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.

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