Going down in History

Anuja Chandramouliis a bestselling Indian author whose highly acclaimed debut novel, Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince, was named by Amazon India as one of the top five books in the Indian Writing Category for 2013. Yama's Lieutenant, its sequel, Yama's Lieutenant and the Stone Witch and Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts are her other bestsellers. Her articles, short stories and book reviews appear in various publications like the The New Indian Express and The Hindu

A student of classical dance and yoga and an accomplished orator, she regularly conducts story-telling sessions and workshops on creative writing, empowerment and mythology in schools, colleges and various other platforms. A mother of two little girls, she lives in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu.
In this interview with Swetha Amit, Anuja talks about her inspiration behind her new book, aspects of power, control and comparison. 
What inspired the book on ‘Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’?
As an author, I like to feel challenged. Muhammad Bin Tughlaq is a towering historical persona who intrigued me because he is such a bundle of contrasts. A history buff to start with and having worked on Prithviraj Chauhan and Padmavati, I can say my appetite for the subject was properly whetted. 
In fact, even as I was gathering material on Alauddin Khalji, I found myself getting sidetracked by a whole lot of colorful characters from that era, with Tughlaq in particular who kept vying for my attention. It was so distracting that I finally promised myself that I would concentrate on Padma and Khalji till the book was completed and then return to the so-called tyrant in good time. And I did just that, after working on Ganga: The Constant Goddess in the interim. 
The Delhi Sultans are all fascinating figures and while much has been written about the ever-popular Mughals, not many are familiar with these behemoths, so I guess I wanted to remedy that and do my part to share their stories. 
Writing a book on such a complex character would have involved extensive research. How did you go it?
I love the research process because it allows me to disappear into the pages of dusty old volumes and immerse myself completely in another world that is so familiar and yet unlike anything we could possibly experience in this day and age. It actually feels like being strapped into a time machine, hurtling backwards through time and space to pop into the past, free to prowl about the corridors of history while getting up close and personal with those who would go on to become legends, remembered as the giants of their age. I am so grateful to all the careful chroniclers of history who make this possible.
For Tughlaq, I found Agha Mahdi Husain's The Rise and Fall of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq to be absolutely invaluable as it helped dispel many erroneous notions about the Sultan, put out by his contemporaries like Barani and Isami. In addition to this I spent many entertaining hours wading through the works of Ibn Battuta and some of my favorite historians whose books I keep returning to like John Keay, Abraham Eraly, Peter Jackson, Jaswant Lal Mehta, and N. Jayapalan to name a few. 
There is one pertinent line in your book where one of the characters, Abu, states if there is one thing truly unforgiveable in an emperor, it is weakness. Do you think kindness is a bane when it comes to leadership?
Whoa! I don't think kindness is a bane when it comes to leadership or anything else for that matter. However, I, or rather Abu merely meant that a Sultan must exude strength and an aura of invincibility even if his position couldn't have been more precarious. In addition to that, he was just making a point about the unfortunate fact, that in the world we inhabit (be it in the past or present), might and success are valued a lot more highly than goodness or little deeds of kindness. 
We are so busy worshiping those who are perceived to be strong and powerful, anxious to hitch our wagon to the one most likely to win that we forget to give a crap about those who are viewed as weak and those who aren’t sufficiently aggressive or flamboyant, which are commonly considered necessary attributes to be someone who counts. This results in a hostile and competitive environment where it is far easier for the bullies, boors and jerks to thrive. In a dog eats dog world, kindness and compassion become casualties and the slightest sign of weakness is practically an invitation to be stomped upon. 
A successful ruler needs to strike the right balance with the ability to know when to smile and when to bare his steel, to care for his people without letting them walk all over him or her or each other. Someone who knows the value of compassion even when ferocity and aggression have carried the day. Somebody who is capable of kindness even when called upon to kill... 
Power tends to make the monster out of men. Why do you think sanity and compassion get robbed of humans when they attain power?
