Saturday, 26 March 2011

Book Review: Empire of the Moghul

Husband and wife duo Michael and Diana Preston who go by the joint pen name Alex Rutherford have been busy writing a series of books on the Mughal Empire. The first book, “Empire of the Moghul – Raiders From The North” was released sometime in 2009 and the second “Empire of the Moghul – Brothers At War” came out in April 2010. I believe the third one (Ruler of the World) has just been released. I got to read the first two books in this series very recently.

Raiders From The North is Babur’s story. It starts from the time Babur’s father the ruler of Ferghana died when a dovecote collapsed on him following an earthquake and Babur was crowned King and goes on till Babur’s death a few years after he defeated Ibrahim Lodhi at the battle of Panipat and took over the throne at Agra. Brothers At War is the story of how Humayun starts ruling the empire bequeathed to him by Babur, loses it to Sher Shah Suri and later (after Sher Shah’s death) returns to power. Most Indians will have a basic idea of how Babur, a Turkic raider from what is now modern day Uzbekistan, a descendant of Timurlane and Ghengis Khan, invaded India and established the Mughal Empire. However, I am pretty sure that most Indians would have very little or no idea of the sort of life Babur led before he came to India. Without spoiling it for other readers, let me say that it was Hobbesian, - nasty, brutish and harsh. Not only did Babur have to fight the brutal Uzbeks led by the legendary Shaibani Khan, he also had to fight his cousins and half-brothers all the time. At times Babur lost battles and kingdoms. He led a hand-to-mouth existence for many years, sustained only by the belief that Timur’s blood flowed in his veins and that he was entitled to power and a Kingdom.

Shaibani Khan and his Uzbeks fighters were always better, nastier and tougher than Babur, though Babur just about manages to keep up with them on the brutality quotient. However, he never managed to get the better of Shaibani Khan who was finally killed in a battle with Persian forces. Raiders From The North has a fight or battle every few pages and shows human nature at its most generous as well as at the gutter level. The main quibble have with this book is that it is inappropriately named. Raiders from the North gives the impression that it is all about Babur’s invasion of Hindustan which only forms a small part of the book, towards the end. In fact, a restless Babur thinks of invading Hindustan only after he lost his kingdom in Ferghana and Samarkhand more than once and made his home in Kabul. It would have been, in my opinion, more appropriate to have called it ‘Babur’ since it is Babur’s story and nothing else. Another quibble is that when Babur’s nemesis Shaibani Khan, the marauding Uzbek warrior is killed by the Shah of Persia, we are not provided with a blow by blow account of the battle, but get to know of it when Babur is informed by the Shah’s ambassador, who also arranges for Babur’s sister Khanzada, whom Shaibani Khan had married against her will to be returned to Babur. Since Babur dreams daily of defeating Shaibani Khan and getting Khanzada back and because Shaibani Khan is shown as a much superior warrior to Babur, I was expecting a more detailed description of how the Persians defeated and killed Shaibani Khan.

The rivalry between the Shias and Sunnis even in those days is brought out very well when people riot after a Persian mullah tries to persuade Babur to convert to Shiite faith. That the Persians killed Shaibani Khan and helped Babur return to power in Samarkhand is forgotten. In fact, the mobs in Samarkhand are shown to prefer the ruthless Uzbeks, who are Sunni, to the civilised Shiite Persians. Babur is forced to relinquish Samarkhand yet again! Humayun too is forced to seek help from the Persian Shah, given on condition that he would convert to the Shiite faith. Unlike Babur, Humayun does convert and his followers don’t seem to mind, since they understand that Persian help is vital for Humayun to regain his Kingdom. Both books, each around 400 odd pages, are full of incidents, stories and anecdotes like this. I won’t say any more, I will leave it to you read it all for yourselves.

