Wednesday, 10 October 2018

“Frontiers” (A historical saga of the battle of wit and might between two arch nemeses, Shivaji and Aurangzeb) by Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran (Penguin 2018). Book Review by Ajay Singha


It is 1648 and the young Maratha warrior Shivaji has successfully repulsed an attack by the Adil Shahi forces on Purandar hill, a fort nestled in the Western Ghats. Further away Mughal forces successfully enter Hyderabad, capital of the Qutub Shahi kingdom. The diamond mines, control of tobacco trade and forests teeming with elephants are under imperial control. 17th century Hindustan is in turmoil and the Mughal empire has reached its zenith. Kings and Sultans have accumulated untold wealth as Shivaji enters the scene to fulfil his dream of self rule through “Swaraj”.

This book is a well researched historical fiction based on two personalities, Shivaji and Aurangzeb, who for diametrically opposed reasons, find themselves grappling with their personal frontiers. It is an account of the high level of determination and resource fullness the young Maratha leader mustered when faced with impossible odds. Aurangzeb the last of the great Mughals will forcefully take over a throne soaked in the blood of his kin. He is reminded by his uncle Shaista Khan that Aurangzeb’s frontiers are waging war against his father, brothers and perhaps even his sons. Shivaji’s duty was to serve the masters of his father but he has chosen another path. He has drawn new frontiers of “Swaraj” that did not exist before. Conflict between the two is imminent.

This book is written in a style which takes the reader up close to the principal characters and shares the action as momentous events in their lives unfold.

As a child, Shivaji remembers being woken up one night by his mother with cries of “mughal armies” and is bundled up quickly to escape imminent capture. Later, as he leads Maratha armies into battle, Shivaji infuses valour and determination in the minds of his people by visions of victory, divine blessings and personal valour.  With cries of “HarHar Mahadev” the Marathas recapture several forts and generate the much needed revenue for financing their war effort.

 For Aurangzeb the battle of Ujjain is decisive to determine who will succeed to the Mughal throne. Descriptions of the battle and its aftermath are interesting and keep the reader engaged.  The author describes the fate of Humayun’s chosen heir Dara Shikoh who is routed and on the run. Aurangzeb lays siege to the Agra fort imprisoning his own father. Murad Baksh, his younger brother who was loyal to Aurangzeb till the end is also treacherously imprisoned. Dara Shikoh is captured by Mirza Raja Jai Singh and put to death after a mock trial, accused amongst other crimes for writing a treatise on the virtues of Hinduism and Sufism “The Mingling of Two Oceans”. Observing a fatally wounded bird Aurangzeb has penned a verse: “The world changes - In a twinkle, in a breath!  A moment ago it was life! Now it is death!”

The scene shifts to the Deccan where Afzal Khan, the General of the Adil Shahi kingdom is lured by Shivaji to meet and discuss the terms of Shiva’s surrender. Both are aware that the very nature of this mission calls for treachery, cunning and fraudulence but are left with no options but to meet. Shivaji gets the better of the Khan and slays him, using a “baghnach”, concealed tiger claws. Aurangzeb is furious with this news and deploys the imperial forces in full strength against the Marathas. Their lands are systematically laid waste and Shivaji is forced to seek compromise. He is invited to attend Aurangzeb’s coronation and discuss a lasting settlement. Both Shivaji and his son Sambhaji are treacherously trapped by the Mughals in Agra but manage to escape using a most ingenious trick of impersonation.

The story concludes leaving the Mughal emperor deeply frustrated and Shivaji and his son parted. The war is on. Aurangzeb has decided that that this will be his final frontier and he will bathe the Deccan with Bhosale blood.  The “Frontiers” is not just a story of who Shivaji was but who he was up against. Exchange of witty dialogues between the principal protagonists makes it an interesting read. The ending of this book promises scope for a sequel by a writer who successfully infuses life into historical characters and shares their personal fears and trepidations with the reader.

Ajay Singha, October 2018 - India