I haven’t usually been sharing my book reviews in general on this blog, but this book really stood out to me for many reasons, so here is my review. This also appears on goodreads.
There’s this Hindi TV show called Prithvi Vallabh running currently, and when I saw the adverts initially (still haven’t seen the actual programme), it looked interesting and on looking it up further I found that there was a book by the same name in Gujarati, based on the same historical characters. What made me more interested in reading this was discovering (a little later) that the K.M Munshi who wrote this book, was the same Munshi who’d served as member of the Constituent Assembly (and who I came across quite often as a result in college courses) and later as minister. The version I read was of course not Gujarati but an English translation brought out by Bhartiya Vidhya Bhawan, and translated by H.M. Patel.
This is described as a historical romance and based on some surviving verses of a twelfth-century poem, as well as a fourteenth-century verse. The story is basically that of Munja, the brave, and handsome king of Malwa who has defeated Tailap of Manyakhet on sixteen (or was it eighteen?) occasions. But finally, with the help of Bhillam, Tailap’s feudatory King, now forced to serve as a mere general under the latter, Munja, also known as Prithvi Vallabh, the ‘beloved of the earth’, has been defeated and brought as prisoner to Manyakhet. Mrinalvati, Tailap’s older sister and de facto ruler of Manyakhet is keen on punishing and bringing to his knees, Munja, who she views as a sinner, who has insulted her by mentioning her in verse (but this bit—how or why–really never becomes clear). But when she actually meets and interacts with the enchanting, Munja, a man who is no ordinary mortal, she ends up falling in love with him. Alongside runs the story of Vilasvati, Bhillam’s daughter (who is engaged to Satyashray, Tailap’s son) and Rasnidhi, a poet who has been captured along with Munja and his armies.
While this is a ‘romance’ as described, and there are elements that could be seen as usual for the genre, this story captured my attention from the very beginning because of how different it was from anything that I’d read, and especially keeping in mind when it was written (1921). For starters, as a historical romance, I was expecting teenaged or just-out-of-their-teens heroes and heroines (many of the stories I’ve been reading lately seem to fall into this category) that one ordinarily encounters, in such stories and, while there were those, here were some completely different and unexpected characters. Mrinalvati, our heroine, is forty-five, a woman who was widowed at sixteen and for whom life has been all about austerity, controlling her emotions, barring out any form of joy or pleasure, a life that in her view is right and that she has imposed on all her kingdom, including young Vilasvati. This means no laughter, dancing or singing, no poetry or poets, only wars and prayers, and meditation. Then again, she is described on more than one occasion as ‘ugly’ and ‘greying’―so both a rather complex character, and very different from the typical heroine. But Mrinalvati is not the stereotypical heroine in yet another way, and that is that it is she who wields power in her kingdom, these are questions that weigh with her when she considers a possible life with Munja. Munja or Prithvi Vallabh too, describes himself as about to be fifty, and is Mrinalvati’s polar opposite, on the one side he is happy to experience anything and everything—ups, downs, love, hate, victory, defeat—and on the other, he lets nothing bring him down or distress or upset him in any way, in some ways rising above emotions much more successfully than Mrinalvati and her kin who observe an almost ascetic lifestyle and yet are keen to get revenge, to humble their enemy. Mrinalvati learns through Munja to actually love, and that love cannot be taken away from one, no matter what happens. Munja is in some ways a too-good-to-be-true hero, with perfect looks and demeanour, allowing nothing to frazzle him, in a way not a very human or real character but considering he as he is in the book is from a twelfth century poem, one doesn’t mind so much. On the other side, Vilasvati, who has been brought up under Mrinal’s guidance, and thus tries to supress any emotion, is also exposed to new thought and ideas and poetry, a new way of life through her interactions with the poets, particularly Rasnidhi, who have accompanied Munja and whose release her father has secured. Incidentally, there are plenty of references to poetry, and I read later on wiki that these were poems from around about the right time period.
So while this is a romance, or two romances, it goes into much more in a way, the whole notion of love (in its ideal form), of joy and happiness, of ways of life, being human with all your emotions and pleasures versus being or attempting to be stoic, even the importance of art or poetry or such, and all of this through the story itself, rather than being addressed in a ‘narrator’s’ voice.
This read, which again falls within my theme of Kings and Queens, was a really interesting and unusual read, with so much that stood out, and I am very glad I got to read this. I am keen to explore more of Munshi’s works and hope I can find translations.