Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran on Writing Frontiers

Frontiers by Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran, is the story of Shivaji’s quest to establish freedom in the Maratha region. Born to a Jagirdar, Shivaji shunned his noble status to fight for Swaraj against the Mughal forces of Aurangzeb. The battle that ensues between the two enemy forces makes for a riveting read.

Here we have Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran talking about how the book came to be and how she researched about Shivaji. Talking about her journey in the making of this book, she explains the challenges that she overcame in order to know about the man Raja Shivaji.

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After publishing more than three hundred articles on ‘health and disease’ in the Weekend Magazine of the Khaleej Times – a very popular newspaper in the gulf, I realized that people appreciated what I wrote. In that small little and cosy world of United Arab Emirates, I got some recognition and it was followed by big dreams. Soon I wanted to write a book on something not related to medicine. It took me a while to find that ‘something’ which turned out to be an uphill task.

I realized that there are hardly any books written on Chhatrapati Shivaji in English. I am a Maharashtrian born in Ahmednagar.  Love for Raja Shivaji is in our DNA, like the right to ancestral property; we are born with extreme loyalty to Raja Shivaji.

The first task was – that loyalty did not turn blind.

It was year 2000 and at that time I had a very demanding schedule. My boys were growing up and soon I would also have a high pressure marketing job in the healthcare industry in Dubai. Nonetheless I announced my desire on impulse and my parents bought about fifty reference as well as fiction books written on Maratha History (mostly in Marathi) and presented to me. The impulse soon became a passion and passion soon turned into madness! Those books became my time-machine to travel into the past. The most valuable reference book (about 1000 pages) was written in English by Mr G Mehendale, ‘Shivaji: His Life and Times’.

Since then every holiday in India meant visiting mountain forts.

Little did I know at that time that writing articles in a magazine is totally different from writing a book, especially a historical fiction.

Agreed that there were already hundreds of ‘fiction, nonfiction’ books in Marathi on the subject. When a Marathi reader starts reading a book on Raja Shivaji she/he is already in love with the protagonist. That love makes them pick up the book from the store in the first place. My book written on the subject would be for people who did not know Raja Shivaji, and they were not necessarily, already in love with him. I had a task to recreate history scene by scene, what would have happen, what could have taken place, what was said in conversations and by whom and what body-language of the people might have been. And I also wanted to remain very truthful to history. First it looked like a foolish waste of time. Many thought who would read a historical fiction written by a microbiologist who had failed in ‘English’ and ‘history’ in school with remarkable consistency? Only my closest family, my parents, brother and husband stood by a person like me who mostly lived in the 17th century!

Battle scenes were the most difficult part when it came to descriptions.  Here I took help of non-fiction books written by Col. Palsokar and Sir Jadunath Sarkar written in English. Mr Girish Jadhav, a famous weapon (17th century) collector, too came to my rescue. I met him when he had held an exhibition in Ahmednagar. He demonstrated how sword fights were fought. Dr Ajit Joshi who has written a reference book on Shivaji’s escape from Agra, explained to me with logic and insight how Shivaji must have escaped and how old theories could possibly be not true at all. Late Mr Ravindra Godbole who has written Aurangzeb’s biography in Marathi discussed for hours about how men of power must have ruthlessly played politics.

In one of the books referred, I came across a foreword written by a famous history analyst (late) Mr Narhar Kurundkar. He strongly held that a portrayal of Shivaji could only be completed by showing not just who he was but what he was up against. Thus I took a detour from the Maratha history and started studying the Mughal history, especially about Aurangzeb, who turned out to be a very interesting protagonist. I decided to give him equal space as Raja Shivaji in ‘Frontiers’.

From then I started hitting the keyboard whenever I had the time. When I look at the initial manuscript I realize that I did need years (more than ten to be precise) just to get the story together. A single conversation would take months and then I would scrap it. I became possessed by Raja Shivaji and Emperor Aurangzeb – so much so that when I drove lovely cars at the speed of 120 kilometers per hour on the fantastic roads of the UAE, I missed being a cavalryman riding a horse through forests of western Maharashtra! When I visited the Fort in Shahjahanabad in old Delhi I felt the uncanny presence of Emperor Aurangzeb’s in now-bare-and-orphan-like-Khaas-Mahal.

Having lived in three places on the planet earth, India, Europe and the Middle East, life has taught me that there are good as well as bad people, irrespective of their religion. It helped me as an author to be totally and completely unbiased as far as religions and castes were concerned.

It was 2011, time to come back to India to take care of my aging parents. My boys were grown up and were independent.  I had quit my job and was back in Mumbai with bag, baggage and my manuscript. But the real problem was getting a publisher or an agent.  A hundred emails containing query letter, sample chapters, synopsis and blurb were sent. Since the story was vast (1656 to16 80), I thought it would best be told in a trilogy – with each book ending into a shocking event. One thing was clear – I would not self or vanity-publish my work. After many rejections and heartbreaks, one publisher in Kolkata offered to publish part 1 (1656 to 1659) of the trilogy. And as any new author I jumped. They did a fairly good job in editing and it was published – under the name ‘Frontiers of Karma – The Counterstroke’ There was a problem though; the distribution was extremely weak. It was then I had taken a copy to Crossword Bookstores head office requesting them if they could distribute ‘The Counterstroke’. They agreed and more. Anup Jerajani asked me to write a 300 page biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji –thus ‘Challenging Destiny’ was born in 2016. The biography turned out to be Crossword Bookstores bestseller and was nominated in two categories for Raymond Crossword book awards 2017. It is translated in Marathi (Zunz Niyatishi) and in Hindi (Niyati ko Chunauti). Its audible edition is available on Amazon’s audible.com.

My heart was still pining for my historical fiction.

Meanwhile the Kolkata publisher was closing down. Part 2 (1659 to 1666) was written and ready, languishing in the files of my desktop. It was early 2017 I got the most important call from Vaishali Mathur, Editor in Chief of Language Publishing at Penguin India saying that she had found my manuscript in her old mails and she wants to take up the project. She said Penguin will publish both the parts in one book – that would end showing Raja Shivaji’s escape from Agra. Then stared the editing on warpath. First Vaishali Mathur trimmed to story making it fast paced and racy, Mriga Maithel Negi did the English editing, scrutinizing each word of the monster manuscript. At the end, Penguin’s senior editor, Paloma Datta looked at it through fisheye lens. The name was decided – FRONTIERS’. A very attractive cover was designed by Ahlawat Gunjan and illustration showing protagonists in their warrior avatar with a backdrop of battle chaos was created by Sankha Banerjee.

I would say the last words while telling you the story of ‘Frontier’s birth in a verse penned by me

 

Footprints get buried

Even the tracks erode

But the past still pulsates

Like lava

With unbearable load

 

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Frontiers, a historical saga, bring to life the complex and ever-shifting dynamics between these two arch nemeses.

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