Saturday, April 13, 2019

Thoughts on Tughlaq

Cover illustration and design by Parag Chitale
Published by Penguin Random House

Muhammad bin Tughlaq is one of history’s bad boys and as such has exerted a strange pull over me, ever since I heard about him in grade VI, during Sister Fabiola’s history class. Being fascinated about him is one thing but writing a book on his life and travails was altogether a different kettle of fish for the Sultan has put the complex in complicated and the puzzling in paradoxical. What a character he was and still is (even if it is only in my own head)!
            Modern historians concur that he has been terribly misunderstood and so called scholarly accounts from the likes of Ibn Batuta, Barani and Isami reek of bias. He was exceedingly unpopular among the followers of his own faith for daring to be tolerant to his subjects who belonged to other religions, failing to zealously guard the principles of Islam from idolatry and heresy and raising non – believers to high posts instead of dealing with them using the savagery he was infamous for.
            The Sultan had a rough time of it with the orthodoxy who sought repeatedly to undermine his reign and even tried to have him killed. But Muhammad bin Tughlaq refused to give in to their fanatical demands, choosing instead to provoke them further by killing key religious leaders in spectacularly barbaric fashion. Needless, to say he paid a heavy price for his belligerent attitude. It probably explains why he issued an extraordinary proclamation prohibiting public prayers in the empire for a period of five years though by all accounts he himself was a devout practitioner of Islam!
In addition to this, the challenges of ruling an unwieldy empire where his subjects in the various provinces had their own language, customs, all of whom were uniformly proud and prickly about their roots which in turn led to endless bickering and ceaseless hostility often erupting into bouts of communal violence proved too much for him. The unrelenting pressures of governance and the lack of support from his officials and subjects made him bitter and cynical. Not that it stopped him from doing his utmost to implement his outrĂ© innovations and ‘madcap’ schemes viewed with alarm and disbelief by his contemporaries with his trademark impulsiveness and recklessness which effectively doused the sparks of genius that went into the making of his grandiloquent plans.  
The man was an exceptional scholar well – versed in theology, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy, economics and finance with a keen mind imbued with the spirit of enquiry. Many of his ill – advised reforms particularly the one where he sought to replace gold and silver coins with alternative currency were sound but the manner in which they were enforced left a lot to be desired. A failure to seek the counsel of his councillors and experts, anticipate problems in execution, the rampant corruption which derailed many of his projects before they could take off, and careless cruelty with which he dealt with his subjects when they failed to fall in with his plans led to untold suffering and nearly derailed his authority.
The Sultan had neither the pragmatism nor the patience to see his revolutionary ideas pertaining to administration, agriculture and taxation through to a successful conclusion. When confronted with successive failures which led to a loss of face for the emperor, he became increasingly embittered and his mercurial temper led to savage reprisals which led to his being universally reviled.
Yet, even his harshest critics have conceded that Muhammad bin Tughlaq was also a kind, generous and benevolent ruler. He seemed to have genuinely cared about the welfare of his subjects and worked tirelessly to end their suffering during the terrible famine that beset his reign and laid waste to the countryside for long years. If only the Sultan had not been opposed at every turn by his subjects, circumstances and his own temperament not to mention the rash of rebellions that robbed his empire of stability he may have met with a modicum of success and changed the history of this land and realized his vision to make it a better place. Perhaps we would not be plagued with the problems of incompetent leaders, greedy bureacrats, indifferent citizens, corruption, and communal strife to this very day. Perhaps…
This book is an attempt to recreate the life and times of Muhammad bin Tughlaq and clamber into the chaotic headspace of one who was considered to be a mad monarch. Painstaking research has gone into the foundation and I am particularly grateful to Agha Mahdi Husain for his invaluable assistance which I am grateful for. But when it came to building upon the character of this towering persona, I have taken some creative liberties. When confronted with conflicting versions of certain events, I have gone with what makes sense to me personally or have cobbled together missing fragments with chunks from my own imagination.
All chroniclers of Muhammad bin Tughlaq have been annoyingly negligent when it comes to the women in his life. His mother Makhduma Jahan (Mistress of the World) is referred to with said honorific and no one saw fit to mention her real name though she is believed to have been hugely influential and known to have received foreign dignitaries and taken an active interest in governance. His sister, Khudawandzada, also gets a passing mention because the Sultan’s munificence was on display during her wedding and she dared to make a bid for power on behalf of her son Dawar Malik during his successor, Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s reign. There is next to nothing about his wife (wives?) or progeny which is truly puzzling since everybody in those times had an unhealthy obsession with the love lives of their Sultans and the fecundity of their wives. (not that things have changed drastically in these enlightened times) 
Be that as it may, I have sought to give the royal ladies a voice, even if it is mostly my own. With regard to Muhammad bin Tuglaq’s love interest, Girish Karnad gave me the germ of an idea in his wonderful play on Tughlaq and I ran with it, though in a different, much darker direction. Feel free to make of it what you will, dear reader.
For those who insist on knowing where exactly fact and fiction diverge or converge in these pages, I suggest you do what I did which is read up on Tughlaq and make up your own mind.
Every time, I make a date with history, I see the present in the past as well as the past in the present. This book is my attempt to make sense of both in order to get an inkling of the potential and perils held by the future. Does that make sense?

