Bhoj Raj Singh Sisodiya (1495 – 1526) as he is known in the history and folklores of Mewar, a province of Rajasthan, was the first born son and heir apparent of Rana Sangram Singh who fought with Babur in the famous Battle of Khanwa (1526). His other identity is that he was the husband of saint poetess Meera Bai. Meera Bai is one of the most prominent figures not only of the Bhakti Movement in the subcontinent of India but also as a woman character in the history of the land. She was married to him at a very young age and that is where the story of “Cuckold” starts from. It takes us on a parallel journey of a man proving to be the heir of a mighty kingdom his father set up and his wife who rose to a goddess-like status almost overnight.
Not much is historically known about this prince who lived most of his life in the shadows of his father and wife, and has been probably assumed to have died in the war Mewar fought against Babar’s army at Khanwa. He finds mention in some of Meera Bai’s poems and songs, as a companion, confidant and friend.
Hence, there is probably ample scope of fictionalizing his life. Bhoj Raj in the book “Cuckold” by Kiran Nagarkar is regarded as Maharaj Kumar. He is the central character of the story involving not only his private life with his hard to understand better half but also the political aspect of the land, involving the threat from Timurids (Mughals), Ahmednagar (Kingdom of Gujarat) as well as the Lodis in Delhi and the Rulers of Malwa (Mandu).
Although the story is a historical fiction in nature and makes no claim to be true to events of the past, most of the characters in the book are in fact historical as are some of the main events of war, accession as well as places that find mention in history that has been used as background to the story. One of the most fascinating things in this book, apart from the justice done to real historical characters like Rana Sanga, Rani Karnavati, Meera Bai (who is addressed as The Princess) Babur (parts of his actual memoirs has been represented word by word) and Humayun, the fictional characters such as Kausalya, Leelawati and Mangal had been so well portrayed that one might feel the resemblance to many known historical characters.
The story has layers of complex human relationships, psychological aspects of the human mind, essence of the Bhakti religious preachings and political aspects of that time blended equally well into each other. Unlike most historical fiction, you really don’t need to know the actual story or characters to understand any part of this very well knit book.
Sahitya Akademi Award 2000 winner Kiran Nagarkar in his bestseller “Cuckold”, first published in 1997, brings forward the complex nature of relationship between a man and his wife who refuses to acknowledge him as her husband. His rival for her love in this tale, as expected, is of unusual kind, a god she called her husband even before knowing he was in fact a god. The thoughts and feelings of Bhoj Raj, as a husband, a prince eager to prove himself as an heir, and a man with simple primitive needs of love and lust has been portrayed so well that he comes alive in flesh and blood. Not everything he does in the book is heroic or justified, as the lead character struggles through a very unusual kind of life that his marriage comes with. Sometimes you hate him, other times you fail to understand his emotion or action, or even justify it. Yet in all his flaws, and reactions, he comes alive as a human being you can identify with and someone who stays with you even after the book is over. We have all heard stories of Meera Bai, and her devotion. This book gives us a new perspective from the eyes of a wronged husband to reflect upon. The fifty chapter lengthy book keeps you wondering and on the edge with its twists, turns and plots till the end. If you like love stories, this is probably a story you have never read before, nor a triangle you expect to see.
Like the author himself put it:
It was the stuff of bad nautanki plays. Man. Woman. And Lover. Except that the last one was an almighty god.
The narration shifts from first person in one chapter (in Maharaj Kumar’s own words) to third person in the next and it helps understand the story better, from the perspective of both the prince and those who saw him from outside. Most of the poetry and letters represented in the book are close to history and thus add to the possibility of keeping the reader wondering if the author’s imagination of events could at all be true.
The language of the book is very simple, yet rich in literary value and vivid in nature. The scenes of intimacy of the Maharaj Kumar with his love interests as well as some profound scenes of pondering between him and his wife, leaves one with a sense of poise in the way it has been executed.
The best part of the book has to be how the author justifies Meera Bai seeing her god come alive in front of her eyes. Although, revealing this probably takes away the suspense of the climax scenes of the book, I will leave it at, probably the most “Sufi” explanation of the God and Lover culminating into One, I have ever read. It oddly reminds one of classic tragedies we grew up knowing, the likes of Laila Majnu or Heer Ranjha. Yet, the sense of love, lust, attraction and relationships in this book is so real and easily relatable that you often find yourself understanding the emotion of Maharaj Kumar. The book grows on you, with every read, as you discover new aspects of the characters.
Special mention about the book, is on the military strategies and vividly described wars that often coincide with the actual formations and happenings of those wars which often leaves a history buff mesmerized with the intriguing details.
Why read it?
It is often a notion of many that to read a historical fiction one has to either know of the history behind it or may find it boring. Kiran Nagarkar’s “Cuckold” is neither. You can read it as a simple tale of a man in turmoil, his layers of love, lust, need and want, politics and power blended in right proportions to make him the man he was, and you can also read it as a story of relationships. If you are a history enthusiast like myself, you will find in it little details and nuances from contemporary documentations that keeps you hooked and amazed at the author’s well researched and well put story. All said and done, the book ends in a way you least expect it to (But don’t read the end first!) and leaves you wondering about what is truth and what are lies.
Astonishingly for a book of this size, like a young river cutting a gorge through our resistance to facing yet another literary door-stopper, it’s both deep and swift. (Padmanabhan Manjula, A Princely Story, Outlook (1997) https://magazine.outlookindia.com/story/a-princely-story/203119)
(Writer of the review is a history enthusiast, historical fiction blogger, and a published author with Penguin India)