When Chandragupta Maurya left his palace in a procession, there were, apparently, in addition to the elephants, chariots, soldiers, women bodyguards and the usual over-the-top royal trappings, “men carrying branches of trees with tame parrots trained to fly around the king.” Chandragupta’s feats of territorial conquest, administration, statesmanship and asceticism were staggering but I suspect after reading Subhadra Sen Gupta’s Kings and Queens that I will always imagine him as a man who went out in public with parrots in orbit around him.
Kings and Queens and Battles and Warriors, both by Sen Gupta (with dense, often dramatic, illustrations by Tapas Guha) are part of the Exploring India series of history books from Rupa’s children’s imprint Red Turtle. Of course, rulers and wars (and their dates, always the dates) have been the mainstay of school history books. So it’s worth asking, both generally and on behalf of the prudent parent, what more these two books can do. The quick answer is that these are short, well-researched, invitingly produced books that are alive to detail and context. They manage to give the reader a sense for history, and this is a richer, more enduring thing than the mere events of history.
There’s that near-universal adult lament about not realizing in school how interesting the subject of history was. Teachers usually are blamed in the next sentence, but it might not be entirely their fault. For one, we just relate much better to historical events after having seen a bit of the world. And then, the reason something made it to a history textbook in the first place is often lost sight of in the attempt to be comprehensive and rigorous.
In less than ninety pages, Kings and Queens tells the stories of Chandragupta Maurya, Razia Sultan, Krishnadeva Raya and Nurjahan. It’s worth noting that the queens chosen here were not consorts but actual rulers, one officially and one less so, both at the helm of large empires. Sen Gupta does mention how uncommon this was, and points out the obstacles they faced because they were women. The history here might be hundreds of years old, but there’s much about it that is contemporary.
In the introduction to the book, Sen Gupta briefly deals with what makes a ruler great. In her book, which this is, they’d have to be good administrators, generals, and patrons of the arts. Also, she writes, “there is one important quality that all great Indian rulers share. They were tolerant monarchs who held no prejudice about religion.” It’s an admirable criterion, and I wish this aspect of the four rulers was touched upon at greater length.
Battles and Warriors tells the stories of five wars and their protagonists – Porus and Alexander, Ashoka and Kalinga, Rajendra Chola and the Srivijaya kingdom, the battles of Panipat and Plassey. Sen Gupta is careful not to romanticize war while writing about it. In the introduction, she mentions how many “pay with their lives so that the men in power can gain even more power and wealth”. But she also recognizes that wars have always been a part of human nature, and that some wars feel more right than others: such as the American Civil War or Birsa Munda fighting the British.
In Sen Gupta’s telling, these five battles are about far more than the actual military action. They are about the people involved, their motivations, the larger contexts in which they found themselves. And she follows through with the cultural and social consequences of battles – the Greek influence in the subcontinent after Alexander, the spread of Buddhism through post-Kalinga Ashoka, and so on. There’s also plenty here about weaponry and battle-gear, strategy, and about the sort of preparation war entailed. To me, the highlight of this book was the wonderful recounting of a naval battle fought by Rajendra Chola nearly a thousand years ago, and the factors leading up to it. Here’s a line about the influential Chettis (merchants) of the period who had the ear of the king and the bureaucracy: “It was a bit like the big industrialists today who have a direct line to the politicians and the government.”
There’s so much of history that we can only hope to remember a fraction of what we read or hear. It may be the little details – those parrots around Chandragupta, or the passing remark that grass-cutters used to be part of marching armies – that remain as personal windows to those periods. Well-told history, as in these two books, allows for this. It also allows the reader to gain a sense for history – the recognition that humans have lived under many conditions in many configurations, that things were always the same and that things were always different. To know this is to occupy our own time with some modicum of grace.
By Srinath Perur
EXPLORING INDIA: KINGS AND QUEENS / EXPLORING INDIA: BATTLES AND WARRIORS
Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Illustrator: Tapas Guha
88 pages each
Rs 195.00 each
ISBN: 978-81-291-3758-6 / ISBN: 978-81-291-3757-9
Rupa/Red Turtle, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction/Series