Mainly because Raiders from the North is so well written and sets the bar very high, I thought that its sequel, Brothers At War is not half as well written. In fact, I had trouble getting through the first hundred pages. After that, the flow became smoother and I happily stayed awake late into the night mesmerised by Humayun’s tale. Also, I got the distinct feeling that Brothers At War is written by two authors with different styles and skills. It doesn’t have the uniformity which Raiders from the North has. I wonder which of the husband and wife duo is the better writer.

Just as in the case of Raiders from the North, I felt that Brothers At War is also inappropriately named. Yes, Humayun is shown to fight his half-brothers time and again, but he also battles Sher Shah Suri and other rulers in India. It would have been, in my opinion, more fitting to have called it ‘Humayun’ since it is Humayun’s story and nothing else.

In addition to ungainly writing and an inappropriate title, there are a few other things wrong with Brothers At War. Unlike in the case of Raiders From The North, the authors have taken a few liberties with the truth in Brothers At War. For example, Humayun’s half-brother Kamran is shown to abduct toddler Akbar from Humayun and his wife in a night-time raid, as they shelter in a snowy pass. In the Additional Notes at the end of the book, the authors record that “the circumstances of Akbar being handed over to Kamran are fictionalised.” I am no expert on Mughal history, but Wikipedia tells us a totally different story, one which shows Humayun’s brothers in a much better light. Again, I am not sure if the Alex Rutherford’s description of Akbar’s rescue from Kamran’s clutches are entirely true, though the Notes are silent on this. Since this is historical fiction and since all other stories in these books are generally true, I don’t see what the authors gained by such fictionalisation.

Another let down for me was that neither of the books describe either Babur's or Humayun’s physical appearance well. We are told that both were well-built and sturdy. Babur had green eyes and Humayun brown. We are told that Timurlane had slanting eyes. We are told that Timurlane’s favourite wife was a Chinese princess. We are told that Babur did not have enough facial hair to have a luxuriant moustache. However, it is not clear if Babur or Humayun looked Mongol. To be fair to Alex Rutherford, I assume that there just isn’t enough data or information on this point.

One of the best things about Brothers at War is that it brings out Humayun’s character brilliantly. Without saying so in as many words, we see Humayun as a man oblivious to everybody else’s point of view or hopes or ambitions. Both Babur and Humayun have an abiding self-belief in their entitlement to power, but Humayun goes one step further than Babur in his assumption that his desires and wishes take precedence over everything else. For example, when Humayun sees young Hamida, the daughter of a Persian Shiite retainer of his half-brother Hindal, he falls in love with her and wants to marry her, though he is later told that his half-brother Hindal has been in love with Hamida for many years. Does it make any difference to Humayun? Of course not. Later when his half-brothers Kamran and Askari rebel against him, whose side will Hindal take?

Both the books, Raiders From The North and Brothers At War are very good reads, despite the fact that patches of Brothers At War are badly written. I now look forward to reading the third book in this series, Ruler of the World, which I assume will be Akbar’s tale. I have a feeling that Ruler of the World is an apt title for Akbar’s story.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Thank you Mr. Obama, Thank you America

Thank you for bombing Gadhafi’s forces in western Libya. Yes, the French did take the lead, but without the United States contributing the bulk of the forces which are attacking Gaddafi's assets, nothing concrete would have emerged.

Now could you please lean a bit harder on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? If the Bahrainis are allowed to crush the protests ruthlessly, Iran will be gain more fans in that region. It’s still not too late to salvage the situation. It may still be possible to have a more democratic Bahrain that is not too much pro-Iran. This can happen if the Al Khalifas make concessions voluntarily rather than being forced to do so.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Call Mr. Vakir to slash your electricity bills

If you want to cut down your electricity bills, call Mr. Vakir. At least, I think that’s what this advertisement which I found on a Mumbai local train is trying to say.

It is not clear what the clever Mr. Vakir will do to slash your bills. There are an infinite number of possibilities, some of them interesting and some mundane. Go on, give Mr. Vakir a call and find out.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

On Pakistani Origin Security Forces in Bahrain

Saudi and other GCC troops are in Bahrain and the impasse continues. Many of the riot police and other Bahraini security forces keeping the Shia demonstrators in check are non-Bahraini Sunnis recruited from places like Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen and Syria and some of them have been given Bahraini citizenship.

