After the death of Aurangzeb, Maratha Empire rose to prominence in central India. While the titular heads of empire were the Chhatrapatis in Satara, the military might was mostly concentrated in the hands of Peshwas (Peshwa/e = Prime Minister), the post made hereditary by Chhatrapati Shahu.
Madhavrao Peshwa, on whose life “Swami” (= Master) by Ranjit Desai is based, was the third Peshwa to inherit the seat.
When Madhavrao assumed his post at the age of 16, Maratha empire was reeling from the devastating loss at the third battle of Panipat. The war lead to loss of almost an entire generation, while Madhavrao’s elder brother, Vishwasrao was missing in action. Old enemies like Nizam of Hyderabad and Haider Ali of Mysore were waiting to take advantage of this weakness in Maratha empire, while Europeans, specifically British East India Company, were gaining power in the Indian subcontinent. Not to mention, there were factions inside Maratha court which were resentful of the power wielded by Peshwas.
By the time of his death at the age of 27, Maratha empire had risen back to almost its old glory. He beat Nizam at Rakshastagadi, and Haider was twice forced to sue for peace. In this, he had the support of various experienced generals and councillors. But he also had acumen to acknowledge and safely use able but treacherous men in his court.
By necessity, Madhavrao’s short reign was the period of rebuilding the empire, and themilitary and political battles which come with it. And it wouldn’t be hard to say that he was the man best suited for the job. A canny general and a fair ruler, Madhavrao led ably on the battleground and in the court. The novel does a very good job of showing not only the overt history, but the personal and family life of this remarkable Peshwa.
Because at the end of it all, it was his own family which was his main strength and main enemy. While he was forced to penalize his maternal uncle, and fight his father in law, Madhavrao’s uncle Raghunathrao (later Peshwa) remained his biggest ally and staunchest foe throughout his life. It was Raghunathrao, led by the ambitions and machinations of his wife and his counsellors, who fought Madhavrao twice on the battleground, beating him once.
Although Madhavrao Peshwe never could come close to fulfilling his dream of rebuilding Maratha empire to its former glory in the days of Bajirao, Maratha armies did put Shah Alam on the throne of Delhi, thus demonstrating their supremacy in India.
Ranjit Desai does a very good job of humanizing history, putting the actions of various men (and women) in Peshwa family in context of their nature, ambitions and the external forces acting on them. The novel is as much a retelling of history as a story of a young man building his own legacy, fighting against his deteriorating health, enemies bent on destroying him and the pall settling on the empire in the wake of the defeat at Panipat.
P.S. Old viewers of Marathi Doordarshan will also remember the brilliant TV series based on the novel, which ran in ’90s. (Can anybody post a link to this?)
Quote of The Day:
And the plains of Panipat were not more fatal to the Maratha Empire than the early end of this excellent prince.
– Grant Duff, History of Marathas.