My thanks to the author, and Penguin RandomHouse India for a review copy of this book.
Muhammad Bin Tughlaq (reign 1325–1351) was the second ruler of the Tughlaq dynasty, which ruled over a large part of the country described as the Delhi Sultanate, ruled over by five different dynasties, the Mamluks, Khaljis, and Tughlaqs among them.
This book opens in a period of turmoil around the Delhi/Dilli throne when after the demise of Alauddin Khalji, his son Mubarak Shah has proved to be a disappointment, wasting his opportunity on the throne on his own pleasures and debauchery with the result that he has been murdered and the throne taken over by Nasiruddin Khusrau Shah, one of Khalji’s generals. In his capital, young Jauna Khan, son of Ghazi Malik, is a hostage of sorts, though officially Master of the Horse. But he is courageous and manages to make his escape and join his father, who goes on to found the Tughlaq dynasty as Ghiasuddin Tughlaq. His father’s death on return from one of his campaigns sees Jauna ascend the throne as Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, but the circumstances of the death mean that Muhammad will always be suspected of patricide. As the Sultan, Muhammad was a visionary, attempting a series of innovations from shifting his capital, to introducing currency—minting coins of base metals with higher value—and also had other radical ideas including pertaining faith and tolerance which were ahead of his time and did not sit well with his officials or people, despite his own good intentions. Unfortunately for him, most of his schemes and a few of his campaigns failed, and he is remembered as cruel or mad rather than for his ideas. In telling his story, the author explores all of these facets of his personality and of his life, as he goes from being Prince Jauna to Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq to the Mad Monarch amidst a few (his mother and sister) who loved and genuinely cared for him to others like his officials who didn’t really seem to understand him, and still others who were ever ready to betray.
This is the third book of historical fiction I’ve read by the author and it was my favourite so far. I really liked how she’s presented Muhammad (from whose point of view the story is told) as a person—a powerful monarch, yes, but not as someone good or bad or classifiable into clear cut categories, but rather an interesting but much misunderstood person, with ideas much ahead of his time, whether it be his innovations or his interest in interacting with those from other parts of the world. He is cruel certainly and the tortures he perpetrated on those who crossed him were horrifying but I felt it was no less so than other monarchs—the Mughals after him or Henry the VIII for that matter (which is not to say that those actions were not despicable but just that they weren’t extraordinarily so). (Incidentally, while in some of the author’s earlier books, I found what I called the ‘gory bits’ a bit much for me, here while they were still disturbing to read (as they should be), I didn’t feel that they were out of place where they were included.) Also he acts on his whims at times which again was characteristic of so many monarchs (and people generally). But from the overall portrait that this book paints, the feeling one comes away with is some level of sympathy for a man who certainly deserved better than he got.
Of the themes the author explores in the book, the one that stands out throughout is the need for tolerance for difference, whether it be of faith or other aspects—this is something that is relevant even in the current context and yet a lesson that people refuse to learn.
I enjoyed the author’s writing and descriptions, especially of celebratory occasions like his sister Khuda’s wedding—the vivid pictures she paints make one feel like one is there viewing the ceremonies and celebrations oneself. In some places, though, I felt some word choices were a touch modern and didn’t quite fit the historical context/atmosphere in the book. But while parts of the story and Muhammad’s personality might be as the author imagined them, the research that has gone into the book shows.
Another small complaint I had with the book was something I felt with her earlier historical book, Prithviraj Chauhan as well—in a work of historical fiction, especially when a monarch and his kingdom is the centre of discussion, including a map/s of the Sultanate as it was in the period or periods being written of would have made the reading experience better as one could have immediately referred to it to see what places or areas were being spoken of. The second element which would also have been helpful was a list of characters mentioned or even a family tree/s. The first chapter of the book where the author describes the situation of the Delhi throne after Khalji’s death, numerous characters are mentioned, not all of whom one was familiar with and I found it a little confusing to keep who was who straight in my mind. I realise that many of these (in fact, most) don’t really come up again in the story, but still a cast of characters describing people in the different dynasties would have helped keep things clearer.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book which presented many facets of a very interesting historical personality. A solid 4 stars.