At the heart of Kiran Nagarkar’s “Cuckold”, a novel that tells the story of intrigue and battle in 15th and 16th century Mewar and Chittor, is the story of the reluctant Rajput, Maharaja Kumar. Being a history lover, what I found most fascinating, was the way the author blended the historical facts to create a flawed hero’s tale. Facts I was compelled to keep researching as I read the book. Rana Sanga’s ascent to the throne, the constant state of battle among the Rajput states, the increasing threat of the Mughal empire, the detailed preparation and the money that went into planning of the wars; these intricate details create the canvas on which Kiran Nagarkar has painted the character of Maharaja Kumar.

He is a forgotten character in the pages of history; a passing reference for being Rana Sanga’s son and Mirabai’s husband. But Kiran Nagarkar has managed to create a character that emerges from historical fragments of the shadowy Bhojraj; living a life that is constantly in conflict, even as the throne always looms tantalizingly close, but never within his reach. The book paints a portrait of a man who probably knows that he is doomed to be different and that this very difference might lead to his doom and yet soldiers on, loyalty towards his king and his state battling with his own personal demons. These differences are painted vividly, from his almost reluctant entry into war compared to the battle hungry princes of that time; his uneasy relationship with his deceiving and power-crazed brother, and his unconventional attitude towards women. Ironically, he calls himself a cuckold, for the way he accepts and even expects the betrayal by both his wives. I loved the way the author showed him as a writer, penning down his own thoughts even as he sifts through Babar’s writing and realizes a strange feeling of kinship with the approaching enemy. Was strategy his strength or decision-making his weakness? The author wisely does not provide any answers, leaving us to touch the rich tapestry of emotions and to make our own conclusions.

The book also chronicles his love for his wife, Mirabai. Never referred by name, Green Eyes or the Saint are the words Maharaja Kumar uses for someone he tries hard to understand but often cannot. Maharaja Kumar’s own conflicting emotions towards his wife somehow reflect in the characterization of Mirabai. Growing up singing her bhajans, I had a picture in my mind about Meerabai. Someone who could find the divine in the everyday mundane. Someone who was part of the domestic world, even an exalted queen but was far removed from it; almost as if she were watching herself float through life as she lived only for her devotion to Krishna. Maybe the first feminist? Someone who dared to be different in a generation where women, even royal women, had to fit the cookie cutter moulds of submission to men. The myths about her escaping multiple attempts on her life had made her a character suffused with the glow of goodness and worship. The picture had been formed by the words and tunes of her songs which had been preserved across generations of singers, never once losing their earthy simplicity and their blatant pensiveness.

This is before I read Cuckold by Kiran Nagarkar.

Kiran does not eulogize Meerabai as the beacon of spiritual devotion. He humanizes the Saint, painting her as a woman who could be intriguing but also playful, selfish but also selfless at the same time. Her devotion to Krishna from a very early age materializes into her ability to craft her own world of devotion where no one else is allowed to enter, not even her husband. Her husband, Maharaja Kumar, is shown to be desperate for her love. Does she love him or simply humor him because he doesn’t seem real to her? The author does not really provide any answers about her true feelings for Maharaja Kumar, not even when he dresses up as Krishna to be with her. We never really know if she understands his deception or is completely oblivious to it. She is certainly not oblivious about the palace intrigue. Despite the initial vehement opposition she receives because of her need to express her love for Krishna through music and dance, the book traces her journey to the point where she actually wins over the love and respect of all the people in the country and her fame spreads even beyond the borders, possibly even to Mughal emperor Babar, one more of her mute spectators. Did she crave that fame?

What I liked about Mirabai’s character was the relentless discipline with which she pursued her devotion. Nothing – sickness, war, death or other mundane duties could disturb her time with her Lord. It was her own private religion and her personal redemption. Her ability to speak her mind with the priests of that time shows her as one of the early free-thinking women in our country, much before the word, feminism was even coined.  Mirabai is also shown as a planner and a leader who can rally people around and bring them together. I found the description of the time they spent in exile, away from the palace, really beautiful. It was as if away from the palace and its internal battles, she was happy with the individual space she and her husband could both create allowing room for them to be with each other but not consume each other.

What did not work for me in her character was her ambivalent attitude towards her husband and the sudden hints of almost conniving and manipulative deceptions. Evidently, he respects her, almost reluctantly, and loves her, despite his misgivings and tries to protect her against continual persecution. She seems to have absolutely no interest in the battles, external and internal, that Maharaja Kumar is going through and yet, when he returns from battle to possible mutiny, she calmly walks up to receive him. Her jealousy of her husband’s second wife, Sugandha, is another incongruence in her character. Would someone who has never really claimed her husband as her own, suddenly realize that she doesn’t want to see him with another woman in a world where polygamy was an accepted social and political practice? Her apparent playfulness is another attempt to paint her as someone who lives and enjoys every moment as a celebration of love and joy. But it seems in stark contrast with the way she shuts out her true self from her husband and chooses to share nothing of herself; as if in sharing, she will lose her devotion and her love. It almost feels like she accepts his worship and his love for her, fully aware of her own power but she lets it bleed with no attempt to even heal it with a tiny corner of her own love. Or maybe she really loves him and respects him in the way only she can.

I couldn’t decide. Maybe Kiran Nagarkar’s greatest mystery lies in unveiling the shadowy Bhojraj and crouching the myth of Meera I had imagined while singing her songs under an impenetrable veil of shadow.