One of the risks of being a “literary rockstar” as the book jacket claims, is to almost make the packaging (and thus the framing and marketing) of the book more interesting than the book itself. So, for Amish’s Suheldev – predictably, movie rights have already been sold – the consequence of such stardom include a cover with a towering, muscular male, the announcement of the millions of copies sold, the grandiose subtitle of “The King Who Saved India” (with, crucially, no sense of the said king’s temporal or spatial location), and the rhetoric of enemies – “barbaric…plundering, killing, raping, pillaging”.

There seems to be a deliberate blurring on whether this is history or fiction or myth or historical fiction – the dates (1025 AD), named historical groups (Turks) and places (Bahraich) do make it seem historical non-fiction. The gushing blurbs within include those from high political personages (from different corners of the spectrum), religious, film and media leaders.

The praise is so generic that one doubts any of these stars praising the literary star ever really read the book or had even talked to anyone who had. Further, stardom complicates the idea of the author-genius: Amish is candid about the construction of the novel in his foreword: he “relates the complete story…they [team of writers] write the first draft…the final writing is done by me…writers are paid regardless of the fate of the book.”

The return to complex, hidden forms of authorship is actually a telling return to the eleventh century world that the book describes: then too, books rarely had clear, single authors, and were often written in teams with credit finally being given to the more powerful – the king, the head of a monastery, an important courtier, etc.

Tired tropes

This review does not intend to be that of a professional historian evaluating sources, and would rather attempt to read the novel more sympathetically on its own terms, even if the terms are sometimes uncomfortable. The story is that of a “bandit-prince”, the eponymous Suheldev – essentially, a swashbuckling medieval bad boy who is nevertheless up to much good.

There are raiding enemies – unlike his peers, Suheldev stands up to them. In keeping with the play of history, Suheldev’s actions are described more in terms of the guerrilla warfare of the much-later Shivaji (small bands raiding larger kingdoms, inflicting casualties, and then vanishing into the countryside). In such imaginations, there can be no interest in the nitty-gritties of actual governance.

The martial ethic prefers a life that cultivates war, with the occasional interludes of family obligation and courtesy (Suheldev “never attacked civilians…he was loved by the general populace”). Other than civilians, women only look admiringly at him, “ogling... Suheldev had a dashing mischievous air”. There are plenty of same-sex eroticisms that are described as part of everyday Turkic culture, but Suheldev is only presented as resolutely heterosexual.

There is a minutely imagined world of tenth century kingship, with its complex, interacting set of actors – royals, elites, brave women-warriors, monks proficient in martial arts. Equally, there are some tired tropes– – the good, loyal Indian Muslim who never gets any real leadership position or decision-making power, but who just has to profess loyalty and courage.

Despite the unceasing rhetoric of “India” from the cover onward, the novel has little sense of a geographically diverse India – there is Bahraich/Shravasti (the area of the Gangetic plains), and then, the imagination of Turkic Central Asia. There is nothing of the East; the invocation of the South and the Chola empire is meagre and instrumental, as is the token invocation of Somnath in the West.

Martial ethic

India is effectively only a circuit of temples, monasteries, small court-factions, and battlefields. Likewise, Suheldev is said to be of a “subaltern caste”, and this too is left hanging. He is “dark” (is this political correctness, or more stereotyping?), but more importantly this subaltern caste has no expressive life – only the dominant gods of the Sanskritic pantheon are mentioned as are “Kshatriya codes of honour” even if the latter are often foolhardy and suicidal. There is no sense of the rich interior or embodied life of the subaltern communities ostensibly being written about.

Buddhism is mentioned – but, in an argument familiar from at least Savarkar, the fault of Buddhism was that it was apparently too inward-looking, and not martial enough to protect the country. Indeed, one does believe that the novel tries hard to imagine India more expansively and concretely but really struggles, despite the hope that that on occasion “Allahu Akbar linked seamlessly with Har Har Mahadev”. It is a hard historiographical conundrum for the best of writers and scholars.

There is certainly a difficult history of war and inter-community violence in India, and thus a martial ethics built over millennia (evidenced for example in the Mahabharat) would attempt to see war as honour, or as even a ruthless type of human ecstasy. The book captures some of the mood of these primeval, hardscrabble worlds, and its image-repertoire of moonlit battlefields or monastic and courtly intrigue is a genuine achievement.

One gets a sense of a love for the ancient, and an investment in old warrior-codes, deceptions, and in the detailing of that world and its many actors. This imagination, when thought through, is useful, and needed, and seems to be at the core of many contemporary Indian films that seek to visualise the past in this fantastical way, one that is speckled with historical realism. Indians have often been accused of not having a sense of the historical, but we are also often in danger of losing our fine sense of the mythological. Despite some reservations, this imaginative regionalist nationalism (if and when suitably moderated) may serve as a useful and vivid counterweight, and go some way in explaining the popularity of Amish’s works.

Suheldev: The King Who Saved India, Amish, Westland.