Yakkety Yak, the narrator of Nayanik Mahtani’s The Gory Story of Genghis Khan AKA Don’t Mess with the Mongols, assures us that the fabulous fearsome protagonist is “actually awfully nice”. Well, he goes on to add, “to anyone whose name begins with a Y, that is. He kills everyone else. Just kidding.” Oh, well!
The dopey-eyed time travelling Yakkety Yak sets the perfect tone for this fairly unusual biography of Genghis Khan. The book is funny, engaging, and packed with information (not to mention puns and raps) about the Mongol warrior, all cleverly illustrated by Tapas Guha. “While I was looking for ways to introduce Asian history to my daughters, Genghis Khan invaded the territory in my head,” said Mahtani, over email. “I was utterly fascinated by this poor, illiterate, exiled, ‘half-blood’ Mongolian boy who grew up to become the world’s leading conqueror. And what really drew me in was that there were such conflicting opinions about him. Was he the vilest of villains that ever lived or the most far-sighted leader the world had ever seen? Genghis Khan refused to leave until I did some finding out for myself.”
The topic got sealed when an uncle shared a photograph of Mahtani’s grandmother’s childhood home, which is now in Bhera, a village in Pakistan. When Mahtani looked it up, she discovered that Genghis Khan had been to her ancestral village. “Perhaps that’s the reason I time-travelled and visited his homeland,” she said.
Mahtani lives in London and she spent hours at the British Library, researching her protagonist. “My constant writing companion was an invaluable Mongolian account called The Secret History of the Mongols, written shortly after Genghis Khan’s death,” she said. She also read other versions of history, including translations of Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo), the Jāmi al-tawārīkh, and Jack Weatherford’s writings. “It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together – one missing link gave me a bit of a runaround but then it happily emerged.” And as the author confessed, she was hooked by the material she found — “the centuries flew by as I breathlessly tried to keep pace with Genghis Khan on horseback.”
Mahtani juxtaposes history with imagined scenarios, giving the narrative a rich, immersive life of its own. “I was keen to meet Genghis Khan in his childhood to try and understand his motivations and his fears. What gave this young boy the strength to carry on despite facing odds that would give Harry Potter’s hardships a run for their money?” she said. “While I used imagined dialogue and scenario to recreate his childhood, I tried to build it around facts.” She also puts in a fictional reporter, Yuherdit Hearfurst, who is constantly breaking news on his show, Steppe On It. “I then attempted to blend these various scenarios with historical fact, to make it a fun read for the kids (hopefully!),” added Mahtani.
The Gory Story of Genghis Khan is Mahtani’s second book. Her first book Ambushed was set in a tiger reserve and took on the subject of poaching through fiction. For her, sharing stories is a wonderful way of building understanding. From Genghis Khan, she hopes that children take away the thought that history depends on who is telling the story. “That there can be many versions to the ‘truth’ — and that’s perfectly alright,” she said. “And that we can all still be friends, no matter what our version of the truth may be.”
History books in India predominantly choose to navigate India’s vast history through the Indus Valley Civilisation until the post-Independence period, but few look at characters such as Genghis Khan. And it becomes essential to tell these stories at a time when textbooks are often skewed to portray only one side of the story. “I set out to tell a story that would engage kids (even those who don’t like reading or dread history) and remind them that history depends on which point of view it’s being told from – and also, that it’s a good thing to consider all points of view,” said Mahtani. “Genghis Khan himself followed shamanistic beliefs (he worshipped the spirits of the sky, winds and mountains) — but he upheld religious freedom for all in his empire, at a time when it was very rare to do so. Today, more than ever, I feel we need to have all kinds of stories for our kids to read. Because varied stories make life more interesting, don’t you think?”