Gods, Kings and Slaves: The siege of Madurai is a wonderful historical novel that will suck you right into the story. The story is told from the perspective of two protagonists; Veera, the illegitimate son of a Pandya King and a young boy named Ram Chand, whose amazing destiny will take him to dizzying heights.
Veera Pandyan is the bastard son of the Crown Prince of Pandya Kingdom, yet he enjoys the recognition and the privileges that his father showers on him. The story begins with his father’s, the crown prince’s wedding and the anticipation of his downfall from favor. Ironically that doesn’t happen. The Crown Prince treats Veera’s mother and her son with respect and honour and ensures that Veera gets a good education despite his lowly birth.
Things become complicated when a legitimate son is born to the King. Sundara, the second son is born to the Chola Princess and the Queen and everybody expects him to ascend the throne. And the rivalry between the two brothers begins. As they grow, they are sent to a gurukulam to learn kingly conduct, politics, economy and to undergo military training. The sibling rivalry worsens between the two, despite living together in the spartan gurukulam.
In a parallel world, the author chronicles the trials and tribulations of Ram Chand. Born in an ordinary Bania family, Ram Chand would have gone on to become a portly bania with a well-stocked shop, wife and children of his own. But that was not to be. His amazing destiny makes him fall in love with Chaula, a harem girl in the Rana’s household. Charmed by her innocence, Ram Chand elopes with her, thus sealing his fate. Captured and beaten by the Rana’s soldiers, his fate hangs in balance as they decide on a fitting punishment. The Rana decides to castrate him and sell him as a eunuch in the slave market.
The resultant scene is the only problem that I had with this book. It was eerily reminiscent of Wilbur Smith’s popular novel, The River God, where Taita is neutered by his Lord’s General, even as his lover sits watching.
This deed seals his fate and he is sent to be sold as a eunuch in the slave market. At the market, Ram Chand catches the eye of a rich Arab merchant who buys him for 1000 dinars thus earning the name, ‘Mallik Kafir hazar dinari’.
Juxtaposing both these characters in parallel scenes, R. Venkatesh brings out the stark difference between their upbringing and their unpredictable life.
In Madurai, things come to a head, when both the brothers fall in love with Princess Sunanda and Veera is sent to Sri Lanka to cool off his ardor. And in Gujarat, Malik Kafur, becomes the head eunuch of the Arab’s harem and the steward of his master. From this point on, his career will soar to great heights. Caught in the middle of a Mohammeddan attack, Malik is soon captured by Alladin Khilji’s general and is put once again on harem duty. He soon catches the attention of Alladin Khilji and rises to become his trusted companion.
Veera comes back from Madurai, to see his lover, now the wife of Sundara, his half brother. He also learns that his lover had borne a son through him though everybody believed him to be Sundara’s. Heartbroken and disappointed, he finds balance in life when he meets Radhika, his trusted friend’s lover and gets married to her. Veera’s father who is getting old is forced to decide the next heir and he crowns Veera as the crown Prince. Surprised and shocked by the turn of events, Sundara revolts, setting in process a civil war that would embitter the world of Madurai forever.
Malik and Veera are portrayed beautifully in this novel. Malik’s ruthlessness and Veera’s Hamlet-like procrastination destroys the very fabric of an ancient empire. I loved the narrative style of the author. It pulls the reader right into two alternate worlds; Veera’s and Malik’s.
Plus Points: fantastic narrative, crisp descriptions and dialogues, impeccable research, unforgettable characters
Minus Points: Castration scene of ram chand.
Verdict: A must read for all those who love historical fiction.