also the woman who introduced him to more worldly ways, as: "when I was fairly young, she decided to make me her life's work"; they continue to be lovers long into his adulthood, and she is always a strong support to him. The other is his true soul-mate, the great-granddaughter of the Jain finance minister of Mewar, Leelawati, who is still a child when the novel opens. She is the one person whom he is always pleased to see and be with, and while their relationship is innocent -- he is like an uncle to the child -- they are also physically close, and constantly joking with one another. She considers him her betrothed, but eventually she is of course married off; she never is quite willing to let go, however -- and he too knows that she has always been the one true pure love of his life. Even many years later she reminds him:
I love you as I have loved no man or woman. You are the most lonely man I know. You love me and need me.Their love had long been impossible -- first because of her age, and always because of their different religions, among other reason -- and the question, for much of the book, is whether it will ever be possible. By far the most endearing character in the novel -- in no small part because of her single-minded devotion to Maharaj Kumar (as even Kausalya has agendas) --, Leelawati is a welcome bright smile (and very competent young woman) in a book otherwise overwhelmed by shades of grey and darkness. (And, while his wives make a cuckold of Maharaj Kumar, Leelawati, even in marriage, remains true to him.)
Maharaj Kumar also does try to surround himself with competence, and Kausalya's son, Mangal, a childhood friend who becomes head of intelligence -- and a very good one -- is one he can faith in. But there are few others, especially at the court, where everyone -- including his father -- is looking out for themselves as much as anything.
A crime near the end of the novel neatly bookends the story, as Vikramaditya is again involved and again only placed under house arrest. When the crime turns out to be part of something bigger, Maharaj Kumar (and his father) perhaps are too cautious in dealing with things -- and with the threat of Babur hovering nearby let it be too easily. (Historically, Vikramaditya of course did come to the throne -- and, unsurprisingly, it was a brief and unsuccessful tenure.)
Cuckold is an enjoyable work of historical fiction, with excellent battle-scenes (and interesting military strategy, well-presented) and offering a fascinating picture of Rajput India before the Mughal period, a world of endless internecine conflicts. And Maharaj Kumar is very well-drawn figure, an interesting and unusual tragic hero.
Finally, as a work of fiction, Cuckold perhaps works even better for an audience that is not distracted by familiarity with its real-life/larger-than-life supporting character, for readers who do not know who Meera/Mirabai is, and for whom the name (or rather figure, since she goes unnamed in the novel) has no other connotations, much less being burdened with all her historical and spiritual implications.
- M.A.Orthofer, 8 October 2019
- Return to top of the page -
- Return to top of the page -
Indian author Kiran Nagarkar lived 1942 to 2019.
- Return to top of the page -