Anuja Chandramouli begins the interview saying that she has always been a history buff. Then, with a chuckle, she adds, “Which is why, though I have a track record for dozing with my eyes open during physics, chemistry and most lectures, I would usually be wide awake and listen during history lessons.” So, it was a natural progression that historical characters caught her attention when she ventured into writing. Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince, Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts, Kamadeva: The God of Desire and Karthikeya: The Destroyer’s Son testimony that sticks. Latest in the list is Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant, which is based on the life and times of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the Sultan of Delhi from 1325 to 1351. “There is something about the past that exerts a strong pull over me and I find the attraction irresistible! Some of the world’s best stories are found within the pages of the dusty times of history.”
In the book, Anuja reimagines the tale of the Sultan, who was labelled as a bad boy by historians of his time. The book begins with young Jauna Khan immersed in a conversation with his friend Abu about the prevailing situation in their kingdom. As the story proceeds, Jauna succeeds to the throne of Dilli as Muhammad bin Tughlaq. Though he is a strategist and scholar, he is misunderstood for his deeds. Anuja, who tries to bring the ‘man’ behind the monarch to the fore through her book, says that she came across the character during her school days. “I was in grade VI when I first heard about him. He is a very intriguing, complex and contradictory character, so naturally he made a huge impression on me, to the extent that I took up the challenge of devoting an entire book to him, many years later.”
In her opinion, the Sultan was terribly misunderstood by historians of his time. “Historians like Barani and Isami were definitely hard on him and had their own agendas when they took up the hatchet,” she says. “Agha Mahdi Husain in his The Rise and Fall of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq helps dispel many of the misconceptions about Tughlaq while also portraying his savage excesses. As far as I can tell, the Sultan made himself very unpopular with the drastic measures he sought to implement that led to a chain reaction of disasters that did not bode well for him or his subjects. Consequently, a lot of the good he did was ignored while his flaws were carefully preserved in scathing, extremely biased language,” adds Anuja, who spent a good amount of time researching on her subject.
Like she says, she devoured everything she could get her hands on. Besides Agha Mahdi Husain’s book, she enjoyed reading Battuta’s fanciful and occasionally suspect reminiscing about the Sultan. “Girish Karnad’s play on Tughlaq was pretty awesome too. I also did a lot of background research with help from historians like John Keay and Abraham Eraly, whose work I visit often, as well as Peter Jackson, N. Jayapalan, and Jaswant Lal Mehta among others.”
Ask her whether she was apprehensive about giving a new face to the Tughlaq, she says, “Worrying about repercussions tends to make you nervous. You need steady nerves while working on such a subject. So, I simply focused on the fact that Muhammad bin Tughlaq is a towering persona who left an indelible mark on the pages of history, did my research thoroughly and tried to go for a balanced perspective while portraying this immensely divisive figure.”
Anuja says one factor she found interesting about Tughlaq was his capacity for brutality and benevolence in equal measure. “It boggles the mind that the man who gave the order for his rebellious cousin, Bahauddin Gurshasp, to be hacked into pieces and the flesh cooked with spices, in addition to casually executing hundreds, was also genuinely concerned about the welfare of his subjects and went all out to help them when famine plagued the land for years at a stretch. He also had a well-deserved reputation for generosity, intelligence and being a man far ahead of his times when it came to economic as well as other policies,” she says.
“The challenge lies in portraying the good, bad and ugly faces of a character and doing justice to them all. It calls for skill and precision, but that is what makes it so much fun! Ultimately, when dealing with historical characters, it is important to treat the material as well as memory of these revered or reviled figures with respect.”
Once she got a fair picture of the Sultan’s life, Anuja used her creative freedom to mould the character. She wove together the slices of the past to ensure a seamless narrative. “I also tried to explore and portray the psyche of such a vastly complicated person in order to gain an insight into the inner workings of his mind and heart,” says Anuja, who also focused on the women in his life in the book. She feels that one of the most disturbing elements about historians of that era is that they had been careless about recording the lives of women, who were key players in leading dynasties. “It is galling that in Tughlaq’s case, the ladies in his life are barely referred to and sometimes only with the honorific assigned to them, with nary a mention of their real names.”
Using the scant material available, she tried to flesh out the characters of Tughlaq’s mother, sister, both of who were powerful figures and very close to the Sultan. “As for his wife, there was nothing for me to go on. So, she had to be fictionalised to a large degree, though I did base her on a character from his time, who met a tragic and stomach-churningly violent end,” says Anuja, who is waiting for next character to seduce her....