2020 seems like a year of historical fiction among other things. When the media is helping to manufacture and spew lies, books can be our respite from that. And what better than a known-unknown world. It’s probably why I come to fiction, as a reader; but it’s different for Malathi Ramachandran who has come out with her fourth book, a historical fiction set in the 16th century Madhya Pradesh: Mandu: The Romance of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur by Malathi Ramachandran (Niyogi Books, 2020).
Mandu is located in the Malwa region of present-day Madhya Pradesh. In the past, it’s known as ‘Mandap Durga’ – known for its forts and temples. Before the kingdom went to the Mughals, the last ruler Baz Bahadur had a stint of romance with a beautiful poet and vocalist Roopmati, a shepherdess. The book is about their much-fabled romance.
In Roopmati’s poems, much has been talked about rains in Malwa, it’s probably why the book begins with the eulogization of the rains when Baz Bahadur meets Roopmati. A typical Bahubali (first part) meeting.
In the woods, Baz Bahadur turns his horse and follows the captivating voice singing Raga Megha Malhar. He finally discovers the beauty who turns and says, “You are very wet.” This is followed by the shepherdess taking the King to her humble place where the father offers “masala chai.” The King asks for Roopmati’s hand but the latter refuses.
It’s nothing else except that she sees Naramada daily. She calls the river her mother and she can’t part with her. So she rejects the proposal. However, as all kings have their ways Baz convinces her and gives her a word that he’ll make sure that she sees her mother daily.
By the time we have a feeling that Baz Bahadur is a hopeless romantic, we learn that it’s not the case. He’s into music and he’s desperately looking for a companion. He’s not a bachelor though, he’s married but thinks of Hiba – his queen – to be “the worst mistake of his life.” And in Roopmati Baz is sure to find the best match – both are into arts, music to be specific, and Baz gave it a thought what could be merrier than having her decorate his kingdom. Yes, you don’t bring someone into your life just so that you can be “personally entertained,” but it’s Baz Bahadur and he’s a king in 16th century India.
Roopmati doesn’t find herself comfortable in the palace but she finds Sadiya quite helpful. She’s the whole world at her disposal but she refuses all pleasures. Taking note of this Baz complaints, “I don’t understand. You are now my personal musician. All that is expected of you is to sing for me and with me.” Baz doesn’t take a while to realize and fulfils his promise, he orders that Roopmati be taken to see the river.
Learning that it’s just a musical companionship Roopmati does nothing but rehearses daily but slowly and steadily we see that a certain playfulness and flirtatiousness enters their relationship. One of those first moments is this when Baz says, “When you played just now, the lights came on all over Mandavgarh, but when I sing, they may all go out! If this goes on all evening, what is to become of our city?”
However, Baz loses sight of his kingdom completely. Jana Begum – Hiba’s mother – takes cognizance of the matter and asks Panna – the eunuch posted at Roopmati’s disposal – to give her the developments. She gets tired of telling Hiba that her marriage is in danger but to no avail.
She gets a letter delivered to her sister’s son, Adham Khan. Adham Khan is told about the mysterious beauty at Mandu who would be a great presence in Akbar’s court. Adham doesn’t take much time to ensure that Akbar takes a note of it. But failing once he tries again, and this time tops it up with helping Akbar increase the spread of his empire by capturing Mandu. Akbar agrees and the plotting begins.
Aloof there remains Baz and Roopmati in each other’s arms in the Mandu palace. They talk about music, Bhakti tradition, Hindustani, Meerabai’s songs among other things. Soon we learn that Hiba has completely given up on Baz and is enjoying her time with Gaaya and Batasha – who sometimes massage her and sometimes provide much-needed pleasure. She finds their company overwhelming and even tells her mother off: “Amma, I don’t care. Let him do what he wants. I plan to live my life as I want from now onwards. I don’t need a man to make me complete.”
Roopmati were to pay a visit to her father’s place after his demise, but couldn’t she calls it off asking the troupe to take her back to the palace. She knows that it probably be the last time that she’ll be able to see Baz. It’s well known what happens later: Adham captures Mandu, and Roopmati takes her own life telling Sadiya to remind Baz that she waited and hands over a book of her hand-written poetry.
The book is written in a much simpler language but is in no way inferior to other historical fictions out there. But what I do feel is that the historical texts could’ve found more space in the book and we shouldn’t have seen Baz as someone who’s brave enough to be back. He’s terribly defeated in the war, once he regains the kingdom to eventually become part of Akbar’s army.
Having said that the book is a rejuvenating tale of a romantic past, something which we seem to have cherished less from our history chapters. And we can thank Malathi for telling us such stories.