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The Cuckold: The Meera Bai Legend Retold
chillibreeze writer — Ranjana Sabu
In a word, the Cuckold is a masterpiece. Take a well known legend, turn it on its head, weave a historically authentic mantle around it and add a cast of complex, yet real characters, and you have the Cuckold in a nutshell. But that’s just at one level.
Kiran Nagarkar, writer, litterateur and playwright is considered by many as a rarity in India for his proficiency and ease with bilingual mediums - Marathi and English. Author of Saat Sakkam Trechalis, which received much acclaim in Marathi, Nagarkar then debuted with easy panache in English with Ravan and Eddie. Cuckold followed a few years later in 1997.
In essence, it builds on the story of the Bhakti saint, Meerabai*. The tale is set in the early sixteenth century, drawing the reader to a Mewar at the height of its glory. It is a few tantalizing years ahead of the Moghul ascendancy over India and Mewar is uneasily hedging political bets with the sultanates of Malwa, Gujarat and Delhi, unaware of the larger threat that looms.
Nagarkar brings to life the majesty and splendor of the era and intricately plots a multilayered web of political intrigue in which zenana machinations play no small a part.
The tale is focused on and from the perspective of the Maharaj Kumar, Meera’s husband and crown prince of Mewar. Hindu legend, for the large part either ignores this person or occasionally glorifies Meera at his expense, by adding his cruelty to the list of tribulations she triumphed over.
Nagarkar creates a flesh and blood, flawed and complex person from these footnotes history has afforded him. In the Maharaj Kumar, he creates a fond son, a master statesman and war strategist and an, at times, anachronistically forward thinking crown prince. He is also the arrogant crown prince who, incredulously, finds himself cuckolded by a rival he cannot fight – the Divine Flautist – Lord Krishna.
The tale retains the bare scaffolding of the original legend – a beauteous and devout Meera is wedded to the young and promising prince Bhojraj, son of Rana Sangha. Through her unorthodox beliefs and practices, she offers enough fodder for her husband’s rivals to besmirch his name and honour in Mewar.
The reader, however, is frankly more preoccupied with the twin threads of the Maharaj Kumar’s labours to retain his primogeniturial rights and his hopeless longing for his wife and the ridiculous levels, at times, to which he will stoop to score over his divine rival and guide.
Nagarkar takes a refreshingly original view of the valour and honour system of the Rajput tradition. Through the indulgent yet pragmatic eyes of the Maharaj Kumar, Nagarkar explores a society obsessed with the mythical standards of heroism and sacrifice it has set for itself.
The Maharaj Kumar’s politically savvy opponents leverage this often hollow ethic to their advantage swaying the opinion of the populace. The prince however finds himself alienated for living by the intrinsic spirit of these values and not subscribing to the outward trappings of machismo and bravado these have devolved to.
The Cuckold is populated by many powerful characters and in a few deft strokes, Nagarkar attributes depth and credibility to each of these. The course of the book layers the already complex relationships - a few merit particular mentions , such as the delicate balance of relationship the King allows himself with his eldest son or that of the Maharaj Kumar with his rival and erstwhile guide, Lord Krishna.
The reader is also engaged rather cleverly in an epistolaric relationship with Babur, the future ruler of Hind. While one cannot absolutely verify the historical authenticity of their co existing given that Meera bai’s historical coordinates are not conclusively established, Nagarkar’s riveting storyline ensures his readers do not grudge him this creative license.
An attempt is also made to set in context, the legend of the Little Saint – as Meera was known— and to explore the quotidian marital relationship between the prince and his wife. It is to the author’s credit that he crafts for us a relationship with the mystical Meera that is every bit as ethereal and exasperating as the one she shares with her consort.
As is the case of many a masterful inversion of legend, such as MT Vasudevan’s Second Turn, the inversion leaves a lasting impression as a more probable version than the original, given the craftsmanship of the author in bringing to life historical characters. Such is also the case with the Cuckold and Meera bai will ever be coloured in my vision with the hues Nagarkar has vested her with.
* The legend of Meera bai.
Legend has it that Meera bai’s esoteric religious practices found no favour with her conservative new family and were a source of embarrassment, flouting as it did, the heavily purdahed rigours of the Rajput chivalric code.
Bhojraj died in war a few years after their marriage and the widowed Meera refused to commit Sati or self immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre as was the Rajput practice of the days. The humiliated family is believed to have plotted to do away with her and Meera is supposed to have escaped these attempts by the strength of her devotion.
She has over 200 compositions to her credit in the Bhakti tradition of poetry.
Author: Kiran Nagarkar
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