Author’s interview in DNA Newspaper

Sahyadris to Hindukush brings alive the life and times of the Indian subcontinent at the height of Maratha rule. Yogesh Pawar caught up with author Aneesh Gokhale to find out what made him take on this theme

Why did you choose fictionalised history when most people in their mid-20s like you dabble in genres like romance or thrillers?

I know the popular stereotype thinks people my demographic can’t go beyond parameters set by Bollywood or Western thrillers, but I’ve always been fascinated by history and wanted to look at a period that’s often ignored.

But you’re a navigating officer in the Merchant Navy. Where did this passion for history come from?

Trekking and hiking around Maharashtra’s Sahyadri range are twin passions from early on. The strategically placed forts in formidable terrain have always held a special attraction. And this is what sparked off an interest in their history. I began researching the subject. The more I read, the more it gripped me. The book is a result of that two-year-long research.

But why fictionalise, what in your own view is anyways fascinating?

I wanted the book to read like an interesting novel, not a boring history book. While all events described in the book actually happened over two decades since 1740, I’ve used some artistic licence to dramatise and make them more interesting for lay readers. So while I’ve created around 11 fictional characters to help with the flow of the narrative, all other characters and places are based on ground realities. I first began to write an alternate ‘what if’ kind of imaginary narrative with scenarios of what’d happen without the battle of Panipat and the Marathas’ northward thrust. But as I began researching, I found the actual events more fantastic and unique than the imaginary. What’s more, much of it was unknown.

Like the Maratha sway over not only Lahore and Multan but even Attock Fort in North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) on the banks of the Indus river.

To this day, in Marathi, it’s popular to describe any exceptional success with the idiom ‘carrying one’s flags beyond Attock.’ It alludes to 1758 when the Marathas took over Attock Fort and planted the saffron flag there. You’ve said you found this “rise of the Maratha empire” crunched into small footnotes and not given its due by historians. From school, history meant a quick run through ancient India, followed by the rise of first, the Mughal empire and then the British. Everything else is reduced to a blur. The Maratha empire, which started off as a small kingdom founded by Shivaji, held sway over a century all the way from Machalipatnam in the South to Attock. That’s just too huge to have been ignored by oversight.

What do you then think was the reason?

Personally I have two takes. I think it’s felt that the vibrant, defiant Marathas from the Sahyadris who took their empire all the way to the Hindukush foothills don’t fit into the ‘secular’ narrative that historians have sold us down the years. To say a race stood up to the centuries of foreign conquests and persecution from the northern western borders of the subcontinent will necessitate acknowledging, at least to an extent, of excesses committed by the invaders. Fears that this will open old communal wounds just don’t wash. The same historians will whitewash destruction of temples or religious taxes like the jiziya as political and not religious acts. But the same logic is not extended to Marathas. The second take is simply: Marathi-dvesh or the looking down on anything Marathi and denying it credit even when due (smiles). The same mindset which won’t allow (barring rare recent exceptions) Marathi characters in Bollywood to be anything more than kaamwali bais, servants or simpleton buffoons seems to be at work here.

But current regional chauvinist political outfits in Maharashtra seem to have more than made up for even such perceived slight?

These outfits only use history selectively to further their own political brand equity. People buy into even their often-times illogical theories because of a deep sense of hurt over being denied their share in the country’s historical legacy.

Goa’s Deputy CM Francis D’Souza recently said India was a Hindu nation and will always remain so.

No matter what I say on this, it will create controversy. But we need to understand that the idea of the nation-state as understood today has come from the West. This sub-continent has largely always gone by socio-cultural continuity and there were always several kingdoms which geographically had such continuity. Some historians like to foist a theory on us that we were just a bunch of warring kingdoms till the British united us. Even historical accounts by travellers in history show how the region extending from the east of the Indus till the Indian Ocean was seen as sharing values, traditions, social norms and mores and even food habits.

You’ve begun work on your next book…

Yes, it is based on Rudra Singha or Sukhrungpha, the Assamese king who envisioned a pan-Hindu alliance to counter the Mughals. He built alliances across the North-East, starting with Khyrim (Meghalaya) and Tripura. He also annexed the Kachari and Jaintia kingdoms, bringing areas bordering Mughal territory under his direct control. Around 1714, he embarked on an ambitious project of uniting Hindu rulers of Eastern India against the Mughals. Though he died at this critical juncture with an army of 4,00,000 ready to strike, this idea of a pan-Hindu union conceived by a king in the far North-East was unprecedented.

Sahyadris to Hindukush can be purchased on Flipkart

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