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11 February 2022

Would You Like to Hear A Story?

There are very few books these days that I complete in one sitting. Time – or the lack of it – is usually the culprit. But sometimes, it is my attention – or lack thereof – that plays truant. Imagine my surprise then, to find a second book that compelled me to read it from start to finish in a single sitting. Not that I am a stranger to Madhulika Liddle’s writing – far from it. I have thoroughly enjoyed her Muzaffar Jung stories and been enraptured by her various short story collections. Her writing, not restricting itself to genres or periods, flows easily and fluently across such barriers. I have had my copy of her latest – perhaps her most ambitious – book yet for over a month. So why did it take me so long to begin?

For one, I was extremely busy. Having perused the initial pages, I knew the book would demand more time and attention than I could give it then. Secondly, life had been more than usually chaotic these last two months and I needed quick, easy reads that I could pick up and leave off whenever I had a few minutes to spare.

I’m glad I waited.

376 pages
Speaking Tiger
ISBN 9354472087
ISBN13: 9789354472084

Two hundred years ago,” she said, “a man came to Dilli from Agroha.”

So begins a tale of such epic proportions that it can scarcely be contained in one book.

The Garden of Heaven – the first book in the Delhi Quartet – is a sweeping saga that is bookended by two bloody invasions: the first, invaders who came to stay and build; the other, who vanquished, looted and returned.  Spanning two centuries, the saga traces the narratives and fortunes of two major protagonists and their families, against the backdrop of the changing political landscape of Delhi (or Dilli, as it was known then).

In a nod to India’s oral storytelling traditions, Madhu places Shagufta as the teller of tales of the land and its people. Shagufta – beaten, betrayed, bereft and yet, a survivor – is compelled to save the life of an enemy soldier. As they wait for his wounds to heal, fearing all the time that they might be discovered, either by the invaders or the invaded – both sides a danger now – the soldier begs her to alleviate the silence.

Using interludes – the conversations between Shagufta and the soldier – as a tool to allow readers to shift between persons and ages, Madhu skilfully pins the stories of the Sultans of Delhi and the ordinary men and women of those ages to specific events in Delhi’s turbulent history.

Like her narrator, Madhu is primarily a storyteller. And so, she crafts the story of two men whose lives, families and fortunes are interwoven with each other’s and with the rulers they serve. One is a merchant Sridhar Sahu, who seeks to build his fortune in the capital city; the other, Madhav, is a young boy whose family has been murdered by the invading army of Mohammed of Ghuri. Born into a farming family, the orphaned Madhav is semi-adopted by a stone mason and soon becomes a leading stone craftsman of the age. Sridhar Sahu, in turn, patronises another young stone mason, Nandu, who eventually becomes his son-in-law. And into these tales of love, loss, and betrayal also step Qutb-al-din (Qutbuddin) Aibak and his slave-general, Altamash (Iltutmish); Razia Sultan and Ghiyas-al-din (Ghiyasuddin) Tughlaq, Nizam-ul-din Auliya and Amir Khusro - personages whose presence at different times influence events in the lives of these men and their descendants.

Tangentially, yet importantly, this is also the tale of Dilli’s monuments – who commissioned what, when it was built, how it was built and by whom. The ‘whom’ is particularly significant since the protagonists are stone carvers and their families. Their loves and passions, joys and sorrows – Madhu sculpts a vivid picture of the human lives that live and breathe in the shadow of their beautiful creations, much like her stone carvers breathe life into stone.

One of the most difficult genres to write in is historical fiction – how do you weave real historical people and events into your fictional narrative? Where does history end and fiction begin? But historical authenticity has always been the hallmark of Madhu’s storytelling. She also has an uncanny knack of infusing her writing with the power to bring sights and sounds and even scents alive. Here too, you can almost see the water in the baolis dry up before your eyes; smell his fear as Madhav hides from the soldiers; hear the thudding of hooves and the raucous laughter as Shagufta hides from a different cohort of soldiers.

At its heart, The Garden of Heaven is a deeply moving personal story, all the narrative strands coming together like the disparate panels of a large, colourful tapestry in the last ‘story’ in the book. Under the vengeance and bloodshed lies a shared brotherhood and a common humanity that accepts yet surmounts the differences of class, caste, creed and religion. 

Well-edited and well-proofed – a rarity in itself that it needs to be mentioned – The Garden of Heaven is a gripping tale that I found hard to put down (much to the detriment of the work I am paid to do). So much so, I didn't even mind the narrative jumps between decades and characters. In a trans-generational epic, one can/should never expect chronological narratives. Indeed, the peeves I have are so minor that it borders on the nit-picking. And they aren’t so much ‘peeves’ as befuddlement: one, how does Jayshree understand what the Sultana says? Wouldn’t they have been speaking different languages then? And two, when Durgadas claims to be unlettered, how could he previously offer to read the letter to Musa? And finally, perhaps, the 'Garden of Heaven' appears randomly, and only towards the latter part of the book; it is mentioned a few times, only to disappear as randomly. Perhaps it will reappear?

I have often thought that Madhu was a far better short story writer than she was a novelist. Much as I have enjoyed her Muzaffar Jung stories, it was more due to her descriptions of the age and the people than for the mysteries. But, as a short story writer, I have always placed her among the best of contemporary writers in that genre. In fact, in my review of her last set of stories, I had written: Madhulika Liddle is at her best when she is constrained by length. She has the facility to tell much within the constraints of a short story, subtly suggesting nuances and undertones that leave themselves open to interpretation. I was wrong about that. If The Garden of Heavens is any indication, then she has evolved into also being a good novelist.

I also said that Woman to Woman was her best work yet. With each subsequent book, Madhu proves me wrong about that as well.

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