A magical tale
The strength of human emotion and relationships is what transforms this book from a mere historical novel into one that is immediate and relevant, says Jahnavi Barua
Set in the Saka year 1532, along the banks of the Tungabhadra River in the kingdom of Vijayanagar, Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s novel achieves, with remarkable felicity, an unusual feat: the author blends history and human emotion together so skillfully that the reader is presented with a historical novel which feels like a contemporary one.
The illustrious king, Devaraya, the second, rules over the kingdom with a firm, yet, compassionate hand. He is threatened constantly by the Muslim Yavana king and hence remains in a state of vigil. Small skirmishes along border areas are not usual; Devaraya’s brother, Vijayaraya, a brilliant soldier, keeps the military situation firmly under control. To strengthen his hold, Devaraya enters into marriage alliances with princesses of neighbouring kingdoms, deftly bringing those rulers onto his side. The central subject of this novel is one such alliance: his impending marriage to Princess Bidyunmala of Kalinga. In an unusual move, the princess, accompanied by her step-sister, Manikankana, and other dignitaries of her father’s court, sails to Devaraya’s kingdom. Their long, perilous journey is punctuated by significant events, one of which has a profound impact on the course of lives of all the players in this drama.
Woven into this tale of royal intrigue are several familiar elements. The first one that strikes up a resonance in any heart is the unexpected love that flowers in Princess Bidyunmala’s heart; unexpected because the object of her love is not the handsome king whose fourth wife she is to become. This is, obviously, not a love that will be approved of. Raging against the seemingly iron clad rules that govern her royal fate, she says, “Am I my father’s instrument? Do I not have an independent identity of my own?” This statement is an interesting one indeed. Is it suffused with a sentiment that is modern for its times, for even today, women, especially in our country, are still debating it? Or, were those far away times more progressive than our own? Did women have more of a say in their lives than they do today? In the latter case, the princess is not remarkable in expressing her dissatisfaction so eloquently. Anyhow, this illicit love charges the novel with an ever present tension.
There is another love story, more predictable, yet deeply moving in its simplicity and depth — that of Manikankana for the king, who has been chosen for her sister. Around these central entanglements are many others: deceit, greed, betrayal and redemption. Particularly moving is an account of a friendship, a relationship so selfless and pure, that no reader can remain untouched by its power.
The strength of human emotion and relationships in this book is what transforms it from a mere historical novel into one that is immediate and relevant. The vitality that pulses through the telling of the tale keeps the reader riveted — very rarely is attention drawn away from the story. In fact, it is easy to keep turning pages until the conclusion. Quite an accomplishment, considering the subject of the story and the consequent need for a certain formal tone in the narration of it. In accordance with that need, the language of the book is formal; the author relies on a classical slant but his formidable skill as a writer also infuses his writing with an unmistakable lyricism. Consider this. In describing the progress of the Tungabhadra River, the author says, “Her rapid currents like a ringing anklet, the Tungabhadra ploughs a long, lonely furrow on her difficult voyage.”
Throughout the book, this deftness of language and imagery is encountered, something not just the author, but the translator too has to be applauded for.
Bandopadhyay, Translated by Arunava Sinha
2010, pp 253,