By Anjana Basu

The Cuckold
By Kiran Nagarkar
HarperCollins India. Rs 150

It's the stuff Hindi films in the 1930s were made of: a beautiful princess declaring her infatuation for a god and refusing to go to her husband's bed. It's a tale of passion, poetry and tyranny in the true mythological style, and it was shown on screen with the full panoply of brutal husband dragging wife to bed by her hair and then finding himself impotent by an act of God.

The twist lies in the fact that this was actually a true story. The Rajput princess Meerabai was married into the Court of Mewar in the sixteenth century. She was only fourteen at the time. It was a highly suitable match, since both sides were equally royal, and it should have worked out as a triumph of marital politics. Instead, it ended in disaster when she refused to bear her husband an heir, declaring her undying fidelity to the god Krishna. The god was her lover, she insisted, and she celebrated that fact in a series of highly erotic poems that have often been compared with those of John Donne and the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

Krishna, the Dark God, is arguably the most popular of the many gods in the Indian pantheon. He is the one with the peacock feather and flute, the herder of cows and stealer of hearts and souls, the one who woes the soul in highly sensual ways. The one who makes women faint with love for him and yet leaves no woman unsatisfied.

No one has ever paid much attention to Meerabai's husband in this famous story, since the Little Saint herself stole the limelight. And scholars have been far too busy studying her song poems to pay attention to what must have been a fairly unusual piece of history in any sense of the word--until Kiran Nagarkar decided to write a novel on the subject. As an author, Nagarkar has a history of firsts. He wrote the first official Marathi novel in India. He then decided to try his hand at English and wrote Ravan and Eddy, a book which created a small sensation in the subcontinent and was eventually translated into Marathi by a friend. The Cuckold is a very different kind of novel again. It was a project which raised many doubts from the outset, since no one had ever dreamt of writing a defense of Meerabai's husband. Apart from the fact that there is so much elaborate court literature from the period in which the novel is set, it was difficult to know how to proceed because of the subject matter. And of course that other sticking point--how do you make a saint believable, clothe her in flesh and blood and show her to be the family embarrassment she probably was?

The solution Nagarkar evolved was new to Indian writing, though it is one the West has seen in the novels of Mary Renault and others. He simply gave sixteenth century Mewar the language of modern-day India--not modern Indian English in all its Americanized and smart-Hindi slang, but a slightly formal version of the vernacular, just enough so that you could imagine the heir apparent of Mewar as a 1930s youth with a problematic marriage and a set of hostile relatives who happened to be politically powerful. Among these are a half-brother who feels he has the stronger claim to the throne. "I am the son of Mewars, the only family tree in Rajasthan that can be traced all the way back to the seventh or eighth century. Sometimes I think we have no present, only a past."

The Maharaj Kumar of Mewar is the narrator of the story, except in the chapters that recount his marriage to a green-eyed princess and the incredible things that occurred on their wedding night. He is a sceptic with no belief in either the past or present. All he actually knows is that he is in love with his wife and she is in love with a god. "You can get under the skin of a woman and perhaps become one with her. But slip inside a god and there's the devil to pay." The story is of the eternal triangle, "It was the stuff of bad nautanki plays. Man, woman and lover. Except that the last was an almighty god." Love breeds its own kind of politics, es-
pecially in a context in which the Muslim Mughuls were gradually imposing their rule on western India. The prince pits himself against the god on a moonlit night when the shadows make it hard to distinguish dream from reality. And he must also combat his brother's intrigues for the throne while keeping any eye on the ever-increasing Mughul inroads from the North, knowing that his days are numbered but that he must soldier on because that is his duty as a prince.

Gore Vidal is of the opinion that The Blue God's Rival combines the sensuousness of Lady Murasaki with the earthiness of Thomas Mann. The drama takes place against the stark desert backdrop of Rajasthan where, in order to compensate for the barrenness of the landscape, the colours are brighter, the men braver and the women more beautiful. For four cen-
turies the Rajputs were most revered fighters in India. Their courage in battle was legendary, as was the loyalty of their wives who refused to live on if their lords died in battle. Rajasthani history is filled with tales of mass sati and undying love. The English historian Colonel Todd captured the imagina-
tion of Victorian England with his Annals and Anti-
quities of Rajasthan. You can still walk through a Rajasthani fort and see the palm prints of dead queens on the walls, left there as they made their way to be burnt alive on their husbands' funeral pyres. You can also see the bathtub of the beautiful Padmini, who won a Mughul ruler's heart and as a result condemned her husband's kingdom to eternal war. Rajasthan is full of such stories waiting to be told.

Nagarkar does not use English words to describe Indian things--he keeps chunni, lota and mojari,
for instance, to retain the flavour of Rajasthan
and give mystery a local habitation and a name. He has the advantage of knowing that traditional Rajput life has not evolved very much since the sixteenth century, that Rajputs dress the same as they did then, mothers-in-law think the same and even cuck-
olded husbands have a set pattern of behaviour. Of course, this is perhaps because nothing in India ever really changes, or the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

The weakest part of the novel is the ending, since no one really knows what finally happened to the fated couple. We learn that Meerabai's husband was overthrown by his half-brother. But whether he was killed or swallowed by the burning sands of the desert remains a mystery. Nagarkar prefers to be-
lieve that the husband's divine rival intervened to transport him to another dimension. As the author states at the end of the book, his intent has not been to write history. "As for the rest, story-
tellers are all liars. We know that."

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