There is a time and place for everything…. And so it is even for picking up forgotten books lying on huge ignored piles. After lying on my bookshelf for two years (and moving two homes in between!), Kusum Choppra’s Mastani finally got my attention enough for me to read it. It was an interesting article that got me interested in Mastani – no, the article was not about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus in the making. I remembered the much forgotten Choppra book, picked up from the Book Fair a couple of years back, and read it before SLB inflicts his version of the story on us!
Choppra’s research is fairly extensive and her sources are varied – ranging from interviews with eminent historians such as P.N. Oak and from archived research material on the Peshwas. Through these sources, she rejects the various rumours associated with Mastani’s origin – she was not the daughter of the Nawab of Nizam, nor was she a Muslim dancing girl. Mastani was the daughter of Raja Chhatrasal, the Bundelkhand king and one of his queens, who was of Persian origin. Mastani, as Choppra reiterates, was Raja Chhatrasal’s favourite child. Another fact that she stresses upon is that Mastani was very much married to Baji Rao, not once but in two separate ceremonies. Also, contrary to what is thought, Mastani followed the Pranami faith like her father and was not a Muslim as is commonly thought. Choppra’s Mastani is beautiful, intelligent, clever, resourceful and well-trained. The narrative is largely sympathetic to this much-forgotten historical figure. Piecing together various seminal dates in Peshwa history and verifiable highlights of Mastani’s life, the story is drawn out, with a clear attempt to dispel the unsavoury rumours that have been spread since her death in 1740. The charge of spreading those unsavoury rumours and of distorting the truth to render Mastani into a nameless figure is laid squarely upon Baji Rao’s first wife, Kashibai and her son Nana, her brother-in-law and their descendants.
What I found interesting was that the author offers an alternative ending to Mastani’s story – one that is different than what is accepted. The common version is that Baji Rao died in April 1740 and soon after Mastani died of a heartbreak, unsung and soon forgotten. But the author suggests, based on reasons and dates that she mentions, that Mastani committed suicide in 1740 ( owing to a rape attempt by her own stepson, Nana), following which Baji Rao dies. Of course, the incestuous rape attempt is covered up and the lady in question is soon denigrated in official records!
The narrative reads more like a romantic story than a factual history. While that is of interest to many, and probably is the USP of the book (to attract more readers), I found this a bit jarring. I like my dates and facts served straight on – so the first few chapters were a bit taxing , as I tried to understand whether this is a story or whether it actually took place and when and where? Constant interjections by the author (in italics in the book) in the midst of the tale about what was to happen later also proved a bit irksome. It is only towards the end of the book that the author is more of a historian than the narrator of a romantic ballad and mentions all the relevant facts. The writing style is a tad long winded for my liking – I prefer simpler, shorter, crisper sentences (but hey, this is subjective!)
The story of Mastani and Baji Rao definitely makes for an enthralling subject and it is to Kusum Choppra’s credit that she has undertaken a painstaking research to get to the bottom of it. Reading the book also makes it clear why Sanjay Leela Bhansali would wish to make a movie on it. It has all the necessary ingredients of a blockbuster and an engrossing film – romance, drama, politics, betrayal and tragedy.
I would have enjoyed the book much more had it stuck to one narrative – either as a plain old academic, scholarly history book, with all the facts, and references or as a historical novel with elements of fiction (and the author’s imagination colouring the events and the milieu.) This in-between approach didn’t work for me. Having said this, however, I did enjoy knowing more about the Baji Rao -Mastani story and visualising how SLB shall translate it on screen.
Not to sound discouraging, the material of the book is very rich and if one doesn’t have an issue with the narrative, it can make for an interesting read.