In Sambhaji, Vishwas Patil invokes the tale of a misunderstood but valiant monarch of the Maratha dynasty
Sambhaji’s is a tale that has been misunderstood throughout history, mired in controversy and scandal and appears as no more than a footnote in the larger story of the Deccan.
The story of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj is as rich a chapter in the history of the Deccan as that of his father, the Maratha warrior and king, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Born in 1657 to the revolutionary Shivaji Bhosale, Sambhaji ascended the Maratha throne in 1680, after the sudden death of his father. During his reign, he expanded the boundaries of the Maratha kingdom whilst keeping at bay the continuing attacks of the Mughal forces led by emperor Aurangzeb. His fortitude and courage shone also when he endured a betrayal that led to his capture towards the end of the 17th century and brutality and torture before being put to death.
Yet, Sambhaji’s is a tale that has been misunderstood throughout history, mired in controversy and scandal and appears as no more than a footnote in the larger story of the Deccan. For acclaimed Marathi author Vishwas Patil, it was fortuitous then to be posted in the early 2000s in Raigad district – a crucial fort town and the first capital of the Maratha Empire. The author had always wanted to write about Sambhaji, he says, “but after arriving at Raigad, it was almost as if the historic landscape, the forts, the seas, which have witnessed the life and times of the valiant Maratha warriors, beckoned to me, and I knew in earnest that I had to write their story.”
In 2006, Patil produced Sambhaji, a stirring novel that would lift the darkness surrounding this monarch and hold his life to scrutiny against a sharp and critical lens.
Through the book, the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author resurrects “Sambhaji Raje” as a “progressive thinker whose image has for long been tarnished by influential Marathi popular culture.” He notes, “It was to amplify Shivaraya’s [Shivaji Maharaj] importance that the reputation of Sambhaji was made out to be as a Yuvraj who was not a good servant of Swaraj.”
Patil’s research, however, indicated otherwise and he poured all his findings into a work that encapsulates Sambhaji’s continued struggle for self-rule, right from becoming Crown Prince to ascending his father’s throne and even to his horrifying death.
Through his book, Patil attempts to restore distorted anecdotes in a dramatic retelling of Sambhaji’s glittering past. The author notes, for instance, how his reading and research pointed to the Maratha ruler’s absolute dedication to Swaraj, so much so that “when Aurangzeb marched on Deccan from Agra, bringing with him, like the sea, a battalion of four lakh people and four lakh animals, it was Sambhaji who fought around 105 small battles to hold off the Mughal forces for nearly a decade right until his death at 32.”
He says, “It was only through reading and rereading history that I could interpret Sambhaji’s story accurately.”
“And because it was a novel, I also studied the individual characters in depth,” he adds, such as some of Sambhaji’s closest aides, including Hambirrao Mohite, and his wives, Yesubai and Durgabai.
To emphasise the extent to which Sambhaji’s life remains a blurry chapter in history, he plunges into the story of Durgabai. “People are not ready to accept even today that Sambhaji Raje had two wives, Yesubai and Durgabai,” he begins, “Durgabai is perhaps the only woman, nay, queen in the world who endured an imprisonment of 39 years for her country’s independence. And people have forgotten her.”
“However, there are so many documents that prove her existence: when Sambhaji Raje visited Diler Khan [the Mughal general], she was pregnant and had to be left there because she could not travel in that condition.”
Sambhaji made several attempts to free her in the subsequent years, including sending Hambirraro Mohite, his chief military commander to storm Diler Khan’s fort in Ahmednagar with a battalion of as many as 30,000 soldiers. When that attempt failed, Patil continues, “Durgabai was moved to Devgiri, then to Bahadurgad. There are receipts which show these transfers.”
He also adds that when Sambhaji’s son Shahu Maharaj ordered the first Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath to free the women in the custody of Aurangzeb, the third name on the list was that of Durgabai. Therefore, with the novel, Patil's focus has been to cast a spotlight on many such forgotten snippets from Maratha history and secure them a place in the literary canon.
More than a decade after it was first published, Sambhaji has now been translated into English by well-known writer and translator Vikrant Pande. Having previously worked on books that tell the story of the Marathas and of the Deccan, such as NS Inamdar’s Rau: The Love Story of Bajirao-Mastani and Shahenshah: The Story of Aurangzeb among others, Pande enjoys a deep understanding of this region. His fascination with the subject is evident in his interpretation of Patil’s work as well, which carries the colour of the Marathi original into the translated version.
On the process of translating the novel, Pande remarks, “It is a delicate balance between retaining the original and translating it into English. Sometimes retaining the original enhances the meaning and gives it a right perspective. The reader is largely Indian so I can afford to play around with some Indian words and not necessarily look for an English equivalent all the time.”
Pande had read Sambhaji years before he took up the translation project and according to him, “The novel in Marathi gets the poignant tale of treachery and courage very effectively.” He adds that in spite of being rooted in research, it is a “gripping tale” whose "events unfold before one’s eyes as the author has taken the trouble to travel through the geography". The Sahyadri ranges and the Konkan coast come to life in Patil’s descriptions, setting the stage for a compelling narrative.
For the translator, one of the most heart-wrenching episodes in Sambhaji’s life is his brother-in-law's betrayal, which leads to his final confinement and torture. The incidents that lead up to this moment in the novel, the motives that guide Sambhaji and those around him and the stunned silence that follows his death are testament to the author's understanding of a very fascinating historical character. This is apparent too in his rendering of the jarring narratives that seek to blacken the monarch's reputation as a philanderer, one among them includes the episode of a girl who commits suicide out of her love for Sambhaji.
The history of the Deccan is filled with these and many other tales of treachery, deceit, bravery and politics. However, Pande is quick to note that the work produced till date does not do justice to the vastness of the subject. Sambhaji, for instance, finds little mention in Maratha history. And in textbooks filled with the escapades of Shivaji Maharaj, his son is largley unexplored.
The translator explains that the trajectory of Maratha history from the Panipat war to 1847 "is simply shown as the Maratha defeat, crumbling of Mughal empire and rise of East India Company". However, a lot is left out of the narrative including the contribution of the latter Peshwas or the reign of Mahadji Shinde of the Scindia dynasty.
“The entire narrative from Shivaji till 1847 is a fascinating journey with great Peshwas like Bajirao, Nanasaheb, Madhavrao and Sawai Madhavrao. There are lots of stories to tell. Not many people know that after Panipat the Marathas rose once again under Mahadji Scindia to become the most powerful force in India.”
Works of translation like this one, he suggests, is one way to engage an increasing number of readers and spark within them a curiosity about our collective histories. As publishing houses take more notice of provincial and regional literature, so do these buried stories find a way out of their obscure corners. “Sambhaji,” the translator thus asserts, “is a step in the right direction.”
Vishwas Patil’s Sambhaji, translated into English by Vikrant Pande has been published by Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications
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