MUHAMMAD BIN TUGHLAQ: TALE OF A TYRANT is my 10th book. You can order your copy right here and be the recipient of my eternal gratitude :) 

Thursday, April 11, 2019


The Indian General Election is just around the corner. Unfortunately, the damn thing does not come with a statutory warning about how the unspooling events can be hard on your heart with the added risk of your mental and emotional state unravelling with alarming speed. There are cops all over the place for the ostensible purpose of maintaining law and order who gesture for you to pull over, uncaring that a bunch of chaps in bunched up lungis and Bappi Lahiri level bling just zoomed by, nearly running over a poor old lady, in order to avoid hitting the placid cow who was taking a leisurely stroll in the middle of the road.
Naturally, your heart rate goes through the roof, while they bark questions at you and go through your luggage while an overenthusiastic type records the proceedings. The dutiful minion of the law, double checks your toilet kit which may or not contain a purloined item or two from the last fancy hotel you stayed at, while a tidal wave of terror overwhelms you as you envision yourself growing old, locked up in a dank cell reeking of urine and filled with excreta (like in Sanju), awaiting your day in court, while the judges take a half – hearted stab at clearing the backlog of cases which is surmised will take a few centuries at the very least. As the tension ratchets to unbearable levels, the cop with one last grunt to register his displeasure since you refuse to make eye – contact, allows you to leave. Where are these fellows the rest of the time you wonder, once your breathing has returned to normal, when there are young girls being abducted/raped/killed, when guilty diamond merchants are buying a first class ticket to Heathrow, when mobs lynch citizens for eating beef?
Having barely recovered from your scary encounter with the desi Mark Fuhrman, you decide to hit the spa and pamper yourself only to find that all routes to your destination are blocked because an earnest politician is on the campaign trail, nightmarish cavalcade of vehicles driven by goons with definite road rage issues in tow. Citizens have been bussed in from all over with the promise of mutton biriyani, booze and hard cash so that they can listen to uninspired speeches that promise jobs and justice for everybody while taking in the eye – popping ugliness that are the life – sized cut-outs of crooks, complete with their creatively embellished achievements on flimsily erected hoardings that seem in danger of toppling over unwary two – wheelers who don’t wear helmets since it messes with their gelled hair.
While waiting for the traffic to clear, you whip out your smart phone to check out IPL related matters when the news apps take it upon themselves to provide in – depth analysis by eager beavers about the upcoming elections hoping to convince you about the soundness of their preferred candidate though we all know that like in the past, we will simply have to choose between the devil and deep blue sea. Worst of all, the horror show with its relentless, arduous and dedicated fusillade of all things grotesque and nasty has only just begun. What to do? You sigh in resignation, dig your nails into your palms, crawl homeward and scream into a pillow. 
This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Breaking Barriers from Beneath One

Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan briskly ushers the reader into the land of the veiled for a voyeuristic peek into the intimate lives of those who are supposedly cowering behind the layers of fabric imposed on them by religion and patriarchy. Told over the span of sixteen, succulent stories, the book dedicates itself to the task of stripping away stereotypes pertaining to Muslim women who are often viewed as submissive victims of centuries of brutal repression, wretchedly resigned to the deprivation of their agency. In recent times, there has been much controversy over the traditional headscarf or the hijab. For many it is an unpalatable symbol of patriarchal conditioning and religious fanaticism while there are others who insist that a woman’s right to cover herself is every bit as sacred as her right to bare.
Javeri comes out swinging strongly in favour of the latter POV which may not go down too well with some. The brand of feminism, showcased in this book bursts out from beneath the tent- like garments and is delightfully distinctive in that the idea of empowerment here does not necessarily conform with the overarching impression of the same held by the fiercer firebrands of the feminist cause. And yet, make no mistake, Hijabistan for the most part does champion women’s rights with gusto, empathy and balance.
Ultimately it all comes down to the stories. And the things they reveal. Or conceal. As Javeri puts it, ‘We are all made up of stories. The stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves and more importantly, the stories we hide. Deep inside.’ A young girl refuses to be cowed down by expectations or assumptions and has no qualms about using her body to spice up her otherwise mundane existence especially since she can expect gifts and cash in exchange. Radha uses her body too in a quest for financial and emotional freedom. She does get these and a lot more than she bargained for but is determined to do what it takes to survive. There is the girl with the irrepressible urges that refused to be stymied within the suffocating confines of the hijab and rigidly enforced oppression. She satiates these with thievery, flashing and a stolen moment of forbidden intimacy which leads to a tightened leash and an explosion of supressed need.

A married woman commits adultery and a student explores a forbidden avenue of sexuality. Coach Annie is an inspiring figure who teaches football to strapping lads who initially look askance at the Asian who refuses to lose her headscarf but are eventually won over by her grit and gumption.
A majority of the stories are juicy and leave you with a lingering aftertaste but they aren’t all gems. ‘The Full Stop’ is a trite tale of a girl who gets her period and gets all bent out of shape because her father, a doctor is embarrassed by it. ‘The Hijab and Her’ is a similarly, unimpressive account of a young girl who inexplicably during the course of a lecture gives up on graduate school applications in favour of ISIS. These sour notes notwithstanding, the land of the veiled warrants a visit, if only to gain a proper sense of perspective in a world that is increasingly being stripped of nuance. 

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.


‘Period. End of Sentence’, a film about menstruation won big at the Oscars. Some folks cheered loudly but others have been quibbling about it. The arguments raised, pertaining to exploitation in the making of the film and careless dispensation of faulty statistics, got me thinking. Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly obvious that no matter how well intentioned the feminist cause may be, inadvertently it has served the interests of big business above all else. 

Is it so terrible to use cloth instead of pads while menstruating? Padmen who make a fortune selling sanitary napkins have informed us that cloth is for curtains and civilized, empowered women are better off using their more expensive product. After all, pads are far more comfortable and convenient, even if they are not biodegradable. Besides why should women bother about the environment when it is doomed anyway? It is simpler to vilify cloth, even though it was good enough for our grandmothers who certainly were not unfortunate, illiterate, and miserable savages who did not know better. I remember an older woman who explained that in the good old days, they would all have a box filled with clean rags that were used, washed, boiled, dried, replaced and reused every month.
Of course, I am not advocating that we go back to the days of restricted movement while menstruating, with the stigma thrown in for good measure. But I am merely pointing out that cloth wasn’t too bad and sometimes, women like to take three days off from their never –ending chores and workload. Therefore, if there are ladies out there who prefer to use cloth, perhaps we should just leave them alone instead of making condescending movies with sad music about their wretchedness.
This applies for innerwear as well. I was told that earlier, women belonging to the lower castes/classes were ‘not allowed’ to wear blouses or bras and it was only in the latter half of the British reign that they were emancipated. But surely those ‘poor, unfortunate’ women weren’t exactly complaining? In certain parts of the country, like in Kerala it was perfectly acceptable for ladies to go about their work, topless which had to have been ideal given the sweltering conditions. Then came the dark day, when marketing ploys were successfully employed to convince the female of the species that the smart, sexy and sassy among them were the ones who bound their breasts behind the satin, lace and underwire reinforced lingerie that Victoria’s Secret had helpfully purveyed at an exorbitant price. And of course, the civilized thing to do was to conceal these behind tailored blouses!

Don’t even get me started on beauty product hawking conglomerates who decided that the only use they have for feminism is to cash in on it. Women are told that their social currency is tied to their ‘natural beauty’. Therefore rather than devote themselves to their studies, personalities or jobs to get ahead in their lives, it would behove them to make looking good, a full time job. Today, if a girl is not exquisitely groomed and expensively branded out from head to toe, then she may as well go back to the cave she supposedly emerged from. Bring out the war paint, ladies, it is time to free feminism from the chains of consumerism! 
This artcile was originally carried by The New Indian Express.