The Magarh Chronicles

-a review

The Mangarh Chronicles is a book written by Gary Worthington and is sold internationally with the title – India Treasures. Before I actually get into the book, let me tell you about how I got around to reading it. I have recently started a trend of reading a fiction novel based on a certain region or area before I actually visit that place. You can call this a 'localized fiction' category of novels. What I really like about them is that it gives me a lot of background on the place without reading boring wiki articles or random travel websites. These novels immerse me in the surroundings and I feel at home when I actually arrive. Most of the other sources just state facts. What makes history interesting are the stories and they need to be told in such a way as to captivate the reader's interest. I believe this is why my high school History professor was such a great man. A lot of WWII is still alive in my mind thanks to him and the Biggles series of novels that I read then. But I digress, let us get into the actual review.

I was going to be visiting Rajasthan, Jaipur in particular and thought of reading a novel that is set in that region. The Mangarh Chronicles is set in the fictional city of Mangarh located in Rajasthan, written by Gary Worthington, and was one of the suggestions that Google and some other blogs gave me. Mangarh is loosely based on the city of Jaipur and the author even provides a graphic display of the old city, palaces and the fort for better understanding. The story revolves around Vijay Singh, a tax collector who is raiding the Maharaja of Mangarh and searching for hidden treasures that would not have been declared in his returns. No one is absolutely certain what the treasure contains but it is referred to as The Mangarh Treasure and is supposed to have been passed down through the generations. While Vijay Singh is trying to unearth the secrets of the Maharaja, there are some secrets of his own that he is trying to hide. He has been able to reach his current position in the tax department by masquerading as a Rajput, one of the highest castes in Rajasthan. He originally hails from a village near Mangarh itself and belongs to the ‘Harijans’ or ‘Untouchable’ caste. His whole life is based on this one lie and it is a secret that he wants to protect dearly. During the course of the raid, we also come to know about the Maharaja and his family, particularly his beautiful daughter Kaushalya Kumari who surprises Vijay with her deep understanding of the history of the area and sophisticated outlook. This game of intrigue and suspicion plays out in the backdrop of the Emergency which brings it’s own set of complications and powerful political characters like Dev Batra, a rude, crass politician who will stoop at nothing to get to the treasure and implicate the Maharaja.

But what really separates this novel from several other treasure hunt mysteries is the style of writing that juxtaposes the present and past and weaves wonderful short anecdotes and stories that are set in older eras but are related to the hunt for treasure. During the course of the search, Vijay Singh visits several places around Mangarh, each with it’s own history and several monuments and legends. At such times, the author takes us back in time and weaves a fictional yet endearing story around that historical event or legend. While these flashbacks are sometimes a little jarring to the narrative of the main story, they break the monotony of a single-track story and gives us hints to the glorious past of the region. I got so immersed in these small stories itself that for a moment I forgot about the treasure hunt against which it is set. Each of these historical anecdotes have clearly defined characters in the typical settings of that period. Like the little boy, Jimuta who goes on to become a mahout for one of Ashoka’s lead elephants and subsequently rises to a minister. Or Samudradutta, the merchant of Kashi who is distraught after losing both his sons to the path of Buddhism. Or the painter from Mauryan times who weeps so much for his beloved that he leaves behind one of his masterpieces in the caves of Ajanta. Each individual story creates a suspense that keeps the novel ticking. Worthington does mention in the footnotes that he created fictional characters and stories but they have been based on known and established events and characters in history. I would say that these stories are like interludes in a beautiful drama that is playing out in the background.

So how did I feel in Jaipur after reading this novel? It brought a lot of life to the stories that I read in the book, like watching a movie based on a novel but here you're actually starring in it! As I roamed the forts and palaces, I pictured the countless generations of the Maharajas and Maharanis it must have played host to, how their kids would have had so much fun roaming about the gigantic forts and getting lost in them. And of the kind of intrigue, plotting and politics that would have played out in the Darbars. I was certainly happy that I had read the book before going to Rajasthan.

That is not to say that you cannot read the book at other times. It is definitely a wonderful read though it may seem stretched in some portions. But it has been one of the best books that I would attribute to this new category of books that I have become so interested in. Some other books that I can think of are William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal and to a lesser extent White Mughals as well as Amitav Ghosh's superbly written The Glass Palace. Dalrymple's books are superbly researched and based firmly in history but he too manages to convey a beautiful picture of the cities of Delhi and Hyderabad while Amitav Ghosh paints such a pretty picture of Ratnagiri that I wanted to travel there the moment I put the book down. Gary Worthington is not a sucker for history, his aim is more to create a captivating story and he does a very good job of it.

The author has also written a sequel to this book called India Fortunes but I have not been able to lay my hands on it. The Mangarh Chronicles too is an old book that is not so easily available. I spent close to an hour in my library before I found a dusty copy of the book. Though I believe they are both readily available on flipkart.

Do let me know if you have some across such books that immerse you in a particular place or region and you found enjoyable.


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7 comments:

  1. Vamsi February 4, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    @ sid,

    interesting blogpost.

    yup, the land of rajputs is a wondeful place to be in.

    since i stay in the deccan plateau, i would want to visit the places in and around this place first, and then check out what other places have got to offer.

    lets see if i can make it actually. time decides everything i guess.

    i liked this idea of yours, to first 'get a feel' of a place by reading about it ... prior to visiting it in person.

    cheers !

  2. wandering soul February 5, 2010 at 5:00 AM

    Now that's a nice idea! Reading about the history of the place before visiting. I think it'd be like deja vu! The story seems interesting..i should try to get the book sometime.

    I was into reading a lot of fiction before i picked up "Into Thin Air" and that was my first non-fiction and after that i read "My India" by Jim Corbett. After these two, i have a stronger urge to climb everest and visit Kumaon. I already feel like i know these places..

    And one suggestion, if you are writing more, it might help to change the font size to a bigger one.. I was almost bumping into my laptop screen while reading this.. ;)

  3. Sid February 5, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    #Vamsi: I'm sure there are tons of places around the Deccan as well. And you should travel whenever you get a chance. I myself have been guilty of lazing around a lot!

    #Neelima: Will check out these books this week at the library. And yeah, I can see now, that the font is really hard to read. Initially, I chose it because it was a photoblog template but for this post, I thought I might as well do something different. Need to work on the font though, thanks!

  4. CHATs February 11, 2010 at 3:43 AM

    hi Sid,

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I love the photographs. Very well done.

    Regards
    chat

  5. Sid February 11, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    #CHATs: Glad to know that you liked the pictures. Your travels always amaze me, especially the kind of varied experiences you've had. Keep going!

  6. anoop February 24, 2010 at 11:57 PM

    interesting habit, to read a fiction novel on a place before visiting the place. It sounds quite similar to a practice of mine - I like reading fiction novels based on different timelines, for instance during independence to get a better feel of common sentiments. I do agree that a well written story talks more about the situation than mere facts. But, most of my travels are un-planned and I'm too lazy to even read about the place before I visit. but still it works for me! :)
    I too read the last mughal and was really impressed. I'm not sure if you are going to visit Japan, but 'shogun' by james clavell is one such book which is well researched and with a fantastic storyline.

  7. Sid February 26, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    #Anoop: Will look up 'Shogun'. All my knowledge on Japan comes from watching anime :) Will be good to read up something from that region.
    I actually was reading 'The Last Mughal' when I visited Delhi a couple of times. It felt so awesome when roaming around the the narrow (and stinking!) gullies of Old Delhi.