History becomes fascinating when it lets the reader imagine along with the text. Acclaimed author, the late Saradindu Bandopadhyay did that with élan whenever he picked up his pen to write, in his words, a “historical fiction”. One such work is Bandopadhyay’s 1965 classic Bengali novel Tungabhadrar Teeré. The award-winning novel has been recently translated into English by Arunava Sinha to let the thrill of reading the classic spill beyond the Bengalee milieu.
The story of By the Tungabadhra is set around 1430 AD in and around the kingdom of Vijayanagar in southern India. Princess Bidyunmala of Kalinga kingdom journeys on sea and through the river Tungabhadra to reach Vijayanagar as she gets ready to marry King Devaraya II of the southern kingdom. The princess is accompanied by the royal entourage: her step sister, Manikankana being the main companion and confidante. As they travel, a young man, Arjunvarma, is rescued from the rough river by an able-bodied blacksmith Balaram, who is part of the entourage. Arjunvarma becomes part of the group: it leads to complexities as Bidyunmala seems to be in love with Arjunvarma.
Meanwhile, trouble brews up in Vijayanagar as Devaraya II is threatened by a treacherous brother, Prince Kamapanadeva, and the kingdom is threatened by external invasion. Bandopadhyay, who lived in Pune and created the famous fictional detective character of Byomkesh Bakshi, sets the pace of the novel as if it is a thriller, interweaving fratricidal conspiracy, spies, legends about the spirits of Hukka and Bukka — the founding fathers of Vijayanagar, the mysterious setting of the Hemakut hills, with history. They may not be acutely dramatic, but the suspense remains an important strand in the story as it keeps unfolding seamlessly.
There are narrated tales of brutality that the Yavana (non-Hindu) rulers had unleashed in certain parts of the land what we know today as India. In 2011 that may read like a simplistic classification between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. But one has to consider the period to understand the perceptions. At times the author tempers it with the beautiful descriptions: the vitality of rivers, the throbbing Vijayanagar market, the grandeur of the royal palace, the serenity of nature, the happiness of the local women, music, and the like. I wonder if Bandopadhyay wanted this novel to be primarily a love story: there are ample doses of romance that keeps flowing till the end. No matter what, they all make for a pleasant reading.
I had read the story in Bengali. This translation follows the original storyline; the flavour of the 15th-century India comes out well and the reader is almost transported to the period. The language is simple yet not without the gloss that one expects in such novels. However, I was slightly amused to see that the translation has often been a bit too literal: If a thoroughfare in Vijayanagar is called Beetelnut Avenue — as we see in the translation, then Vijayanagar must be called Victorycity.
On the whole, this four-act novel is worth reading. Those interested in history will enjoy the book.
By the Tungabhadra
By: Saradindu Bandopadhyay
Translated by: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Harper PerennialPages: 253
Price: Rs 299