Power is one of the most dangerous additives out there. It is hard to keep your head firmly on your shoulders when the entire world or at least the parts of it you rule over are yours for the taking. They say it is lonely at the top but I would say that it is crowded as well since toadies, lickspittle, and assorted cronies vie to get close to those who have attained power, jostling to improve their positions even it means kicking others where it hurts the most. Moreover, for those who make it to the hot seat, there is always the certain knowledge that their hold on power will not last forever. That they stand to lose everything they have fought so hard to achieve what with so many eyeing what they have with naked avarice and willing to kill for it. Insecurity is hardly a decent companion on life's journey for it attracts fear and vice in its wake, which in turn leads to vicious spirals of destruction. After all, as Tughlaq found out to his detriment, in the game for absolute power, it is usually necessary to kill before you get killed. 
However, the worthiest find a way to do the right thing even as the world around them begins the descent into savagery, corruption and evil. They surround themselves with good and wise people who know how to get a job done and find a way to make life better for those in their care. The world always needs such champions with mighty hearts and endless courage to make their way to seats of power. But unfortunately, if history is any indication that hardly ever happens. Which is why it’s more important than ever before to step up and correct the wrongs being perpetuated before our very eyes and to teach our children do good as well as make good, so that when the time comes, they are ready to rule their destinies without sacrificing their souls in the process. 
The character of Muhammad bin Tughlaq ruminates how he can never measure up to his father. In reality, constant comparisons to live up to parents tends to put pressure on children. How do you think this can be handled? 
Comparisons are odious but sad to say they are inevitable. Even if children are not pressured to live up to the achievements of their parents, they may find themselves compared with their peers who study better, look cuter or own more toys. Again, it is a reflection of a harsh society that has no respect for those who don't manage an X amount of achievement or good fortune. It is always less about doing your best than being the best. Which is why even as adults, the comparison thing is a constant thorn in the side and we keep looking at something someone else has, unable to be content or satisfied with what we have even if it is a life of privilege, filled with all things bright and beautiful. 
It is imperative that we work on changing our attitude towards our kids. Raising them for the sole purpose of joining the rat race is pointless. We need to provide a healthy environment, conducive to development, empowerment and self-actualisation not just for our own children but for those who are less fortunate or marginalised by a callous community as well. Children are the future and we will do well to lavish our resources on them instead of caring only about those who are old enough to vote. And as always, it never hurts to lead by example and concentrate on being the best version of you instead of obsessing over the neighbor's diamond collection or the celeb you are stalking on Instagram. 
Another pertinent line is your book states that there is a time to fight and a time to retreat. Considering how people tend to get agitated at the slightest provocation, do you think leaders need to adopt this philosophy?
Tughlaq talks about this but as always, he had difficulty executing a sound idea, which is a pity because he had the potential to be a far better ruler than he was. That said, it is ridiculous how easily outraged and trigger happy we have become. The endless agitation and so-called activism on social media is a thinly disguised outpouring of unalloyed hatred, aggression and toxicity. Somehow, we all seem to have forgotten that in order to make a difference, sometimes it is essential to hold your peace and concentrate on being pro-active and constructive. Now that everybody has a forum to speak up, there are so many shouting matches happening simultaneously that we have become deaf and desensitised to actual concerns. 
Moderation is key when it comes to powerful tools like online platforms or just about anything for that matter. This is not just for leaders but for all of us as well. By encouraging rational discourses and opening up healthy channels of communication, we will find ourselves with a valuable resource that can be tapped into during times of need such as natural disasters or horrible injustice if we can curb our worst impulses and stop the dark forces of the internet from becoming a weapon of mass destruction. Sometimes we just need to hold hands to express solidarity; the fists and claws need not come out. Unless we are en route to hell that is. 
You have stated that Control is an illusion that only by letting go of it can you become a master of your destiny. Considering how control is usually synonymous with leadership, how do you think a leader can balance this feeling? 
Control may or may not be an illusion. As a dime store philosopher, I wouldn't know for certain but the way I see it, there are some things which will always be beyond our ability to control. The good news is that there are a few things which are in our hands. Always. The trick is not to worry about the things that are beyond the lines of control and focus on doing the rest of it right or to the very best of your ability at the very least. That is all we can do. That may or not be a good thing. But there you have it.  
What are your plans for more books in the the near future?
I always plan to take things slow and take time to savour the good things in life etc. But then I wind up taking things up a notch and having an insane schedule. So, yeah, I have a few books in the pipeline and hopefully they all go on to bring in the big bucks and a whole slew of awards.