Twilight narrative

Print edition : January 17, 2020

The Red Fort, which is one of the most impressive symbols of the Mughal Empire. Historical fiction set against the era usually revolves around the Mughal elites. Amita Kanekar’s work is an exception. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

A historical novel set in Mughal India that looks at history through a subaltern lens.

While there is a significant amount of historical fiction set in the Mughal period, it has usually revolved around the elite, the rulers and nobility. Alex Rutherford’s six-part Empire of the Moghul series (2009-15) is the most recent example of this subgenre. In the book under review, Amita Kanekar has set herself up for a challenging task as she moves away from the elites in telling her story set in Mughal India. Her novel recounts the events surrounding the Satnami rebellion, an insurrection from below led by peasants and “untouchables” 15 years into the reign of the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (reign 1658-1707).

This was the only revolt in Aurganzeb’s time that was led purely by “subalterns”, to borrow a historian’s term. Other rebellions had some form of elite leadership. The Satnami philosophy was based on the eradication of caste identities, and women were considered equal to men. They did not live on charity and emphasised truth.

It was nothing short of revolutionary that an egalitarian society espoused by the Bhakti saints actually came into being at around the same time although it was short-lived and put down by Aurangzeb.

The prologue, set in 1671, a year before the rebellion, sets the tenor of the novel, which is dark and mysterious with a sense of foreboding. The Dewan of Narnaul (a town and jagirdari on the road between the Mughal capital Shahjahanabad and Ajmer) is out hunting when a fellow lord in his entourage is injured. Lost in the forest, the hunting party chances upon a Satnami village where there are no menials to do the nobles’ bidding. In an encounter, one of the party is shot dead by a villager, which sets the course for later events.

The plot line weaves through time, swinging like a pendulum over two decades. It might appear disconcerting to some readers, but it all ties up neatly at the end. The book explores how and why the revolt took place. The many characters that people it do not seem contrived and provide the expansive space required for the development of a story as nuanced as this. There is the lovelorn Zeenat, daughter of one of the highest amirs, a high-ranking mansabdar, who in a daring act sets off on a mission to find her beau. Her brother, Shamsher, a dandy, has his own goal to fulfil and is unaware of her aim. There is the mysterious bhatiyari, the innkeeper whose puzzling provenance and demeanour adds to the crepuscular feel of the novel.

Then there are the menials among the villagers like Bali and Tara, who, in a Herculean breach of ancient social norms, set about rebuilding society according to the Bhakti philosophies of Kabir and Raidas. These are the Satnamis, although Amita Kanekar prefers to use the synonymous term Mundas to describe them throughout the novel. An assortment of other colourful characters keeps the narrative chugging along: the Portuguese merchant who trades in Narnaul, for instance, and a saint called Birbhan, who devises a technique to modernise muskets. A thief who is lured by the ways of the Mundas provides an impetus to the story towards the end. But it is Mamuri—a real historical character who was an officer of the Mughal intelligence department—who with his dogged pursuit of ferreting out the truth provides the framework for the plot. The majestic shadow of Aurangzeb hovers over the novel throughout, although he never makes an appearance as a character.

Amita Kanekar’s novel discusses caste and gender in medieval India in a refreshing and intellectual way and explores the gradual impact of Muslim rule on Indian society. She recreates vividly medieval India in all its splendour and wretchedness. Her language is not florid, but there are profound passages ruminating on the human condition that fit well in the overall narrative structure.

Surprisingly for a novel of this scope, an introductory note setting the context of the events and the historical works consulted is glaringly absent. Considering that the plot shuffles across time and space, the story would have been clearer if the year and place had been mentioned before every new scene. A contents page and glossary along with a brief description of the many characters who flit in and out of the plot would have also provided more clarity. But these are the few peccadilloes in a phenomenal work.

The writer Ken Follett, who writes across genres and has written a substantial amount of historical fiction, has a rule while writing stories set in the past: “My rule is: either the scene did happen, or it might have; either these words were used, or they might have been.” The rule sounds simple but this is perhaps the biggest challenge that a writer of historical fiction faces: how to make one’s writing authentic when a novel is set in the past? Considering that there is little historical material available on the Satnami rebellion, Amita Kanekar has done a fantastic job of recreating it and has satisfactorily followed the rule that Follett has set. The events that she describes could well have happened in the way in which they have been written in her book. The book is a work of great accomplishment that will stand the test of time.

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