I came across a very interesting point of view regarding Pakistanis in the Bahraini security outfit put forth by Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani origin American based in the USA. Zakaria is a Director of Amnesty International, USA and is currently pursuing a PhD at Indiana University. Zakaria says, rightly in my view, that the Pakistanis serving the Bahraini security apparatus are as much victims as the Shias of Bahrain. Very few of the migrant Pakistanis gain citizenship and many of them are abused or tortured by their Bahraini employees, though they do jobs which the Bahrainis can’t or won’t do. Zakaria assumes (is this a correct assumption?) that Bahrainis Shias oppose the grant of citizenship to Pakistanis and other emigrants who have lived there for most of their working lives and says that “the idea of ethnically constructed citizenship, where only those who are Arab are considered deserving of Bahraini citizenship, is an inherently unjust one.”

I fully agree, but at this moment, it is difficult to feel any sympathy for the Bahraini security forces.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

On Libya: Please Mr. Obama…

Dear Mr. Obama

Gaddafi’s forces are slowly but surely crushing the public uprising which seeks to bring democracy to Libya. You have said that the noose is slowly tightening around Gaddafi’s neck and I’m sure that economic sanctions will have some effect. However, will economic sanctions prevent the ragtag rebel forces from being overwhelmed in the next ten days? You know the answer to that Mr. President.

Mr. Obama, is there any possibility of the United States taking decisive steps to aid the rebels? I do wish the United States would ignore International Law and step in with real aid for the rebels. This would include enforcing a no-fly zone (without waiting for the UN’s approval) and providing arms and ammunition to the rebels. A few military advisors wouldn’t do any harm either. No one’s requesting you to send in ground forces. That would actually weaken the rebels who keep insisting they don’t need outside help. You see Mr. President, being known to be a friend of the United States or a recipient of US aid is not a good thing in that part of the world.

Yes Mr. President, when the US intervened in Iraq in violation of International Law, all of us raised a hue and cry. But Libya is different Mr. President. Here the people really want to overthrow Gaddafi. You might well say that even in Iraq the Shia majority wanted Saddam to be overthrown and still the Iraqi invasion turned out to be a disaster, resulting in not just so much loss of American lives, but also in handing over power to a Shia government friendly to Iran.

But Libya is different Mr. President. The Jasmine revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya etc. may be the beginning of a new dawn for the Arab world. There is a possibility that the resulting democracies may not be friendly to the United States, that they may not curb the Al Qaeda or local Taliban as much as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Saleh did. However, the people in those parts will capture power from Gaddafi and other dictators, if not now, then in the next five years and they will be a lot less unfriendly if US helps them in their hour of need. They may even turn out to be genuine democracies, at peace with themselves and the rest of the world.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Just Dial For A Ph.D Thesis, Or Send Us An Email

These are a couple of the more interesting advertisements one sees on Mumbai suburban trains

If you are studing at an university in the UK or Australia and find the written assignments daunting, relax, help is at hand

Monday, 7 March 2011

Book Review: Tinderbox – The Past and Future of Pakistan by M. J. Akbar

Once in a rare while, one comes across a book which provides fresh insight into a highly debated topic that one is keenly interested in. M. J. Akbar’s most recent offering, ‘Tinderbox – The Past and Future of Pakistan’ is one of those books. The history of relations between the Sub-Continent’s Hindus and Muslims and the causes that led to the partition of British India is something that has always fascinated me, with a number of questions left unanswered. Tinderbox answers many of these questions better than any other I have read on this topic.

Tinderbox is split into three sections, one which covers the period from the advent of Turko-Afghan invaders in Northern India till the time the British replaced India’s Muslim rulers, the second stretches over period of British rule and the freedom movement and the third starts from the time of Partition and Independence and goes on till the present. Each of these sections is characterised by the same brevity and excellent analysis, interspersed with anecdotes, some funny, some well-known and many I hadn’t heard of, till I read this book.

