Marathi literature has a rich genre of historical fiction. Ranjit Desai, Vishwas Patil, Shivaji Sawant, and others have contributed works that go towards a deeper understanding of Indian culture and history. Vijaya Jahagirdar, in her work Karmayogini, extends this genre by writing of the life of Ahilyabai Holkar, the influential queen of the Central-Indian Holkar kingdom.
Jahagirdar paints a detailed, layered portrait of Ahilyabai and her times. The Maratha kingdom is changing into a confederation of states ruled by “Subedars” in the early 18th century. Power is centrally controlled by the Peshwas (nominally the prime minister, but the de facto power) in Pune, but the different states have their own power and prerogatives.
Malhar Rao Holkar, headquartered in Indore, is one of the most capable subedars, but is troubled by his wayward son Khande Rao. He gets his son married to Ahilyabai, a village girl, after seeing her strength of character. Thereafter, she is gradually handed the reins of administration and government while Malhar Rao is out on the battle fronts. When her husband and Malhar Rao both pass away, Ahilyabai becomes the driving force of the Holkar kingdom. Under her guidance, the kingdom stabilises and becomes a dominant force in Central India. Besides her contributions to the kingdom, she becomes known for her charity, infrastructure development all over India, and for her progressive social reforms.
That’s the core story. However, Jahagirdar puts a more feminist spin on it. Malhar Rao, for example, chooses Ahilya as his daughter-in-law with the intention of making her the ruler. Malhar Rao’s wife is his conscience keeper and his strongest support. With the menfolk away on battles, the women are the real managers of the kingdom. Ahilyabai is progressive, scrupulous to a fault about accounts, and determined to do the right thing even if her son is the wrongdoer. Her thoughts on the Bajirao-Mastani story, and afterwards, on Bajirao’s sister Anubai Ghorpade revolve around how strong women can be, how they are no less capable than men, etc.
The tendency of putting modern concerns into an earlier era is, for better or worse, a characteristic of historical fiction. The Hindi biography of Ahilyabai by Vrindavanlal Verma, for example, written in 1955, tilts the story towards patriotism and Indian nationhood.
These concerns aside, Jahagirdar’s done a good job of turning a life into a story. In this (translated) edition, no time is wasted in introducing the vast cast of characters— they are listed in a few pages beforehand, so the story can just get on with it. It appears this translation (about 210 pages) is an abridged version of the original (about 350 pages), so as English readers, we don’t know what we’re missing. However, Jahagirdar’s evocation of the time period is impressive and her scene descriptions seem realistic.
I have an issue with the translation quality. It appears there was no editing of the manuscript. Also, the translator makes liberal use of ellipses to separate phrases, sometimes as many as 10 times in a single paragraph. This may have been in the original, but it feels strange in the English text. The fact that the book is still a gripping read is a testament to the original’s quality. It goes to show the richness of Marathi historical writing.
For those interested in Marathi literature, or in Indian history, this is a good read.