Tughlaq has taught me not to judge people harshly for the choices they have made: Anuja Chandramouli

Readers will be delighted to know that Anuja Chandramouli’s latest offering ‘Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant’ has already broken into Amazon’s bestsellers list (historical fiction).

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Best selling author Anuja Chandramouli

With ten books to her credit in a span of eight years, best selling author Anuja Chandramouli is a name that every Indian reader loves to read, knows to trust and can rely on for an engaging, meaningful read. Her outstanding debut novel, Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava was an instant hit with readers. Amazon India had named her debut novel as one of the top five books in the Indian writing category for the year 2013.

A gifted writer, Anuja Chandramouli is one of India’s best-selling authors. Now, in 2019, her latest work of historical fiction ‘Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant’ has been published by Penguin India. Readers will be delighted to know that Anuja Chandramouli’s latest offering ‘Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant’ has already broken into Amazon’s bestsellers list (historical fiction).

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In a candid conversation with Financial Express Online’s Swapna Raghu Sanand, Anuja Chandramouli shares her personal insights about why she found Tughlaq most intriguing, whose ‘cautionary tale’ needed to be told and what her writer’s journey has been so far.

The best selling author of historical fiction also talked about how she is careful to leave her judgment out of the realm of storytelling, so as to treat the characters she brings to life with nothing less than the love and respect they deserve.

Edited excerpts:

Like a portrait captures a certain personality’s mood with stunning visual impact, what would you say your book ‘Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’ is all about?

Muhammad Bin Tughlaq was a study in contradiction. There was much about him that was laudable given that he was a scholar as well as a visionary and it is clear that he was well – intentioned which is why it boggles the mind that his reign was such an unmitigated train wreck.

For someone who was capable of so much kindness and generosity he turned out to be a wrecking ball who was responsible for so much loss and destruction on an extraordinary scale.

I found it touching that he seemed to genuinely care about the welfare of his subjects and truly went all out to provide succour during a protracted period of ruinous famine.

Few wielders of power have managed to be half as effective before or since in dealing with natural disasters but it must also be said that not many have blundered as spectacularly as he did whether it was the ill – advised move to shift the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad or his token currency scheme.

Yet, he also deserves to be commended for his attitude of religious tolerance and promoting even those Hindus who refused to convert, to high positions in his court which led to him running afoul of the Muslim clergy. They called him out for what they saw as a betrayal of their faith and caused untold trouble for him. This led to savage reprisals from Tughlaq, which saw the extremists doing their utmost to undermine his reign and even issuing a fatwa against him.

Of course none of this exonerates him from the stomach churning savagery that characterized his reign but I still think he did the best he could under trying circumstances in a violent age where you got killed if you didn’t kill first.

Given that historical personalities are plenty, what led you to choose Muhammad bin Tughlaq? Was it a conscious choice or did it just come to you?

I have always found Muhammad Bin Tughlaq intriguing from as far back as 6th grade when I first heard about him in history class. Sister Fabiola was a Malayali and she pronounced his name with a thick accent and since we were all committed to being bratty and mean we couldn’t help giggling about it. But Sister Fabiola was also a good teacher and I was fascinated by her account of the mad monarch.

Thanks to her efforts, Tughlaq remained in hibernation somewhere in my head space over the years and recently after my dalliances with history thanks to Prithviraj Chauhan and Padmavati, he surfaced again and persuaded me to devote an entire book to him.

My publishers were as chuffed as I was and voila… “Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant” happened.

When you’re writing a book like this, which covers historical events from a different era, what was your writing process and preparation like?

There was a lot of intensive research done and it was challenging to wade through the ocean of material available on the great man.

His contemporaries like Barani, Batutta, and Isami have been scathing in their condemnation of Tughlaq, so I had to rely on the work of modern scholars both Indian and Western to get a more balanced perspective.

I like to probe the psyche of powerful characters whether in the realm of history or mythology just to figure out what made them tick and to study the personal factors that motivated them and led them down the paths they eventually chose which led to glory, damnation or redemption.

My writing process reflects the human side of those who have been raised to Godlike status as well as those who are reviled as the greatest villains of all time. That is my USP, even if I say so myself!

You have had successful back-to-back book releases. Still, I am tempted to ask: Have you ever experienced a writer’s block? What’s your advice for writers who have felt ‘stuck’?

