- I got into the Mughals after reading Indu Sundaresan’s Taj series. Before that, I am ashamed to confess, I was quite sketchy on the period and the Tudors tended to be my obsession. But post-Sundaresan, my historical fiction cravings stand divided.Unfortunately, unlike the Tudors, there’s not that much fiction about the Mughal period which deals with the rulers themselves. So when I came across Sudhir Kakar’s The Crimson Throne, I had to have it (MinCat obliged by getting it to Mumbai for me). The book was pretty good. The story is told through the perspectives of two European personages present at court, Manucci and Bernier, who I was surprised to learn were real people whose writings are a source of historical information on the period. While Sundaresan’s book tells the their stories through a female narrator, Kakar’s perspective is male, and you can guess which one I enjoyed more. It was interesting to me to see the start difference between the male and female kinds of writing. This was possibly the clearest example of the concept of ecriture feminine I’ve come across. The female perspective conveys deep emotions and is rich in nuance. The male tends to be factual, and when there are emotions, they seem superficial. Nevertheless, I was happy to gorge on more details about this period. Kakar’s book has more on the rivalries of the sons of Shah Jahan which is also covered in The Shadow Princess, but not as extensively.I then started hunting around more Mughal fiction, and having failed to find anything in the local library systems, I turned to non-fiction. Which resulted in me reading, Abraham Eraly’s huge tome The Last Spring: The Life and Times of the Great Mughals. I’m actually still reading it but I’m lagging, and I realised by the time I finished, I might forget some of the earlier impressions, so here they are:
- Babur had Turkish and Chinese (Mongol) blood. He was descended from Timur on one side and Genghis Khan on the other side.
- Akbar was illiterate. So was Shivaji, but Akbar came from noble lineage. His father Babur chronicled his life in detail in the Baburnama. Akbar could barely write his own name, but became known as the greatest emperor of India. I wondered whether he was dyslexic or had what would today be categorized as a learning disability. As a child, he was more interested in hunting and physical pursuits than book learning, shrugging off his teacher. He was extremely erudite and had a huge library, but the books were read to him because he couldn’t read them himself.
- I was interested to read more about Aurangzeb as the only impression I had of him was as the evil one as per our history textbooks in school, and I later realised this was a view prejudiced by the fact that Aurangzeb was Shivaji’s great enemy, and our history textbooks were essentially a paean to Shivaji. This book tries to be fair to Aurangzeb, pointing out that contrary to the currently popular impression, he was actually less brutal than his predecessors, and one does feel a tad sorry for him because he was clearly shunned by his father who took a dislike to him and then the one woman he developed a passion for died. But there’s no denying that he was something of a religious fanatic (who reimposed the jizya, a tax on Hindus) and a joyless character who even banned music. Ouff! I have faith that somewhere there’ll be a history that humanizes Aurangzeb a bit more. (Note: In between, I reread The Shadow Princess and maybe because I was reading Eraly’s book alongside I felt really sympathetic towards Aurangzeb so maybe Eraly really does that. At least he changed by perspective: there were less cruel punishments such as the ones dreamed up by Jahangir for example. There’s an interesting theory about why Jahangir was so, um, inventive in his punishments)
- It was interesting to read about Shivaji from a more neutral perspective. I realised how much of his early life has been mythologized in history textbooks in Maharashtra, because essentially he started out as a brigand. And for all that Aurangzeb has gone down in history for playing dirty, Shivaji was no less. I recall a much celebrated episode in our history textbooks – the assassination of Afzal Khan, the general of the Sultan of Bijapur – which was essentially accomplished in a totally underhand way. But the textbooks made the Khan out to be literally a giant, when apparently he was just … larger boned (or “corpulent” as this book says), ahem.
- Nevertheless, the book says despite the humble beginnings, Shivaji and the Marathas went on to be the major threat to the Mughals and to eat into their territory, so I guess the hoopla was well deserved. History peeps enlighten me! Was Shivaji a big deal in his time or not?
- Another figure who was mentioned in sidekick type way was the Sultan of Bijapur. I am still sketchy about where Bijapur is. However, the Sultan sounds interesting as does the Golconda guy.
- I’m not at the more sociological part of the book, which talks about the people of the land, general professions, administrative system, etc. While we were given some reasons for India becoming a colonial state in history lessons, this book fleshes them out and makes them more concrete. For all their glory, the Mughals were more interested in conquest and administration and there was a limit to how far that approach could be stretched.
I also started reading Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India by Ellison Banks Findly. The book doesn’t have as much on Nur Jahan as I would like (because there’s not that much sources of info on her – even Jahangir only mentions her in his writings quite late) but from whatever I read, Nur Jahan sounds awesome.
I seem to have exhausted my Mughal obsession for now, and have turned to Sophie Kinsella, but if you have any great recommendations (fiction or not, particular on Nur Jahan), do share.