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MBRB Book Reviews: Mastani by Kusum Choppra

Read the book before you watch Deepika & Ranveer light up the screen!

Kusum Choppra’s Mastani is a meticulously researched account of one of the most misunderstood women in Indian history.

There is a time and place for everything, and nowhere is this more true than for books bought and then forgotten! After lying on my bookshelf for two years (and moving two homes in between), Kusum Choppra’s Mastani finally made it to my current reading list, thanks to an interesting article on the subject (No, the  article was not about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus in the making).Reading about the author’s pursuit of Mastani across Pune, I remembered the much forgotten Choppra book, picked up from the Book Fair a couple of years back, and decided to read it before SLB inflicts his version of the story upon us!

Choppra’s research is fairly extensive and her sources are varied, ranging from interviews with eminent historians such as P.N. Oak and from archived research material on the Peshwas. Her meticulous inquiries lead her to reject several  rumours associated with Mastani, ranging from speculation about her origins and religion to disputed accounts of her marriage with Baji Rao. For instance, Choppra dismisses the notion that Mastani was a Muslim – she was neither  the daughter of the Nawab of Nizam, nor a Muslim dancing girl. In fact, Mastani was the daughter and favourite child of the Bundelkhand King Raja Chhatrasal and a follower of the Pranami faith that was practised by her father. Her mother, a Queen in the King’s palace, was of Persian origin. Choppra also avers that  Mastani was very much married to Baji Rao, not just once but in two separate ceremonies.

mastanibookcover by kusum choppra

Choppra’s Mastani is beautiful, intelligent, clever, resourceful and well-trained. The narrative is largely sympathetic towards this much-forgotten historical figure. Piecing together various seminal dates in Peshwa Baji Rao’s much documented life as well as  verifiable accounts about Mastani, the story attempts to dispel the unsavoury rumours that have been spread about Mastani since her death in 1740. The charge of distorting the truth to render Mastani into a nameless figure is laid squarely upon Baji Rao’s first wife, Kashibai, Kashibai’s son Nana, and her own brother in law.

Of particular interest to me was the author’s willingness to challenge the popular narrative around Mastani’s death, which claims that she died of heartbreak following Baji Rao’s death in April 1740, unsung and soon unremembered. But Choppra suggests that Mastani committed suicide in 1740 after a rape attempt by her own stepson Nana, and it is Baji Rao who followed Mastani to her grave. Of course, the incestuous rape attempt is covered up and the lady in question is soon denigrated in official records!

Possibly in an attempt to attract more readers, the narrative reads more like a romantic story than a factual history. This can be a bit problematic for readers like me who like to have the facts laid out clearly – as I read through the first few chapters, I had difficulty deciding whether this was a historically accurate account or a romantic ballad inspired by true events. It is only towards the end of the book that the author decides to clearly lay out the outcome of her research. Repeated interjections by the author, in italics, about what was to happen later in the book and a writing style that appears to shrink back from brevity also proved irksome. The book would have been much more enjoyable had it stuck to a single narrative, but to be fair to the author, most of these shortcomings should have been addressed by a competent editor.

However, the subject of Mastani and Baji Rao makes for an enthralling story and it is to Kusum Choppra’s credit that she has undertaken painstaking research to get to the bottom of it. Reading the book made me understand SLB’s near obsession with the tale – from romance to politics, betrayal and tragedy,  it has all the dramatic ingredients of a Bollywood blockbuster.

Harini Srinivasan is an entrepreneur, aspiring writer and ex-bureaucrat. A voracious reader with a penchant to buy books every time she enters a book store (which is often!) she has lost count of the weeks spent packing and carting them all over the world. Her first book for children,The Wizard Tales – Adventures of Bun-Bun And His Friends, was out on Amazon Kindle earlier this year. This is an edited version of a post that was first published on her blog, where she writes about her twin passions – old Hindi music and literature.

Cover image : Bajirao Mastani, a painting by Delhi-based artist Jagdish Chandra, courtesy Film Impressions

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