The first of my ‘theme’ reads this month (my reading theme is here), and this ‘King’ in question in this one is the Maratha warrior–king Shivaji, who ruled in the latter part of the seventeenth century. More about him here. This book, originally Bengali was written by Sardindu Bandhyopadhyay, a screenwriter (for both Bollywood and Bengali cinema) as well as writer whose best known creation is perhaps his detective Byomkesh Bakshi, who with his Watson, Ajit Bandhyopadhyay solves some very interesting puzzles. Bandhyopadhyay (Sardindu, not Ajit) also wrote historical fiction, ghost stories, and children’s fiction. I read the translation in English (Penguin, 2005) of Band of Soldiers by Sreejata Guha, whose translation of one collection Bandhyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries, Picture Imperfect I’ve read earlier.
Shivaji took on, among others, both the Mughals and the Bijapur sultanate, and established his own kingdom at Raigarh. This story is set in the time when Shivaji and his band occupy the fort at Torne, and are fighting essentially the armies of the Bijapur Sultan, whose vassals include at that point, Shivaji’s father Shahji. The story is told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Sadashiv, who is thrown out from his village of Dongarhpur where he has been living with his uncle, to go and fend for himself. He decides (partly at the suggestion of his friend Kunku) to go and join the band of the brave Shivaji. He not only does that, but once trained as a soldier, he proves himself a brave and clever aide undertaking several dangerous missions like infiltrating the enemy camp, delivering messages in enemy territory and to people not so easy to reach, even outwitting dacoits, besides playing an important role in helping Shivaji fulfil his plans. There is also a little touch of ‘romance’ for Sadashiv but saying any more would just be a spoiler (but it does bring him some further adventure). The book is in the form of five connected, yet separate parts, each a complete adventure in itself.
(The Coronation of Shivaji)
Image Source:By Chitrashala Press – http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1600_1699/marathas/raigarh/raigarh.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18970994
Band of Soldiers made for a fairly fast paced and exciting read, which I enjoyed very much. Sadashiv is a likeable ‘hero’, courageous as well as resourceful, with presence of mind to do what the situation calls for and accomplish the task which he is assigned to do. I also felt that as the stories go on, we see Sadashiv grow as well―in the sense that while even initially he does prove his intelligence carrying out his missions, in the latter stories, he also comes up with the broader plans himself, when Shivaji’s own don’t work out as expected. He reminded me very much of G.A. Henty’s ‘heroes’, also in the same age bracket, showing similar bravado, and having similar adventures, and of the other book I’m currently reading Letter for the King, which also falls into the same category. I liked how the adventures of Sadhashiv have been woven into the stories of the historical characters, Shivaji, Tanaji, Jijabai and Shahji, among them. Unlike some (not all, of course) other historical fiction where historical characters merely make an appearance, or play a smaller part, in what is essentially the fictional character’s story, in this one, they are very much a part of the fictional character’s story as he is of theirs, and in a very believable way. The book also gives one a ‘feel’ of the period it is set in, from the uncertainty, danger, and want that was the daily life of people caught amidst warring armies, to things like what journeys for someone in Sadhashiv’s position would have been like, or even the kind of food (I always go there) that would have been eaten. We also see Shivaji’s progress through the stories as he captures through war and strategy fort after fort and more territory, on the way to establishing his kingdom. In fact, I read somewhere that Bandhyopadhyay was planning to write more these stories tracing the whole of Shivaji’s reign, but unfortunately didn’t end up finishing this. More about this here.
(Sadashiv finds treasure: illustration by Dipankar Bhattacharya, back cover of Band of Soldiers (Penguin, 2005) (apologies for the bad picture))
The translator I thought has done a very good job overall, and except at one or two points, one hardly feels one is reading a translation. I also loved the cover illustrations (both front and back) by Dipankar Bhattacharya, and wish that the publishers had thought to include some inside as well. As I mentioned, I’d only read one collection of Bandhyopadhya’s detective stories featuring Byomkesh Bakshi earlier, and this book, in a totally different genre, and indeed a completely different setting (both place and time) proved a very pleasant experience. I really enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to reading his other book By the Tungabhadra (also historical fiction, and available in translated form). Great read!