Book Box | Manohar Malgonkar's literary journey into princely India - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Manohar Malgonkar's "The Princes": A literary journey into princely India

Oct 29, 2023 09:00 AM IST

In a literary exploration of the legendary Manohar Malgonkar's works, we are transported to the heart of princely India through his novel The Princes.

Dear Reader,

The Princes PREMIUM
The Princes

I am in tiger country.

It's early evening, and our book club has set out for a stroll. The path winds through lush, emerald paddy fields encircled by an unusual-looking fence. "It's an electric fence," our host explains. In these parts, wild boars, elephants, and other creatures devour the rice and sugarcane, and these fences are the first line of defence.

The Jungle Walk
The Jungle Walk

And here we are, a hundred years later, with a rare chance to inhabit this world – to live in the writer’s ancestral house, to discuss his novel The Princes, in the very house it was written in.

We sit outdoors, eating millet pancakes with spicy tomato chutney, and drinking coffee in handmade pottery mugs. Our host, a long-time member of our book club, is also Manohar Malgonkar’s niece; this is her family home. “Tell us your family story, all the details”, we entreat. And so, she does.

Manohar Malgonkar’s ancestral house
Manohar Malgonkar’s ancestral house

Sitting outdoors, at the breakfast table, we are enraptured by the twists and turns of this family saga- right from a young boy, his newly married wife and mother being thrown out of a village - there is not enough food to go around and somebody must leave.

The young boy, grandfather to the author and great-grandfather to our host, stays resolute. He manages to acquire a small plot of land, here in the village of Jagalbet, he works hard and makes good. This is where the family story begins, a story that goes on to his grandson Manohar Malgonkar, an army man who served in the army during World War II, a big-game hunter, a farmer, a mine owner, a journalist and a prolific writer.

Our journey into Malgonkar's work starts with his novel The Princes. This book has an impressive history – it was first published in New York in 1963 and was selected by the Literary Guild of America as a novel of the month that year. Then somehow, like so many fabulous books, it went out of print, languishing in obscurity for many years. Last year it was reprinted by Harper Collins, and here it is, a bright purple-covered paperback I hold in my hand.

Stretched out on the top bunk of the Hubballi Express, from Dadar to Jagalbet, I dive into it. Reading on a train takes me back to the train journeys of my youth, with books bought from home or from the AH Wheeler bookstore chain at the stations. I am glad I delayed reading this book – reading it here is pure pleasure.

As the train traverses into tiger terrain, taking our book club group past the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, towards the writer's home, we are transported eighty years into the past – to 1938, to the world of princely India. To an India that was, in the fictional princely state of Begwad, with its tiger hunts and champagne balls for the British, and its bravado in a desperate struggle for survival, even as the rest of India is celebrating imminent freedom.

The stragglers among us continue to read into breakfast and all afternoon, stretched out in nooks and crannies and in the verandah of the village home.

A book clubber reads her copy of The Princes
A book clubber reads her copy of The Princes

Later that night, we meet in the verandah, to discuss the book.

What draws us in the most, is the father-son relationship - between the King of Begwad and his young heir Abhayraj.

The King is pro-British. Abhayraj admires his father, but he also hates him, he tries to be liberal, and logical and to accept the transfer of power to Indian people, yet he is caught between the traditions of the feudal, close-knit community his father groomed him to lead.

“The character of the father is vividly and boldly drawn; that of the son subtly and attractively matures; the social and political history is blended into the novel with considerable skill,” says the Times Literary Supplement, featured on the Harper Collins website, a quote we fully agree with.

The Princes
The Princes

Is Abhayraj based on a real prince known to Manohar Malgonkar? We wonder aloud. And where is the fictional Begwad located? Perhaps it lies north of our current position, in the former princely states of Gwalior? So much of this novel feels like real life.

There is much to talk about - the caste system, the treatment of women including Abhayraj’s own mother, the queen, the superstitions, and most strikingly - the tiger hunts. The King of Begwad is a fearless hunter, a skilled marksman determined to hunt 100 tigers by his 50th year, pitting his strength against one tiger after another, and the book describes many of these hunts.

The tiger hunts are such a notable contrast to all the books on tiger conservation that we read these days - literary evidence of how times change.

The Princes is a rare book we agree on. We love it. We want to read more of Malgonkar. It’s so vivid, we even want to see it on film. I decided my next book would be the non-fiction The Men Who Killed Gandhi. And then The Devil's Wind, a book on the Marathas.

And you, dear reader, what has your reading been like? Are you in the mood for spooky reads for Halloween - if so, try these. And if you feel like sampling the live delights of a literary festival, head to Tata Literature Live in Mumbai, spread across locations throughout the city, including the National Centre for the Performing Arts and Bandra.

Until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

Catch every big hit, every wicket with Crick-it, a one stop destination for Live Scores, Match Stats, Quizzes, Polls & much moreExplore now!.

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
Share this article
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Monday, May 20, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On