Many years ago, when I was a teenager, a cousin who was much older than me lent me a favourite book of hers: Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum. Sarum was the ancient name of the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, England, a place of great antiquity; and Rutherfurd’s Sarum is a novel about interconnected families, their stories playing out against a backdrop of history being created. Beginning with the Ice Age, these characters live their lives as Stonehenge is built, as the Romans invade and then establish a colony in England; as Salisbury Cathedral is erected, as the Black Death grips England… going right up to 1984, this was an epic book that made a huge impression on me. I couldn’t help wondering: given India’s long and fascinating history, wouldn’t it be satisfying to read a book similar to Sarum, but set in India?
Back then, I had no plans to someday become a writer. But finally, a few years back, when I’d written the Muzaffar Jang series and had learnt a good deal about the history of Delhi, Sarum came to mind again, and with it, that long-ago wish that someone would write an Indian equivalent.
Here it is: The Garden of Heaven, the first book in the Delhi Quartet. The Delhi Quartet will span 800 years of Delhi’s history, beginning shortly before the invasion of Mohammad Ghuri, and extending till just after Partition; the first 200 years of that stretch are covered in The Garden of Heaven.
After a preliminary episode in which a wealthy merchant of Agroha uproots his family and shifts to Dilli, the story switches to that of a young boy named Madhav. In the wake of the Second Battle of Tarain (1192 CE), Madhav’s village, close to Tarain, is decimated and Madhav left orphaned. With nowhere to go and no-one to call his own, Madhav manages to clamber onto a passing cart, and ends up being befriended by an old stone cutter, Balram. It is Balram, half-blind, crippled, but staunchly pragmatic, who trains Madhav to be a stone cutter too, and who brings Madhav to Dilli.
As the decades pass, as the Slave Sultans set up their own Dilli, the story goes on. Characters live their lives, grappling with issues of identity, of self and self-worth; they seek love, they chase ambition; they try to deal with disappointment and crushing defeat.
And, 200 years after Madhav, there lives in Dilli the lonely and poor Shagufta. When Taimur’s armies attack Dilli and ravage the city in 1398 CE, Shagufta finds herself sheltering a badly wounded enemy soldier. When the wounded man, maddened by the agony, asks Shagufta to talk to him, to tell him something, anything, Shagutfa tells him the stories of Madhav. And of Gayatri and Jayshree, of Girdhar and Chhoti and Ibrahim, all in some way connected to Madhav, all living at some point of time in Dilli. Story upon story, story intersecting with story, lives crossing paths.
Adity Kay, best-selling author of Emperor Chandragupta, Emperor Vikramaditya, and Emperor Harsha, has this to say about The Garden of Heaven:
“A sweeping, enthralling saga… Delhi stars vividly in [Liddle’s] new novel about ordinary people looking for fortune, finding love, caught in self-doubt, torn apart by passion—an unputdownable page-turner.”
And Omair Ahmad, highly acclaimed, award-winning writer, says:
“[Liddle’s] historically informed fiction is deeply researched and consistently engaging. The Garden of Heaven uses the lives of stone masons and the voices of women to tell the story of those that built and adorned the monuments of Delhi, with all the horror, bitterness, misunderstandings, suspicions and love that the city is seeded with.”
If you’re interested in history, do check out The Garden of Heaven. I enjoyed writing this book a lot, trying to find the balance between fact and fiction, trying to understand how life might have been for the common people who lived in the same city and at the same time as Razia Sultan or Amir Khusro.
The Garden of Heaven is available at bookstores and on Amazon India. In fact, bookstores like Goa’s Dogears Book Shop, Pune’s Pagdandi Bookstore Café and Delhi’s Bahri Sons don’t just stock books, they also ship (Dogears and Pagdandi overseas, Bahri Sons within India). Other places online where you can buy the book are Jain Book Agency, and (overseas) Barnes & Noble. Order your copy now (or gift one to someone you think will like this book).