Akbar does not waste a single word in his 313 page (excluding the notes) masterpiece. Each event is covered with a minimum of words and fuss and Akbar’s analyses, inferences and conclusions are set out in simple and fluid text. For me, one of the best things about Tinderbox was that I learnt so many things I didn’t have a clue about or hadn’t heard of before.

I had read about the Khilafat movement and possessed a rough idea of how Gandhi tried to use it to create unity between the Hindus and the Muslims. However, Akbar’s description of the Khilafat movement and the social background in India at that time shows the whole thing in a new light. I had no clue how deeply distressed Indian Muslims were by the Ottoman Empire’s losses in the First World War and the abolition of the Caliphate. For example, I did not know that “the presence of Bulgarian troops at the walls of Istanbul in 1912 shook Indian Muslims out of their establishmentarian mood. It was taken as axiomatic that Bulgaria was merely a pawn fronting for the European colonial powers.” Akbar quotes from Gandhi’s autobiography to explain that from his South African experience, Gandhi knew that “there was no genuine friendship between the Hindus and the Mussalmans.” So Gandhi launched the Khilafat movement to create friendship between the two communities. Indian Muslims didn’t really believe in non-violence, but such was Gandhi’s appeal that they handed over leadership of the ‘jihad’ to him, the first time any jihad was headed by a non-Muslim. Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement was initially a great success and some of the stories associated with it are really eye-popping. The most interesting aspect of the Khilafat movement was how, just as Indian Muslims were clamouring for the Caliphate, the Arabs started to fight the Turks and the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, started a revolt against the Caliph. Later Sherif Hussein would be overthrown by Abul Aziz Ibn Saud. Two years after Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement (after the Chauri Chaura incident), Kemal Pasha, the new ruler of Turkey, abolished the Caliphate on 3 March 1924!

We all know that Mahatma Gandhi was a brilliant politician and strategist. However, how many people know that the Mahatma resorted to a gimmick that is straight out of a marketing text book to coin the word ‘satyagraha’? In South Africa, Gandhi had used the phrase ‘passive resistance’ to define his non-violent agitation. In India, the Mahatma wanted a better word and he offered a nominal prize to the readers of his journal ‘Indian Opinion’ to define in a single word what he was doing. The word ‘sadagraha’ came up and the Mahatma modified it to ‘satyagraha’, since it’s easier off the tongue!

Here’s another interesting anecdote. When Jinnah wanted to ask Sir Dinshaw Manockjee Petit for his beautiful sixteen year old daughter Ratanbai’s (Ruttie) hand in marriage, he started off by asking Sir Dinshaw what he thought of inter-communal marriages. Sir Dinshaw said “he thought it was a splendid idea and would considerably help national integration. Jinnah calmly asked for Ruttie’s hand. Sir Dinshaw went apoplectic, dismissed the idea as absurd and fantastic and took out a high court injunction against the marriage….” Do read this book for fuller details. Trust me, some of the stories associated with Jinnah’s courtship and marriage are really straight from a 1940s Hollywood movie.

There are comparisons galore of personalities who have a lot in common, but turned out to be very different in ideology. For example, comparing Azad with Jinnah, Akbar notes that Azad hailed from a family of scholars, was born in Mecca to an Arab father and was very knowledgeable about Islam and the Koran. Jinnah on the other hand was not a practicing Muslim and had only a perfunctory knowledge of his religion. Jinnah ended up as the leader of Pakistan, while Azad opposed Partition and became a minister in Nehru’s cabinet after independence. The comparison between Gandhi and Kemal Pasha is equally revealing. The impact of personalities like Syed Ahmad Khan, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, the Ali brothers (Muhammad and Shaukat), Savarkar and Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi is put in perspective with a succinct description of their personal backgrounds. In particular, I found Sir Syed’s life story very engrossing. A man whose family suffered so much hardship at the hands of the British after the 1857 revolt, went out of his way to court the British and persuade Indian Muslims to adopt British education. The college he founded for that purpose later became the Aligarh University and many of the leading proponents of Pakistan were its alumni.

