To tackle a well-known historical figure in biography form, you need to have an overwhelming passion for your subject; unfortunately that’s not enough. I’ve always wanted to be a painter but I fell in the Fanny Price category Of Human Bondage and had to, painfully, relinquish my pretensions. Sam Djang’s first language, it seems, is not English and if his first love is writing, all I can say is: Relinquish, relinquish, relinquish.
He starts with a faint hint of promise, describing the stark landscape of his protagonist with its biting winds, dust storms and habitation fit for fire-ants and scorpions. If intensity of attack against enemies was all, then it’s the kind of place that suits the two-legged as well, although Djang says “God might not have created it for humans, but nobody knows.” These last two words turn out to be a refrain.
Even Spring comes cruelly, with wind and still-clinging ice until “plants that had been dried out and tweaked, like an old man's beard... begin to produce their greenish buds.” Djang describes the nomadic life beguilingly, for all those of us who are constantly fascinated by how people live. The smoothing of leather, making of blankets, herdsmen encouraging their livestock to pastures new, all the minutiae of life on earth are as meaningful as the advent of a man like Genghis Khan: born to rule, to destroy, to forge, to make life so much more, well more, than just meandering on the plateau.
The attraction of the Genghis Khan story is that his name has resounded through the years. Even the MTV generation would find it familiar. We all know something of Hitler, Napoleon, Jesus, Buddha, Queen Elizabeth I. Look at what Hilary Mantel did with the Tudor story in Wolf Hall — we got an introduction to Thomas Cromwell in the best possible way; she made him real, accessible and empathetic, in language that was just as resounding.
Djang’s book tries to build an idea of the man, then focuses on war and the consolidation of empire. It reads like an Indian textbook, full of the facts but none of the vigour of what shaped our past. In this case, how one individual’s destiny had such long-lasting effects not just on central Asia and China, but also in terms of military strategy and religious tolerance which are so sadly relevant today. The fact that genocide was also practised puts the Genghis story on a par with the human evolutionary story.
Djang’s saving grace is that his research does bring to life what were only faintly-heard strains of whole orchestras of peoples, like the Tartars, Naimans, Huns and Shishas. My eyes brightened when I came across Attila the Hun’s exploits — who knew he was a Mongol — and only because I had watched Gerard Butler play the title role in a movie a few years ago. Talk about the MTV generation.
Genghis conquered China, Russia and the Khwarezmid Muslim Empire in a kind of conglomerate-through-invasion unheard of before or since. But is there anything beyond a classroom lesson in this novel?
To a certain extent, yes. What made Genghis Temujin Khan the man he became? Djang hints it may be the sense humans have had since they first stood upright and gazed at the heavens that there was something beyond, and they have been straining towards it ever since. Nomads who believed in shamans were understandable, he writes, when you stand alone in the middle of an “empty plain, covered only by the endless horizon”.
Young Temujin learned from Nature how to protect, wondering why lizards cut their own tails or why the porcupine sported quills. Some creatures thrive and others become extinct. “Why? Nobody knows.”
But where conversation may have helped us get an insight into Genghis’ psyche, (there’s only one instance of that when he talks about how to conquer a people, of the idea of freedom, of world domination with Jamuka, a confidante soon to turn rival), we are too often left with lines like Temujin’s uncle Mamay telling his mother Ouluun, “since I left you I have been roving around and been to many places”.
Not that wit is entirely lacking. When Temujin’s principal wife Borte meets him and his entourage for the first time, she recognises nine-year-old Temujin as her groom because of all the boys “He is the only one who is shaking.” Jamuka then tells Temujin what men will go on to tell their friends forevermore: “This lass is too clever. It is better with a none-too-clever one.”
Djang also gives Ouluun the part where she plays the nurture-over-nature card which could have moulded the warrior Genghis. During the lean years when they are abandoned after Genghis’ father’s death, she teaches the children how a pack of five arrows can’t be broken whereas one can, so in unity lies strength; or that you need to have a dream, that property and people can be lost but never hope.
In the stark years of beheading, rape, mutilation and hubris that follow, the seeds of geographical success and steely dynasty may well have arisen out of learnings like the above. It was a time when women were booty, when men killed their kin and ruthlessness was a law everyone understood.
But when Borte was kidnapped and bedded by the enemy and a child born nine months later, Genghis accepted the child as his own after going to war to rescue his wife, revealing a depth of emotion that is unexpected in someone who would one day be known as The Iron Man. Djang points out how far-reaching the Mongols’ personal code could be, that punishment was inevitable, “regardless of time or place”. Revenge as a dish best served cold is a concept we follow to this day.
Perhaps it was easier to know The Iron Man by his exploits on the battlefield rather than through his wedding night, which Djang describes as follows: Temujin and Borte were like “a stallion and a filly” with their manes “flowing and their smoothly curved, voluptuous waists and hips... all wet.” There’s more on lakes and flashing lights which denote what a swaying rose once did in old Hindi movies but my modesty forbids me from reciting any more of such incendiary text.
And of course Djang says of the time after Borte is kidnapped and Temujin asks for aid from a temporary mentor, “What was on Toghrul Khan's mind? Nobody knew.”
What could we have learned through Genghis Khan: The World Conqueror that we couldn’t through Wikipedia? Nobody knows.
Genghis Khan: The World Conqueror, Sam Djang, Rupa, Rs.495.