Saturday, 26 May 2012

Kim's Review: Mastani

Mastani is Kusum Choppra's 2nd novel after "Beyond Diamond Rings".

Mastani is often relegated to a footnote as a 'dancing girl' in most references to Peshwa Baji Rao I, but Kusum Choppra's historical research discovered that she was actually the daughter of Maharaj Chhatrasal of Bundelkhand whose source of unlimited wealth was partly due to the mines of precious stones under his command.

While Maharaj Chhatrasal himself was an intelligent, tactful king and an excellent strategist, his sons unfortunately did not take after him. Due to old age he had to request the help of Peshwa Baji Rao I to release his son Jagatraj who was taken prisoner by Mohammad Khan Bangash when he mounted an impetous and unplanned assault against them.

As part of the treaty with Peshwa Baji Rao I, Maharaj Chhatrasal offered his daughter Mastani as a dola or upstri (mistress) to him. But Baji Rao I shrewdly asked to be married to her, so he could reap the benefits of being a son-in-law of the Maharaja.

Bundela women learnt self defense at a young age and kshatriya women who showed aptitude were given further training. Mastani had shown immense potential as a child and learnt all the skills that were traditionally the domain of kshatriya men along with all the feminine skills required of living in a zenana.

Maharaj Chhatrasal followed the Pranami Dharm (as a disciple of Mahamati Prannathj) popular in North India at that time which combined both Hindu & Islamic teachings & practices. So while their kshatriya family were Krishna Bhakts, they also performed the namaaz.

Peshwa Baji Rao came from a family of traditional Chitpavan Brahmins. The Brahmin community was already seething at the Chitpavan's being made Peshwa over other Brahmin communities, so they lost no time in making a hue and cry over Mastani's Islamic roots and practices.

Peshwa Baji Rao's mother Radhabai and his first wife Kashibai were also not happy about his second marriage. His brother Chimaji Appa who controlled the administration and finances for Baji Rao, wasn't pleased with Mastani advising her husband on matters of strategy, administration and finance. Baji Rao's eldest son Nana Sahib who was being brought up by his uncle and grandmother while his father was off fighting and winning wars, was quick to take their side too.

Kusum's novel about the life of Mastani shows how their jealousies and pettiness were responsible for keeping Mastani's name out of all references in their family chronicles even though she was his favourite and accompanied him everywhere including fighting wars by his side.

The book is well written blending fact with fiction. The 2 alternate endings was something new. One ending follows the commonly belived story and the 2nd ending Kusum says came to her in a dream but took into account most of the facts of that time.

My only problem with the book is that at times, she stops writing the story as a novelist and drifts into the role of commentator interspersed with her reasoning. This interrupted the flow and feel of the story for me.

On her blog, Kusum Choppra says: 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 to explode all the myths and legends that surround Mastani, to expose her tragedy, her true character and her royal background.

Mastani was perhaps 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.

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 household....... plus 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 .

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.

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.

Rating: 4/5

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