Sunday, April 08, 2012

A New Mastani

MASTANI is  unique book in that it is India’s first historical novel that offers its readers two endings, diagrammatically opposed to each other;  the second one  plugs all the holes left in the story of Mastani left by traditional renderings of the myths and legends that surround the second wife of Peshwa Baji Rao I, widely accepted as India’s answer to Napoleon Bonaparte as a unbeaten general.  Congratulations are due to Mr. Kapish Mehra of Rupa Publications for allowing this to happen.

As a history buff, every reading of Maratha history left me bewildered at the steadfastness of historians in never failing to mention Mastani as leading influence in Baji Rao’s life; and then leaving that mention as a single sentence or paragraph without any elaboration of such a ‘towering’ personality, so to speak. Hence the research that went on and on and on to explode all the myths and legends that surround Mastani, to expose her tragedy, her true character and her royal background.

Mastani was perhaps in some way inspired years ago by a fellow traveler in a Mumbai-Pune taxi, discussing the absurdity of all historians remembering to mention Mastani's influence on Baji Rao's life and then dismissing her in one paragraph with no mention of her antecedents or whatever. That sounded strange enough to embark me on what was to become my life's mission...about 30 odd of my 61 years. Hope that fellow traveler remembers that conversation and reads my book now!

Mistresses have been the rule rather than the exception amongst rulers, usually more than one. His father, Balaji Vishwanath and his king Shahu Maharajswami had them too. How many mistresses have been mentioned in history books? Even as a footnote?

History records an Indira Gandhi, Razia Sultan and Nur Jehan; Mumtaz Mahal is more a footnote because of the Taj Mahal. And the Rani of Jhansi found mention thanks to British applause, more to show up Indian manhood of those times wanting, especially in contrast with the British. But Roshan Ara, Jehan Ara, Anarkali…

My MASTANI was written to blow away all those cobwebs that surrounded Peshwa Baji Rao I’s second wife who is portrayed by historians as a ‘dancing girl’….legends that have outlived their lives now.

The book establishes her royal persona from the house of the Bundelas of Madhya Bharat and the original benefactress of an otherwise impoverished peshwa much more that stands standard maratha history on its head.

25 years of research and 3 of writing reveal a dramatic tale that turns the entire Mastani dancing girl on its head. That nugget egged me on but i could only devote x amount of time on it, along with my duties as a working journalist, wife and mother. So it carried on over years, the Pune side of the story whenever I visted the city where two of my children were in boarding schools close by, one after another.

There were also trips to Indore and Mhow to seek out the descendants of Baji Rao and Mastani to get that side of the picture. Info yes, but very sad that they had never bothered to unveil their mysterious ancestor themselves, although their branch owed their existence to her.

The trip also put me in touch with a very valuable resource person, Ahsaan Awara, a retired post master of Banda, who had put in a lifetime in the search for Mastani and was a mine of information for me.      Ahsaan saab and Mr. Mabi, my teacher from school days, ussed to regularly ring me to egg me on, to start writing the story as it developed, over-riding all my protests that I had yet to reach the end of the research. They always argued that I had to start shaping up what was fresh in my mind and before it went stale as age crept up and may be stalled the book forever. It is very unfortunate that Ahsaan saab who had shared all his info with me is not alive to see my Mastani, a book has been sent to Mr. Mabi.

Now comes a bombshell. Several weeks after the finish of the book, one night I saw a dream in which Mastani's story unspooled with an ending that was startling. It offered answers to all the unanswered questions that plagued Mastani's story. Making swift notes of recall before the dream vanished, morning saw me reviewing all my material to find that it actually made a lot of sense, even if it was dramatically different and quite controversial.

That is how the book is two endings, one taking the conventional path of Mastani dying after Rao did and the other that takes a very different and controversial route.    Another controversy will be my interpretation of the material on the fatal illness of Baji Rao, based on a lot of medical interpretation of the record of his symptoms.

Now I hope Mastani gets a new lease of life and  her rightful place in history.

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