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 outré 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 :) 

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