It is the bane of my existence. I live in mortal fear, terrified that I have already written the last word I will ever write and wake up one morning to discover that the creative wells have run dry (the horror!).

When that happens I hunker down and power through. If that is not working, I take a break and do things completely unrelated to writing. Perhaps an hour of yoga or aerobics… I may veg out in front of the TV, wolf down a bar of chocolate or catch up with buddies. Then I will return to my writing and find that it is easier going.

The important thing is to return to your work even if you are tempted to give up, smash your laptop, run away from home and persuade yourself to try to make it as an actress in Hollywood. Perhaps I should give that a try… then I can come back having failed to secure the lead role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio or Chris Hemsworth and write a bestselling novel about my experiences.

How might we as readers rethink the very idea of violence through the lens of historical tragedies that have fractured the nation? What do you view as its philosophical premise that may still remain relevant to us?

Working on historical tragedies have had a profound impact on me and given me a blessed sense of perspective that helps me deal with the worst of our age.

Too many tend to romanticize and glorify the brutality, excessive gore and grime of the past without ever realizing that many among our so called national heroes played at war, using women and the innocent as pawns in their games of power.

With so much power vested in the hands of a few who mostly turned out to be unworthy, personal liberty and equal rights was merely a dream.

Even before Indians found themselves at the mercy of the Ghaznavids, Ghurids, the Delhi Sultanate, Mughals and the British, the common folks were struggling under petty Kings who mostly favoured oppression along the lines of caste, class and religion.

Many had no choice but to submit to tyranny but there were always the best and bravest of any generation who sought to free themselves and others as well at great personal cost.

Our ancestors fought and died for the freedom we enjoy today and I want us to remember that and not take any of the privilege we enjoy today for granted.

Despite our crushing losses to invaders and tyrants from within and without, in the past as well as present, I am grateful this land and her people has survived its many mistakes which unfortunately cannot be said of once proud races like the Aztecs, Maya, Incans or the native Americans.

We are all lucky to have been given so many second chances and it would behove us to get over our differences, eschew violence and join hands to build a better India.

What unique insights do you think this historical vignette can provide?

With Tughlaq, it was my intention to serve up a hearty slice of history which sheds light on some of the pressing issues that have held back this nation and prevented it from achieving its full potential not just in the past but to the present day as well.

For instance, communal strife and caste based angst are two heads of the many headed Hydra that we have simply not managed to slay. Unfortunately, we are all guilty of being unwilling to summon up the Herculean effort needed to fight and destroy this evil.

Lulled by the prospect of getting ahead at the expense of others, we avert our eyes when injustice plays out all around us and we continue to pay the price for avarice and an inbuilt desensitization to the suffering of others.

Tughlaq is a cautionary tale in the sense that it seeks to drive home the inevitable fact that if we persist in clinging on to our follies, we will carry on careening down a destructive path even though there is always a better way if we can just find the courage to do the needful.

When you wrote this book, did you keep some specific character timeline, and/or chronology to keep you clear on the protagonist’s life moments as well as other central characters? More specifically, did you map it out beforehand, or did the structure of the book emerge while you wrote?

The nature of historical fiction is such that it doesn’t hurt to have a chronological framework in place. I did have a basic timeline but it is also necessary not to adhere too rigidly to it, in the interest of narrative pace and a certain organic flow which enables the characters to do their thing.

What has been the biggest continuity mistake you feel that writers of this genre tend to make and how have you fixed it in your writing process?

I feel that many writers have a personal agenda and tend to give voice to their self – righteous ideology using historical characters. It bothers me a bit, because it detracts from the authenticity of the period as well as the integrity of the source material in addition to being jarring and anachronistic.

In every age, people labour under the illusion that they are enlightened unlike the barbarians of the past who simply didn’t know better and we are not an exception to this rule.

I genuinely don’t think any of us qualify as paragons of virtue that entitles us to sit on a moral high horse and revile the actions of others, especially those giants from a bygone era on whose shoulders we are standing and who laid the foundation for all the perks we enjoy today.

Hence, in my writing, I am careful to leave judgement out of it and to treat my characters and stories with nothing less than the love and respect they deserve.

Are there specific writers whose work or writing styles inspired you to model this book on?

I love Hilary Mantel, Ken Follett, Steven Saylor, Colleen McCullough, Gary Jennings, Manu Pillai and so many other writers of historical fiction who use their writing to make history so irresistible, accessible and relatable.

