By Syeda Samara Mortada
“Love is the funeral pyre where the heart must lay its body.”
~ Dark Diamond
From the beginning of the novel, I could picture every page like it was a scene from a historic movie from the Mughal era — vibrant and mystical, yet with clouds of darkness settling in. The colorful and multi-layered characters seemed to fit right in with the grandeur of the palace, as well as the hidden truths and loves lost. There are certain themes that recur throughout, greed and love being two of them; but that does not go to say that they go hand in hand, or do they?
Shayistha Khan, Subedar of Bengal is our central character, aptly portraying the traits of Mughal warriors, and could well be inspired by a real one. His innermost characteristics, some of them being his Robinhood-ish philosophies, the messiah to the poor, avid reader and believer of God are almost in stark contrast to his hard exterior, further hardened by war and its lasting effects on a nation. He is presented in strong juxtaposition to Pir Baba, who is also the grandfather of Champa (the female lead of the novel). Pir Baba’s one and only aim in life is to get the Kalinoor, which is rumored to be in the possession of Shayista. The Pir’s deeply rooted superstitious values as well as physical prowess at times feels like a stretch too far but overall works well to give the character its profile and once again feels like a true calibration of Pirs in our part of the world.
However, whilst analyzing the female leads of the novel, they tend to fall a little short of one’s expectations simple because “women empowerment” is specifically mentioned in various instances of the novel. Of course, one may argue that this representation, Champa’s, for instance, is revolutionary in the context of the timeframe of the novel. Champa without a doubt is a strong character especially if we get a sense of her age, surroundings and growing up years. However, there is some confusion about her stance in life. While she is hell-bent on saving the madrassah (which houses many girl children) from the wrath of the Mullahs who feel that music and books will lead young women away from the ways of God, she is also a dancer who appeases Shayistha and others like him, probably as a result of instructions from her Dada. Champa cannot stand the Mullahs and everything they represent; however, she tries to stop Shayistha from killing her father, who is also a Mullah even when he is on the verge of taking her own life. Again, if she is the ultimate symbol of goodness and kindness, then why does she not stop her Dada from his evil-doing and practice of black magic, even when she is very aware of its effects on those around her? Her love-hate relationship with Shayistha is also one that is hard to decipher.