This is one of those stories that needed to be told. When Bajirao Mastani starring the who’s who of Bollywood released in late 2015, it wasn’t a great film. Whether it was historically accurate or not could be debated, but it was definitely historically inaccurate. But such is the void of quality material on history – across media sources – available to our generation, that for lack of a better option it became the closest substitute to a history lesson for most. I’m not proud to say this but I’m from Maharashtra, studied in a state board school – but my knowledge of Bajirao Peshwa – a significant figure in modern Indian history by any means, was close to negligible before I watched the afore-mentioned movie.
So sheepishly, after watching the movie I tried to look up the book on which the director had apparently ‘loosely’ based it upon – a book named Rao by N.S. Inamdar. Sadly the book was only available in the original language, and those were some old editions as well. How unfortunate in the era of the super-movie with merchandise tie-up’s for everything from lunch-boxes to t-shirts, the original book which the movie owed so much to, still had no seekers. Surely a translated version in English and Hindi, an Amar Chitra Katha-esque comic book series would have flown off the racks? Can’t help but think it’s an opportunity missed if there was ever one.
So we move to The Peshwa : The Lion and the Stallion by Ram Sivasankaran which seemed to be the only non-textbookish book around. I read an interview of Sivasankaran where he said that he’d been writing this book for a while and the release coinciding with the movie ( a week or so afterwards) was just a coincidence. A very very fortuitous one then if one is to take this at face vaue, for it has been the recipient of all the latent interest spilling over from the movie.
The characters are engaging, so are the times they lived in and the challenges they faced. Unfortunately Sivasankaran’s writing style is stuck somewhere between a text book and a literary tome and can never quite achieve the easy and breezy tenor of literary fiction that the William Dalrymple’s of the world seem to manage. To be sure it is tricky to toe that thin line between making sure the characters are larger than life while conveying the gravitas & manner of that age or ending up with caricatures who take themselves seriously. Unfortunately, Sivasankaran for me end’s up on the other side more often than not. Especially when characters think to themselves, or affectionate conversations – father/son, husband/wife – seem clunky and unreal, seeming like a drama on-stage where everything has to be exaggerated rather than a movie where you can be up close and personal and be the protagonists.
And it’s a pity really because he spins a good tale. If you were expecting a masala-version of the movie, The Peshwa isn’t going to give you that. It – just like its characters – takes itself very seriously. The story also limits itself to a part of Bajirao’s reign which allows it to get into detail and not spread itself to thin. We start of with the old Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath, who mentors and guides his son on initial missions, Baijrao’s growing into power and his first and perhaps most crucial mission. It has a storyline as distinct from the movie as possible, the focus is very much on Bajirao – the diplomat/politician and the soldier and not on the lover or the reformist. There is a nice segue for a sequel to flow however…
Historically well researched (and I’m assuming accurate), The Peshwa is a great primer on the times of Bajirao and the Maratha’s in fact. It’s a period of history – which as I mentioned before – most of us haven’t studied too well, and in those respects this book gives us a perspective and an understanding of the systems, the key players, the political structures of the age. Wish it could have been more fun though…
Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★