Review: AgniKaal by Yugal Joshi - Hindustan Times

Review: AgniKaal by Yugal Joshi

ByShafey Kidwai
May 03, 2024 09:19 PM IST

A harrowing tale of Malik Kafur, a eunuch turned fierce military general under Allauddin Khilji, unfolds in Yugal Joshi's novel AgniKaal, exploring themes of identity, power, and revenge in 13th century India.

Can the horror of castration and the experience of slavery make someone the most intriguing figure of thirteenth-century India? Can the son of a Gujarati trader, who was sold as a slave, be transformed by the experience of servitude into Allauddin Khilji’s fiercest military general?

Jim Sarbh as Malik Kafur in Padmaavat (2018). (Film still)
Jim Sarbh as Malik Kafur in Padmaavat (2018). (Film still)

This is the harrowing tale of Malik Kafur, who also briefly seized the throne. Strangely, his fateful camaraderie with the greatest ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Allauddin Khilji (reign1266-1316), continues to be understudied even though his life closely resembles surreal fiction or even something straight out of a Ramsay Brothers production.

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368pp, ₹499; Penguin (Book cover)
368pp, ₹499; Penguin (Book cover)

AgniKaal by Yugal Joshi is the story of Malik Kafur. A skilful novelist, Joshi has fashioned a gripping narrative centred on the life of an individual who has long been an object of aversion and contempt. Questions of religion, identity and cultural subjugation during the reign of Khilji, a ferocious and whimsical tyrant, are all woven into the body of this Hindi historical novel that definitely deserves to be translated into other languages.

 Constrained neither by gender, religion nor morality, the protagonist’s travails that form the subject of this work provides a window into 13th century north India and into the story of the Sultanate’s most remarkable ruler, who was also known to be an abominable character. Joshi engages the imagination of the reader by going beyond dates of military operations, troop movements, victories in battle and voyeuristic details of the harem. The action is restricted to a single day and the 340-page novel, that’s divided into eight sections, is written as the personal narrative of the enslaved eunuch who gains cult status.

Manik alias Malik Kafur Hazar Dinari or Tajuddin Izal Dawla, who had agrarian Maratha-Gujarati roots, is popularly perceived as a seductive eunuch. That’s also how he is portrayed by Jim Sarbh in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. However, Joshi wipes out the haze created by fabled traveller Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), Ziauddin Barni(1285-1357) and many colonial historians and turns his attention to the back story. He writes of an ambitious young man leaving home with his beloved, Kajal, who belongs to a different caste. The couple is captured by Bhikam Thakur, the the debauched local ruler, who rapes Kajal and has Manik castrated. Manik is told that emasculation is his moment of salvation as cock riding Bahuchra Mata will set him free. Before his ill-fated journey, the young man was mentored by his father and by Acharya Sheel Bhadra. Looking at the grandeur of the temples of Somnath, Manik had asked his mentor if these awe inspiring structures were raised during an earlier golden period. The novel indicates that all was not well in the past either: “When was our golden era? How will we judge? Was happiness writ large then, or was a small section prosperous? Were we better than other countries? Our country would offer a life of ease for years, but our people languished in poverty. The frequent occurrence of heavy rains, floods, drought and famine and massive human loss bore testimony to it.”

Ranveer Singh as Allauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018). (Film still)
Ranveer Singh as Allauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018). (Film still)

Marked by an authentic engagement with history, the story shows how India was mired in ignominy during the medieval period and how violent efforts were made to obliterate all that was held dear by the locals.

Sold at Khambhat, Manik was raised by Bhola Bhai, who arranged extensive intellectual and physical training. He learns many languages, became well-versed in high culture, metaphysics, and philosophy, and learns archery, fencing, horse riding, and traditional methods of warfare. An influential Arab trader bought Manik around the time Allauddin Khilji ascended the throne. Pulverizing Devgiri and other strong southern kingdoms was high on the new ruler’s agenda. In the run-up to the campaign, he sent Amir Khusro (1253-1325), who had the unique distinction of being a warrior, poet, mystic, scholar and music maestro to Khambhat. Khusro had served more than seven rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. The sheikh arranged a lavish feast for him, and it is here that Manik interacts with Khusro. Curiously, Manik is pitted against Khusro whom he percieves as being a reveller, a demagogue and a ruthless tactician. Here, Joshi uses his artistic freedom to portray Khusro in an unfavourable light. Incidentally, Khusro’s long evocative poem Nusupher applauds India in every respect.

Subsequently, Allauddin’s commander, Ulagh Khan, invades Khambat, and Manik is captured, converted and sent to Delhi. His pulchritude floors Allauddin, who soon realizes that Kafur is also tremendously intelligent and could spearhead military operations. Malik’s military acumen is instrumental in trouncing several powerful southern states. He apprises Allauddin of the Arthshatra, the ancient manual on the art of politics that talks of how war, administration, taxation and informer networks should be arranged. Taking a cue from the book, Allauddin adopts far-reaching administrative reforms, including regulating the interactions and marriages of the nobility, adopting a defined taxation policy, fixing a salary system for the army and the police, setting up a network of spies, and finally, creating a tenuous sense of good governance.

Author Yugal Joshi (Courtesy the subject)
Author Yugal Joshi (Courtesy the subject)

Yugal Joshi’s novel zeroes in on how Malik rises from a harem guard to being a high-ranking military commander who saved his master’s life and honour in the grisliest of situations.

Malik Kafur was driven by revenge, and the humiliation of forced sex with Allauddin was finally wiped out when he got the sultan killed. He seized the throne briefly but his stint was marked by moral depravity, and his dying moments reveal a strong sense of introspection. The narrative might focus on what happened 700 years ago but the human predicament remains the same. Yugal Joshi states that had Allauddin and Malik been magically transported to the streets of contemporary Delhi, they might have fainted. But once they awoke, they’d realise that nothing has really changed.

In sum, this work of historical metafiction grabs the reader’s interest and provides a view of the past even as it engages with universal questions.

Shafey Kidwai, a bilingual critic, is a professor of Mass Communication at AMU, Aligarh.

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