There’s a tendency in these days of shortened attention-spans to quickly sort personalities and events using the same rigorous test that judges red-carpet fashion: yay or nay. The recent row over the legacy of Tipu Sultan in Karnataka is a great example of this. If you’re a liberal, you’re supposed to love him, if you lean right, you have no choice but to despise him. But you can opt out of this poll and reserve judgement till you know more. If our Spotlight this month has got you curious about the extraordinary life of Tipu Sultan, the titles listed below will help you get a closer look at the kingdom, the king and that specific time in Indian history. Some are serious academic works, some more esoteric and others are unabashed pulp fiction.
Historian Kate Brittlebank’s 2016 book ‘Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan’ attempts to separate the man from the myth and provide proper historical context to the major events that shaped his life. According to this review in The Hindu’s Literary Review: “Instead of seeing Tipu from today’s perspective, she tries to immerse the reader in his world, that of eighteenth-century south India.” In his 2005 book, ‘History of Tipu Sultan’, the respected Indian historian Mohibbul Hasan cites sources in English, French, Persian and Urdu to provide insights into the character of Tipu Sultan, the military strategist, statesman and administrator.
In the land of fiction, you can decide how long you want to spend in Tipu’s Mysore. If you only want to pass through on the darkest night of his life, pick up Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel, ‘The Moonstone’. Considered to be the first-ever English detective novel, the book tells the story of a cursed diamond that was looted during the seige of Srirangapatna and taken to England, where it leaves a series of unfortunate events in its wake. Want to spend more time behind enemy lines of the last Anglo-Mysore War? Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’ will take you to the heart of the battle through the eyes of a private in the British army. To inhabit a highly dramatised world of Tipu, you’ll want Bhagwan Gidwani’s best-selling ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’. Packed with romance, intrigue and larger-than-life battle scenes, it’s no wonder this book inspired a hit TV show.
Then there are books that help us view our subject from an unusual angle. Alan Tritton’s biography of the Scottish colonel William Baillie, who was taken prisoner after the Second Anglo-Mysore War, takes us into the Srirangapatna of 1782. ‘When the Tiger Fought the Thistle’ is set during a time when Tipu’s power was at its peak. Susan Stronge’s ‘Tipu’s Tigers’, on the other hand, introduces us to the emperor’s playful side. Commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum, this book follows his favourite toy, a mechanical tiger, on its passage from Mysore to London. Finally, we hear from the man himself. After his death, the British recovered a thin volume from Tipu’s chambers that detailed 37 dreams he had between 1785 and 1798. Translated from the original Persian, ‘The Dreams of Tipu Sultan’ offer an intimate glimpse into the mind of this ambitious ruler.