Sutapa Basu weaves a historical fiction around Nader Shah, one of the most powerful Persian rulers and his endeavors in conquering a vast expanse of the world.
Nader Shah was not a Mughal but a man who conquered the Mughal Empire bringing the ‘Peacock throne’ and ‘Koh-i-Noor’ diamond to Persia. He was a man who rose from a humble beginning, reaching the pinnacle of power, being instrumental in creating the likes of Ahmed Shah Abdali.
Is he a likeable character, not in the least for the amount of barbarism, destruction, and plunder he accounted for, somewhat comparable to Genghis Khan and Timur. Yet, the premise makes for an intriguing story.
In the book, ‘The Curse of Nader Shah: Rise and Fall of a Tyrant’, Sutapa Basu recreates the past and in a more readable format than what the history books offer.
In 1698, a boy was born in the wild and dangerous north-eastern frontier region of Persia. He was named ‘Nadr Qoli’ meaning ‘Slave of the Wonderful’, son of a lowly herdsman of the Afshars, a semi-nomadic Turcoman tribe settled in Khorasan. But, the boy had an innate desire to rise higher and was drawn towards a cruel outlook from the beginning. He grew up with an indomitable admiration for Genghis Khan and Timur.
“Nader Shah issued an order stipulating that from now on, he should be addressed in letters and in the khutba not as Valinemat but as Shahenshah (King of Kings of the World), Nader (Rarity) of the Age, Command-giver of Persia, Throne-giver of Hindustan, Turkestan and of Khwarezm, land of Uzbeks.”
As an Indian reader, our understanding of the Persian rulers, geography, religious beliefs and politics is limited therefore there are sections when the reading pace slackens. Perhaps, a second reading could help or maybe a quick Google to understand the background would help to make linkages between different ruler and their dynamics. Though, I must admit that the map at the beginning of the book marking the empire under Nader Shah helped considerably.
There is a brief background on the existing Safavid dynasty of Persia when Nader Shah rose to challenge them. Then we are taken battle after battle to see the rise of Nader Shah and the establishment of an empire that covered the Middle East, Caucasus, Central and South Asia.
Apart from the exorbitant tax system instituted to fund the constant battles waged by Nader Shah, the Shahenshah wanted the establishment of ‘Emam Jahar’ as the religious practice under his territory. This religious intolerance was an aspect that created a rift with the Ottoman Empire and other dynasties.
Sutapa Basu builds Firuzeh’s character to counter Nader Shah. Firuzeh is one of the wives of Nader Shah. The question is whether she could become a formidable opposition to Nader Shah. Can jealousy, envy and romantic failure obscure a cruel ruler’s way forward in plunging further ruin? Firuzeh had her set of desires, primarily to be ‘Shahbanu’ and the Queen of the Indian empire. At certain places, one feels Firuzeh overpowers Nader Shah but then it falls flat. She is somehow the driving force behind Nader Shah’s aspirations to become the ‘Shehenshah’ of Hindustan and also, a stumbling block.
There is inconsistency in Firuzeh’s character. I am still confused if the back story on her marrying Nadar Shah had relevance for the future unfolding or not.
The second formidable female character is ‘Peri’, as rechristened by Nader Shah, the Rajput Princess from Delhi and the beloved companion of the Shah. Apart from Peri, Nader Shah had already created animosity with Firuzeh when he chose Reza Qoli as Vali Ahd designating him as the future King of Persia. Firuzeh had wanted this position for her son instead.
“This Hindustan is a queer country. Trees obstruct your sight, the dampness in the breeze brings you out in sweat, curious smells curl up your nose like loose tendrils of a whore’s scented braid. This country is so different from the wide-open steppes and rocky highlands of our Persia.”
The more relatable sections are Nader Shah’s battle against the Mughal Empire camping near Kunjpura and Karnal; the infighting within the Mughals and the backstabbing of certain rulers against Mohammad Shah, the Mughal Emperor. There is bloodshed and the animosity between Indians and the Persians. The gory details of the fights are laid out.
“…I am neither god nor devil, tyrant nor prophet. I am the one sent by God to punish an iniquitous generation of men…this statement was displayed in cities, towns and villages of all the regions under the Shehenshah.”
We get a peep into the trail on ‘Koh-i-Noor’ and the Bamiyan Buddha statues. It is ironic how Genghis Khan who wiped out the entire population in Bamiyan left the Buddha statues untouched but the 21st century barbarism ruined this archaeological marvel.
It is the second half of the book which is able to draw you more, with interesting facts as Nader Shah battles with his deteriorating health, a Hindu wife and the decision to leave for Persia. And, the role played by Firuzeh and disillusionment with his son, Reza Qoli. The title tells you it is the rise and fall of Nader Shah that the book charts and it is exactly this journey through history.
This review is done as part of the Blogchatter Book Review Program