Book: The Era of Baji Rao: An Account of the Empire of the Deccan
Author: Uday S Kulkarni

Most Indian history books are written by partisans, including many of the pop-academic ones. The ones that especially get my goat are those that try to rationalize their narrative choices under the guise of being objective, while being firmly informed by present day politics. This book is not one of those. While the author doesn’t hide his sympathies for the Marathas, at the same time he goes out of his way to present various sources describing the same event - from the Mughal archives, the Company minutes to various Maratha bakhars. Uday S Kulkarni is also admirably restrained and many times he refuses to speculate beyond a point. The book is littered with footnotes and there are some correspondences by the principal characters presented at the end.

I knew little about Baji Rao before this book, but he does seem like a worthy candidate if one were to give a name to that particular era - the first 40 years of the 18th century. He turned what was essentially a small redoubt based out of Pune and Satara into an empire spanning a large part of the country, all the way from Tungabadra to the Yamuna. The politics of the land and affairs between the various stakeholders are vividly captured - the weakened Mughal throne after Aurangzeb, the Nizam and the Marathas each maintaining the fiction that they were only governors of the Mughal emperor but essentially carving out huge chunks of the country for themselves, while also being also being at each others throats, an Mughal court that knew this but powerless to do anything about it and everyone going along with the charade. Game of thrones, anyone? Then there are the others - the Portuguese and the English on the Konkan coast doing their thing, the Siddhis and the Angrias, the Rajputs.

Everyone, including the Nizam, leveraged Maratha power to their advantage, changing allies when needed. The Nizam-ul-Mulk, even more than Muhammed Shah ‘Rangeela’, comes off very poorly here - bested by Baji Rao in each of their encounters, colluding with Nadir Shah and then subsequently humiliated by him during the latter’s invasion of India. It’s easy to forget that he still managed to create the most important Islamic state outside Ottoman Turkey, one that lasted till the middle of the twentieth century. Even so, it was the Marathas that were the most continuously expansionist Mughal successor state throughout much of the eighteenth century, not Hyderabad.

One thing I wish the book did better was to speculate a bit and complete the arc of some of the minor characters. For example, there’s a Brahmendra Swami, who is presented as the spiritual counsel of Baji Rao and Chimaji Appa (Rao’s brother). Their correspondences with him are used by the author to synthesize the narrative. At the end of the book, one learns that he was also a creditor - Baji Rao owed him a significant amount of money. In one instance, he is also a prime mover of the action, providing the impetus for the Maratha campaign against the Siddhis. It would have been interesting to learn more about him - Where did he come from? How did he become such a big lender? What happened to him after the deaths of Baji Rao and Chimaji Appa? There’s not much about this very interesting character on the internet either.