One of the best bits about Tinderbox (and there are so many very good bits) is the description of important battles such as the battle between Prithviraj Chauhan and Muhammad Ghori, the third battle of Panipat where Abdali’s troops defeated the Marathas, the Battle of Plassey etc. Akbar doesn’t take up much space, but does bring those battle scenes alive. The 194-48 wars over Kashmir and Nehru’s decision to refer the matter to the UN receive blow by blow attention. According to Akbar, it was Mountbatten’s idea to refer the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations and Nehru was forced to go along since he could not afford to confront his Governor General.

Was British rule good for India? Akbar makes it clear that the British were in India only to take away its wealth. The various famines in Bengal, caused by harsh tax levies, are a testament to this predation.

It is difficult to say which of the three sections in Tinderbox is the best. However, because the third section ends with present day Pakistan, I found it so much more engrossing. What’s the reason behind naming Pakistan’s missiles Ghazni, Gauri, Babur, Abdali? Why isn’t there a missile named Akbar? Why do Pakistan’s history books assume that Pakistan’s history began with the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qassim in 712? Why is Pakistan’s heritage of world famous civilizations in Mohenjadaro and Harappa and the University at Taxila ignored? Why are Ahmadiyas persecuted in Pakistan which does not consider them to be Muslims? Akbar has answers for all these questions. Please do read this fascinating book to find out for yourself.

Akbar tells us that Alauddin Khilji (1296 – 1316), one of the most successful non-Mughal Islamic rulers India has ever had, believed in keeping religion and affairs of the State separate. He kept his ulema at bay and did not let them interfere in State matters. However, Pakistan’s rulers have not been able to follow this practice. Jinnah had, at the start of his political career, opposed separate electorates for Muslims. He was also opposed to the partition of Bengal. Very angliscised, he once sought to stand for Labour at a Yorkshire constituency, but the selection committee found him to be too much of a ‘toff’. Jinnah, by all accounts, did not want to create a theocracy. Having confused religion with nationality, he only wanted a homeland where Muslims would be in a majority and assumed that he could keep the fundamentalists at bay with platitudes.

Islam was not a Maududist enterprise for every Pakistani, but even liberal Pakistanis found it difficult to offer a national identity without Islam, although experience suggested that it was an inadequate glue for nationalism”. Starting with rulers like Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan ("who rather overdid the alcohol in his diet" and would lecture Sheikh Mujibur Rehman on the need to work jointly for the glory of Islam, scotch in hand) and Zulfikar Bhutto, the concessions given to Islamic fundamentalists kept increasing, but they kept asking for more. After Zia ul Haq came to power, Maududi and the Jamaat e Islami stopped fighting the Pakistani government since Zia ul Haq was ‘one of them’. The Afghan campaign against the Soviets gave Zia a good excuse to create and strengthen proxies for future battles in Kashmir, where the Hizbul Mujahiddin would eventually marginalise the relatively secular JKLF.

Akbar says that fears of Pakistan’s disintegration are highly exaggerated. “Driven by the compulsions of an ideological strand in its DNA, damaged by the inadequacies of those who could have kept the nation loyal to Jinnah’s dream of a secular Muslim majority nation, Pakistan is in danger of turning into a toxic ‘jelly state’, a quivering country that will neither collapse nor stabilize.”

Altaf Hussain, the founder and leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement, said in June 2009 that “partition was a mistake because it split and thereby weakened the Muslims of the subcontinent”. Though Akbar does not say so in as many words, there is little doubt that he too feels that Partition was a big mistake and a loss for the Muslims of the Sub-Continent.

A brilliant book which is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the Sub-Continent’s past and more importantly its future.