June 28, 2007

will the real tipu sultan please stand up?

firstly, i am a poor student of history. it might fascinate me and all (sometimes), but ask me who attacked whom and the names of the generals and viceroys and suddenly it is as if you are talking to me in another language.

but, i am more of a visual learner; i can remember any story from the amar chitra katha picture books. even better is when i am reading history that has already been televised. that is why when i came across my father’s worn-out copy of bhagwan s gidwani’s the sword of tipu sultan at home last year, i picked it up without a second thought.

during those long days in the bare hospital with a stubbornly-skeptic-about-ayurveda-praveen, even athri kicked excitedly inside my tummy when i read about hyder ali’s exploits in the south, how young tipu and his brother escaped with the help of a little girl (who waited for him to ask her hand in marriage years later), how he lets his prisoners go after teaching them a lesson. why, i also wept when faithful purniaih was asked to leave before tipu’s final encounter…

gidwani’s prose was fluent, picturesque with its battles and treacheries; i voted it as the best non-picture-history book i had ever read, and wished we had this and more at school. in fact i began to look forward to reading more about tipu as soon as i was finished with my MA project, and i did. like a sincere student, i enrolled at the soas university library for this self-assigned subject, and borrowed a few books on ‘the real tipu sultan‘ and the mysorean invasions on malabar…

now that i have an hour’s travel to work and back once a week (while praveen stays home to look after athri athri looks after praveen), i thought it will be wonderful to indulge in some rare history lessons again on the train. what i didn’t expect, were the bonus lessons on writing, or rather how not to write – in the book’s preface itself:

Tipu Sultan has recently jumped from history books to the TV screen. This has resulted in a great interest in him and in his times. It has also generated great controversy, as many people, especially in Kerala, believe that Tipu was not what he is being shown in the TV serial. The novel ‘The sword of Tipu Sultan’ by Bhagwan S Gidwani (on which the serial is based), they claim, is full of untruths and misrepresentations…

This controversy made me read about Tipu in detail. I was shocked to learn the facts about him. I found that his detractors were much nearer than the truth than those who were projecting him as a nationalist and a secular ruler.

…(In this book) the focus is on the character of Tipu as he really was: as a ruler, a soldier, a general, a family man, a cruel despot, and a fanatic.

sharma clarifies right in the start that his book has not many details on the battles and seiges. however, what i found interesting, was his acknowledgement towards the end of the same preface:

Readers may find some slant in the book against Tipu. History can not be written without a slant. However, truth has not been a casualty in the process, I believe.

so at least we had that straight…history cannot be written without a slant. that means gidwani wasn’t so wrong in his eulogising the sultan…but what made me uncomfortable was the writer’s over-fictionalising history, rather than making it work the other way.

for instance, gidwani’s book (which, unfortunately i don’t have here with me to quote from directly), said tipu was born only after blessings from a mysterious p’ir sultan-baba who also instructed fakhr-un-nisa (hyder ali’s wife and tipu’s mother), that he (tipu) be sent on the spiritual path as he is a child of god. for the first 12 years therefore, on his mother’s request, tipu was trained in sanskrit, and both hindu and islamic texts…in the following chapters, both in the book and tipu’s life, gidwani gives the impression that it was this education that made tipu see all religions as one.

sharma rubbishes this theory. according to him it was hyder ali who, being illiterate himself, appointed a maulvi so at least his son got the education he had missed out on. unfortunately, hyder ali never questioned tipu’s teacher and after many years, discovered that instead of the well-rounded education, modes of warfare and “diplomacy with surrounding nations” that he expected his son to learn, “tipu had all the makings of a good maulvi…”

fine. now that i knew that perhaps gidwani got a little carried away, and that maybe sharma was right, i picked another or the remaining two books i had borrowed from the soas library: tipu sultan and his age, a collection of seminar papers – edited by aniruddha ray. the very first line in the very first 21-page paper (by one b. sheik ali) in this book made me put it down and scratch my head again.

tipu sultan is a fascinating figure of the eighteenth century who offered his blood to write the history of free india.

as far as my limited history-knowledge goes, india had so many kings and kingdoms who constantly fought with each other for more territory and wealth. tipu too was merely doing the same. so where does the concept of a ‘free india’ come in?

the style and tone in another paper (by abdus subhan) from the same book, continues in ali’s footsteps and seems to be blindly infatuated with tipu’s character again…

in his passion to liberate his country from the colonial rule of the british, tipu offered his blood…. tipu gave away two of his sons as hostages to the english in order to secure peace and well-being of his people.

according to the treaty of seringapatam – in sharma’s book – tipu owed three crore and thirty lakh rupees to the british, which he didn’t have, and was allowed to pay in installments. his sons (he had but two) were taken as hostages by charles cornwallis until tipu paid the full amount, and not ‘given away’ as subhan puts it.

well, whatever.

i had thought i could learn more about the tipu sultan who has an entire section dedicated to him in the british museum and windsor castle, whose character got me interested in history perhaps for the first time. but all this haggling by the writers is not helping me. and i haven’t got past the preface, or browsed through any of their books yet.

even after these many years of independence, when the historians of india themselves are biased, how can we expect the common indian to relate to his or her past, and more importantly, not judge if it was right or wrong.

if only the real tipu could stand up…

more reading:

the sword of tipu sultan (1990) – by vm korath, former editor of matrubhoomi

tipu sultan as known in kerala – by ravi varma

h d sharma’s book reviewed by nilagriva