The novel, set in the 16th century, begins with Nadee about to embark on her married life when her family and village on the banks of the Ganga are swept away by a flood. She is rescued in Kashi by the Dom Raja and becomes his lover. Her gift of foreknowledge, her curse of never being believed, and her tragedy render her mad in the eyes of most around her including her lover, the Dom Raja. Theirs is the love of two doomed and marginalized people—she by her widow status and madness and he by his caste and occupation—and he is the only one who accepts her for what she is. She foresees that she will murder him and once that occurs, she runs away to escape punishment.
She arrives in Agra, on the banks of the Yamuna, and works as a servant in a house of courtesans. There she meets Nafasat Bai, a legenday beauty and a talented singer, who is assaulted by her jealous Nawab lover. The Nawab stabs her 56 times with a dagger and she becomes disfigured and abandoned with only the mad Nadee to care for her. Now called Chhappan Chhoori, Nafasat Bai, turns to her music and her haunting music draw clients to her who care nothing about her disfigurement. When Emperor Akbar hears of her, she becomes a part of his court and Nadee follows as her servant. In the Emperor’s household, Nadee, becomes recognized as a soothsayer, but she has learned to temper her predictions so that she will not be completely disbelieved. She foresees the destruction of Fatehpur Sikri, advises the Queen and manages to salvage Akbar and his family.
During this time in Akbar’s court, she also believes that the Dom Raja has returned to her as her ghostly lover. She conceives a son from this liaison. Nadee believes that she is pregnant and did give birth to a child whereas others insist that hers was a hysterical pregnancy. Nadee believes that her son was stolen from her and raised as Akbar’s grandson Khusro. The narrative cleverly works Nadee’s point of view as both convincing yet crazy leaving the reader ambiguous about whom to believe and to question how we know what we know about history. Do we dismiss Nadee or believe her?
Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of this novel is its protagonist. In terms of the conceptualization and characterization of Nadee, the novel is quite readable. However, it also incorporates a lot of history and mythology which read like retells of Amar Chitra Katha stories. We learn of Mian Tansen and his singing of the Raga Deepak; we learn of Akbar and Sheikh Salim Chisti; we are told the story of Mirabai. None of these offer us any new insights into the myth/history and none of it is deployed well enough in the narrative for more than colorful effect. The fate of Chhappan Chhoori is fascinating and she has the potential to be a much more substantive character but once she blends into the court of Akbar, she disappears from the narrative. Ultimately, one is left with the sense of the novel being conceptually interesting but having failed in execution.
Book Description: In 16th century India, when Nadee is swept away by the raging Yamuna, her life itself becomes a journey. A journey that takes her from her devastated village, Zameerpur, to the burning ghats of Kashi, to the courts of Agra and then on to the city of dreams, Fatehpur-Sikri.
Even as her life intertwines with history, barriers between the future and the past, the dead and the living break down until they become indistinguishable. In Akbar’s Hindustan, Nadee is the eternal wanderer and soothsayer.
She is doomed to love Kashi’s unattainable King of the Dead, the Dom Raja, to serve the legendary courtesan, Chhapan Choori, and then the almost mythical emperor, Akbar. When her newborn son, the legacy of her love, disappears, she slides further into madness and despair as she searches desperately for her one link to herself. Nadee is blindingly aware of her destiny, though she remains powerless to change it. The Burden of Foreknowledge is a story that traces an unusual life, a life that brushes against greatness but remains inexorably trained towards its own ultimate fate. As the boundaries between reality and fantasy collide, the story reaches its climactic conclusion in the abandoned and desolate city of dreams, when Nadee finally achieves what has been predestined.
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