History is full of instances where entire masses of people have moved, voluntarily or otherwise, from one place to another, covering enormous distances, overcoming insurmountable obstacles, suffering untold misery. The Exodus, the Partition of India, the Bangladesh war, and the plight of Palestinian people, etc. are a few examples of such movements in history.
Tughlaq by Girish Karnad deals with one such mass displacement: the exodus of the wretched subjects of Tughlaq from Delhi to Daulatabad and back again, five years later, from Daulatabad to Delhi - a movement that is as futile as it is ridiculous. History makes Tughlaq out to be a much-misunderstood ruler, whose far-sighted measures or reforms boomeranged because his people were not ready for them. Karnad’s Tughlaq seemingly conforms to this idea, but interpreting it unidimensionally would detract from the timeless appeal of the play. Tughlaq’s dream is to find an everlasting empire fashioned after his vision in order to transform humanity which, to him, is like « cattle », although he hopes to « make men out of some of them » and create from them a superior race. Blinded by this vision, Tughlaq isolates himself from his people, even as he securely wraps himself up in his cocoon. His intolerance and rigidity, coupled with his maniacal desire to transform the world without first understanding it, lead to self-imposed solitary confinement. This only reinforces the vertical and unilateral relationship between him and his people. The real tragedy of Tughlaq, and thereby of his subjects, is that he believes he is the sole arbiter of truth.
Tughlaq orders a complete evacuation of Delhi: I want Delhi vacated immediately. Every living soul in Delhi will leave for Daulatabad…Everyone must leave. Not a light should be seen in the windows of Delhi. Not a wisp of smoke should rise from its chimneys. Nothing but an empty graveyard of Delhi will satisfy me now. Does Tughlaq even understand the sentiments of his subjects upon leaving their city? But do you know, you can love a city like a woman ?» says the Old Man (Scene 8). By uprooting the population from Delhi, Tughlaq unwittingly forces his subjects to be detached from his kingdom. Soon, the first cracks that appear on his throne will forever undermine his authority. The separation from his people causes irreparable damage. People? Like phantoms, those unfortunate moving bodies are living witness to the progressive erosion of the kingdom. Even though they are silent in the play, they are often visually aggressive. Sometimes they dissolve into the shadows of the dead bodies that they help to move. In their suffering, misfortune or anger, they support the crowd throughout the play. Whatever Tughlaq may do to shut himself off, he cannot be deaf to the plaintive wails of his people. The common people, for all that befalls them, have their moments in the play. There are riots everywhere, and discontent, long brewing, spills over and permeates every part of the Sultanate.
The play demonstrates the chilling fact that in all of us there is a streak of Tughlaq, as much as of those mute masses whom he so ruthlessly manipulates. Every one of us has, at some time or the other, felt an overpowering desire to shape the world around us according to our ideas. More often than not, however, we end up among those nameless faceless people, trudging eternally from Delhi to Daulatabad.