You learn something from these books about a bygone age which has shaped the present one and also wind up being hugely entertained. With Prithviraj Chauhan, Padmavathi and now, Tughlaq, I have aspired to do the same and in my opinion, I think I have been most successful with Tughlaq.

Your thoughts on how difficult it is to get published in India and any writing tips for first time authors?

Getting published is always ridiculously hard but what happens afterward is no picnic either. It is a highly competitive field and unfortunately, literary merit has taken a backseat to marketing savvy and aggressive, snake oil salesmen tactics. That is sad, but it is heartening to know that there are always discerning readers out there who make it worth your while.

Those trying to make it as an author would do well not to aspire towards the razzle dazzle surrounding celebrity authors and focus instead on honing their craft with the fond hope of achieving impossible perfection.

Hopefully, with a bit of hard work and a dash of dumb luck, you will find that success with its attendant paraphernalia is knocking at your door.

What was hard for you when you were writing this? Were any areas of the book that were particularly challenging to write?

I wanted to portray Tughlaq as a good man with the best intentions and tools who wound up doing terrible things that played havoc with the lives of his subjects.

The idea wasn’t to bash him or serve up all things sordid and prurient using his name and the colourful backdrop of his life and times but to provide some fresh insight into the heart and mind of the monarch and his mad genius.

This was a huge ask and involved the balancing skills of a tight rope walker.

Fortunately, the research material especially the work of Agha Mahdi Hussain served as a safety harness and provided invaluable assistance in shaping and fleshing out this remarkable character to my satisfaction.

Thanks to the delicate sensibilities of modern readers and all those who are easily outraged across social media platforms, I had to be extra careful about portraying the religious unrest that was a major factor which contributed towards unraveling many of Tughlaq’s best laid plans lest I myself was accused of fomenting disharmony between people belonging to different faiths and getting slapped with an almighty lawsuit!

I think I pulled it off though and in fact, Tughlaq is dedicated to all who take pride in the fact, that India is a secular nation.

How different has your journey as a writer been with this book on Muhammad Bin Tughlaq as compared to the previous ones that you have written?

I like to think that every book prepares me for the next one and the idea is to get better with each. Every journey in this regard is very challenging, life altering and special. Tughlaq was such an immersive and exhilarating experience.

There is something intoxicating about taking a trip back in time when legends walked the Earth.

I love how intensely and fully people lived back then, given that they were so acutely aware of their own mortality in light of the pestilence, wars, famine and whims of tyrants that could snuff out their paltry existence in a heartbeat.

We are all so immensely privileged to live in a golden age of peace, fragile and hard fought as it is.

Our very lives are built on the blood, bones and sacrifice of those who came before us and I am grateful to them all.

In light of our grievances with the ruling party, I always remind myself that flawed though it is, democracy is always better than the alternative.

How important is it for today’s writers to aggressively promote their books on social media? In the context of your journey as a writer who has authored several books, what is your social media strategy and do you have any tips for writers on what they can do better to promote their books too?

Some would say that aggressively promoting the book is even more important than the actual writing process and I am inclined to agree. It is like birthing. Once you have popped out the child, you are kidding yourself if you think the hard part is done and you can just put up your feet and relax.

The difficult part is just beginning and in order to do your best by your book, it is part of the job to make sure that it reaches as wide an audience as possible and to do that, smart marketing is essential, whatever that means since there are no guarantees.

Personally, I have found that using social media solely for promotion is counterproductive and a thankless job, so I try to connect with readers via articles on current issues, opinion pieces, book reviews and little snippets about what my books offer.

When you finished the book, what have you learned about yourself or about the era itself or about the Indian society at large?

Did you feel a change as you were writing, or when you were finished?

I think Tughlaq has taught me not to judge people too harshly for the choices they have made even if an argument can be made to condemn them for the same.

Folks do what they do, because from where they are standing it makes sense and feels like the right thing to do even it isn’t.

There is nothing to be gained by tearing others down even when their actions seems to merit censure based on our limited understanding of what is morally sound and what isn’t.

On the other hand, if we seek not to judge or excoriate but to understand, then perhaps we can help each other become the best versions of ourselves and contribute towards building a future that will be a bright, beautiful and safe space for our descendants.


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