Seasons Of Waiting: Review Of 'An Unholy Drought'

The background of Liddle’s narrative is the shifting nature of the Delhi Sultanate and the coming of Babur into Hindustan.

Speaking Tiger Books
Cover of 'An Unholy Drought' Photo: Speaking Tiger Books

An Unholy Drought by Madhulika Liddle

Published by Speaking Tiger

This is the second book in Madhulika Liddle’s Delhi Quartet following on the heels of the Garden of Heaven. This book takes up the story of Shahgufta’s son Danish who is totally on his own with no family and friends and who earns a living as a script through unethical means forced on him by the only person he thinks could be a friend. From Danish the narrative moves to Qasim and then to Zubair and Nadeem. The stories of the family line are told by the menfolk who all have their own way of coping with life. In between is the story of a drought in which history is being penned where people are reduced to cannibalism by famine. 

The background of Liddle’s narrative is the shifting nature of the Delhi Sultanate and the coming of Babur into Hindustan. The stone workers of Delhi who were taken to Samarkand by Taimur have been replaced by the brocade workers and the naqshbandis who run what proves to be a very successful workshop started by Qasim’s wife and taken up by his son. Liddle tells her story simply, informing it with her knowledge of the period and her love for Dilli.

There are love stories and not quite love stories interwoven into the narrative with the attendant issues of jealousy and betrayal. Given the timeframe intrigue was rife and the naive left themselves vulnerable to all kinds of disaster. Liddle’s narrative is rich in handsome men and strong willed beautiful begums who have kind hearts. If the gifted have luck and Allah is on their side they manage to make success of whatever field of creativity is their passion – in this book it moves from stone carving to embroidery and calligraphy all of which are equally intricate. The Garden of Heaven frieze is referred to but not found in this narrative after Danish sold it but Liddle compensates with her descriptions of brocades and calligraphy.

The book is an attempt to bring history to life – not just through the time but through the people - Nadeem encounters the young Princess Gulbadan, Babur’s favourite daughter, on her way to Dilli, and is enchanted by her fairy tale princess charm. Of course Gulbadan wrote about her life and planted a garden so there is ample research available with which to recreate her character.

Liddle’s heart is very obviously with the Mughals in this book as she takes the story through the different voices of the generations spanning a century and a half, from the early 1400s to 1556. Those who read Nora Lofts many worlds ago will recognise the narrative technique – a tale of family politics passed down the generations to be peacefully enjoyed with minor frissons of disturbance at the way political upheavals and fate can disrupt lives when one least expects it. Characters pass on and the tale is taken up by the next family member or someone adopted into the family.

None of the women take up the narrative though – they exist as wives and daughters or mothers each with a single-dimensional quality that sets them apart like Ismat’s jealousy or Zarine’s quiet wisdom. Their creativity exists only to help the family make money – Zarine for example abandons her passion for embroidery embellishment after her move to Agra. 

At the heart of it is Dilli, a kind of garden of heaven with its wealth of beauty and creativity despite the cruelty of the seasons and the fact that Babur disliked it immensely. Quite obviously there are more twists and turns in Dilli's history to come narrated by the family which rides its changes.