A hyper masculine head of state suddenly declares one morning that he’s cancelling the current currency and from now on, a new system will be rolled out. The subjects are aghast. They were given no warnings, no immediate alternatives, and no respite. Businesses are thrown out of gear, people are scared and confused, there is chaos. There is little else they can do but to obey, because this is a tyrant’s whim. Or is it his foresight? Do people pardon a ruler when they are put through the paces to realise his egotist vision of a nation? Does history?

In popular parlance, the phrase “Tughlaqi farman” has come to denote such crazy, unbendable diktats issued by persons in power. The man who inspired this unflattering coinage was the 14th century ruler of the Tughluq dynasty, Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, who was infamous for his irascible nature, his preposterous ideas, and his cruel ways of implementing them.

Tughlaq’s story is an important one in our times. Now, from the writing factory of Anuja Chandramouli, a self-proclaimed “modern classicist” (she’s written eight novels in seven years), comes this timely tale of Tughlaq again.

Chandramouli’s first forays were in the realm of mythological fiction, her first book being Arjuna: Saga of a Warrior Prince, published in 2012. Even as she raced through this genre – Kamadeva: The God of Desire (2014), Shakti: The Divine Feminine (2015), Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son (2017), Ganga: The Constant Goddess (2018) – Chandramouli also began to explore high fantasy – Yama’s Lieutenant (2016) and Yama’s Lieutenant and the Stone Witch (2017). Almost simultaneously, segued into historical fiction. After Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen (2017) and Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts (2017), her latest offering is Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant. The sheer volume is impressive, by any standards.

Formula, one

This crazy busy publishing line-up, however, is not without design, and full props ought to be given to the author and her publishers’ sense of timing. When Chandramouli was dabbling with mythological fiction, the trend was at its peak. Her book Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen was released squarely around the time Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film on the same subject – Padmaavat – became a raging controversy. And now, when hyper nationalistic histories are the flavour of the season, the author has shifted gears to cater to popular demand.

The infamous emperor may be an interesting choice of a subject, but there is a sense of déjà vu with each new Chandramouli book. Six out of eight of her books have mouthfuls by way of titles, like those of Hindi films that tried too hard in the ’90s. Remember Gupt: The Hidden Truth?

Thankfully, Bollywood seems to have evolved. But over seven years and eight books, little seems to have changed in the author’s way of writing her fiction. Tughlaq represents the formulaic production. Another god, another hero, or another villain is led to the altar of indifferent retelling to be made forgettable.

Mindless violence

It’s not that Tughlaq did not indulge in the violence he’s infamous for, but in Chandramouli’s hands, the narrative is just that – a gory story. To be sure, she recreates all the dramatic events from Tughlaq’s life and reign, including the shift of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, the introduction of token currency, the impossibly cruel executions, the volatile religious policies, and the endless annexations and wars – but her hold on the narrative is, at best, loose.

In her foreword, the author refers to multiple sources of research and reference, and also admits to using her imagination to fill in the gaps in information. Chandramouli loses this fantastic opportunity more than she uses it with her feeble attempts at reconstructing the mind of this explosive ruler. The reader remains impervious to Tughlaq’s life, his personality, his challenges, and his victories.

It is almost painful to watch the loss of possibilities in a story like this – a place where the strange paradoxes of piousness and cruelty, of impulsiveness and generosity, could be explored at length. The author adopts a hit-and-run strategy in most cases, scarcely justifying the motivations behind decisions so bizarre.

What’s more, she is unable to do a fair job of fleshing out Tughlaq’s private roles as a son, a friend, and a husband, though she tries. These “soft” places, where his humanness and his vulnerabilities could have been demonstrated, are also lost.

Where explanations are proffered through Tughlaq’s conversations with himself or others, it is unconvincing. The narrative devices used for drawing connections and setting contexts too are inappropriate. For example, it seems highly improbable that Tughlaq and his best friend would be explaining a political situation to each other at length when they are in the thick of it.

The character arcs are ineffectual, and so is the language. Chadramouli does write about violence convincingly, but that’s not a redeeming enough quality, not even in a book about a king who was known for it.

Pick this up only if you’re up for a Tinder date with history. A 225-page fling is hardly enough to understand the complex times and life of a man like Muhammad Bin Tughlaq.

Muhammad Bin Tughlaq

Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant, Anuja Chandramouli, Penguin RandomHouse.